The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto means that the nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Pakistan is now a battleground just as important as those in Iraq and Afghanistan in the global war against the radical Islamists.
The Battle of Pakistan is now well underway.
Just a few days prior to Bhutto's murder, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that Al-Qaeda has "turned its face" from Iraq toward Pakistan. Now we have the bloody event that confirms that the forces of radical Islamism are opening a Pakistan front like never before. And this attack is their greatest victory to date.
Critics of recent American foreign policy (most notably, the 2003 invasion and liberation of Iraq from fascist dictatorship) will inevitably use these new events in Pakistan as an excuse to accuse the U.S. of "taking its eye off the ball" -- supposedly engaging in the unnecessary "distraction" of the Iraq War, while losing focus on the "real War on Terror" in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But these critics will reveal their lack of proper perspective on the global nature of this sweeping struggle.
Neoconservative Norman Podhoretz has written in World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism that the current war is best seen as a worldwide struggle against "Islamofascism," a militant ideological movement that seeks to destroy modern civilization, returning to a seventh century version of fundamentalist Islam.
Those who see the Iraq and Pakistan/Afghanistan theaters of battle as divergent options in a zero-sum game will have missed the lesson of previous existential struggles between the free world and totalitarianism from World War II to the Cold War. While the enemies of freedom may be dealt serious blows in one or more theaters of battle, they can and will open new war fronts until they are ultimately defeated.
Indeed, the forces of radical Islamism appear to be quite desperate to open a new front. While Iraq is by no means fully stabilized as of yet and while there is no certainty that Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's government will be able to achieve the national reconciliation viewed as critical to the long term peace and stability of his fledgling constitutional democracy, there are still good reasons to be optimistic about the future of Iraq. The biggest story of 2007 has been the success of General David Petraeus' new counterinsurgency strategy, which has led to decreased sectarian violence and increased stability across Iraq. We have seen such achievements as political reconciliation at the local level, the Sunni Awakening and routing of Al-Qaeda in Al-Anbar province, the reigning in (to some extent) of violent Shia militia activity, the return of Iraqi refugees, and oil revenue sharing among the provinces for funding reconstruction.
Meanwhile, we have witnessed the lasting success of the 2001 liberation of Afghanistan from fundamentalist Taliban control. With everything that we have heard about a resurgent Taliban, which has stepped up deadly attacks against America and its NATO allies there, they have been unable to significantly undermine President Hamid Karzai's constitutional government.
Thus, if we adopt some healthy and educated optimism, we can see both the Iraq and Afghanistan war fronts as moving more and more into our winning column.
The assassination of former Prime Minister Bhutto is a crystal-clear indication that the radical Islamists have set there sights fully on Pakistan as their next best chance for a game-changing victory in their global war against freedom and modernity. They failed to sustain a fundamentalist theocracy in Afghanistan, which served as a headquarters for Al-Qaeda's global terrorist network. They also failed to either prevent Iraqi democratic elections in 2005 or to plunge Iraq into full-fledged civil war in 2006 and 2007. Now, they seek to undermine pro-Western dictator Pervez Musharraf's tenuous hold on Pakistan, hoping to unleash pro-Taliban Islamist forces to seize control of its nuclear arsenal.
It is perhaps the understatement of the year when the U.S. State Department comments that "the attack shows that there are still those in Pakistan trying to undermine reconciliation and democratic development." Bhutto was -- both practically and symbolically -- a threat to radical Islamism. With her courageous return from exile to Pakistan -- viscously cut short after only ten weeks -- she carried with her the hopes of democratic reform in Pakistan, to be initiated by a victory for her Pakistan Peoples Party in upcoming parliamentary elections. Because political despotism throughout the Muslim world is the environment in which radical ideology has festered, consensual government can be the great antidote, making it an imminent danger to the Islamist forces. Moreover, as the first woman to be elected leader of a Muslim state, Bhutto represented the ultimate antithesis of the radical Islamist vision of restoring an Islamic caliphate, ruled by sharia law, with women treated as second-class citizens.
When looking at the consequences of Bhutto's assassination, perhaps even more important than the blow to liberal democratic reform is the immediate destabilizing effect on President Musharraf's government. Until free elections are held in Pakistan, Musharraf is a dictator; but we must admit that he is, at present, a critical U.S. ally and perhaps the only thing standing between pro-Taliban, pro-Al-Qaeda Islamists and Pakistan's nuclear weapons. The Islamists, while seeking to return to the seventh century, are at the same time coveting the weapons of the twenty first century in order to implement their dark vision. And a Pakistan ruled by a pro-Western leader like Musharraf is infinitely more desirable than the radical Islamist alternative if we are to successfully prosecute the war against both Taliban remnants and Al-Qaeda's command and control in Afghanistan/Pakistan border regions.
September 11th, 2001 was not the beginning of the current global war against the radical Islamist forces, but it was the day that the mortal danger and existential nature of the threat was widely realized, notably in the U.S. In the wake of those attacks that left thousands of Americans slaughtered on their own soil, America and its allies launched for the first time a global war against the new enemy. It was a war against the totalitarian movement that many describe as against Islamic fascism and Islamofascism, or that others describe more vaguely and euphemistically as the Global War on Terror. While we have seen further terrorist attacks worldwide since 2001 -- as we have engaged the enemy on many fronts using diplomatic, economic, and military instruments of power -- the key battlegrounds so far have been Afghanistan and Iraq.
What these two major fronts have in common is that they were opened by the forces of freedom, on October 7, 2001 and March 20, 2003, respectively. Thus, in both toppling the fundamentalist and terrorist-harboring theocracy in Afghanistan and in deposing the fascist dictatorship of a weapons-of-mass-destruction-seeking terrorist sponsor in Iraq, the free people of the world took the initiative in an unprecedented global offensive against radical Islamist terrorism.
But now the first major new front in the global conflict has been opened not by the forces of freedom but by the Islamists. December 27, 2007 -- while not the first day of the attempt by radicals to destabilize Pakistan -- is the day of the first great success for the forces of darkness there, the beginning of what may evolve into a significant counter-offensive.
We have now seen the opening salvo in what should be recognized as the Battle of Pakistan.
Former Prime Minister Bhutto acknowledged recently the great personal danger she faced in her return to Pakistan. Her words align well with what must be the collective sentiment of the free world in the current global war, as it envisions the sacrifice that will be necessary in what will undoubtedly be a long -- perhaps even generational -- struggle against a new brand of totalitarianism. She said: "But these are risks that must be taken. I'm prepared to take them." Christopher D. Geisel is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He serves on active duty in the U.S. Air Force. The opinions expressed here are his alone. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.