A DEAL WITH PAKISTAN?….A few weeks ago Pakistan’s “Father of the Bomb,” A.Q. Khan, confessed on TV that he had sold nuclear technology to foreign countries. He was immediately pardoned by Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan?s president, and the White House proclaimed itself satisfied with Pakistan’s dedication to ferreting out the truth.

At the time, one of the biggest mysteries about the whole affair was why the Bush administration was so eager to play along with the charade. Today, Seymour Hersh suggests there was a quid pro quo:

According to past and present military and intelligence officials, however, Washington?s support for the pardon of Khan was predicated on what Musharraf has agreed to do next: look the other way as the U.S. hunts for Osama bin Laden in a tribal area of northwest Pakistan dominated by the forbidding Hindu Kush mountain range, where he is believed to be operating. American commanders have been eager for permission to conduct major sweeps in the Hindu Kush for some time, and Musharraf has repeatedly refused them. Now, with Musharraf?s agreement, the Administration has authorized a major spring offensive that will involve the movement of thousands of American troops.

But not everyone in Pakistan buys this:

One of Musharraf?s most vocal critics inside Pakistan is retired Army Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, a fundamentalist Muslim who directed the I.S.I. from 1987 to 1989, at the height of the Afghan war with the Soviets. If American troops start operating from Pakistan, there will be ?a rupture in the relationship,? Gul told me. ?Americans think others are slaves to them.? Referring to the furor over A. Q. Khan, he added, ?We may be in a jam, but we are a very honorable nation. We will not allow the American troops to come here. This will be the breaking point.? If Musharraf has made an agreement about letting American troops operate in Pakistan, Gul said, ?he?s lying to you.?

It’s possible that we have indeed made a deal with Pakistan, but I wonder. Our relationship with Pakistan has run hot and cold for decades, and at the moment our biggest nightmare ? bigger than Iran, bigger than North Korea ? has to be the possibility of Musharraf getting overthrown and replaced with a distinctly less friendly regime, potentially one that’s as unfriendly as the Taliban was.

That has to be avoided at all costs, because an unfriendly, nuclear-armed Pakistan is clearly the biggest threat we can imagine, and one that we’d be helpless to do anything about. If allowing U.S. troops into Pakistan elevates that risk even slightly, it’s not clear that we’d even want to do it, let alone pressure Musharraf over it.

Or so it seems. But of course there are wheels within wheels, and who knows which way they’re turning? For now, we watch and wait.

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