Two months ago, we launched a reporting project to test the hypothesis that Pakistan—not Iran, not Iraq, not North Korea—is now the most dangerous nation in the world. Such hypotheses are obviously subjective, but our question was prompted by the objective reality we found in reporting our late-August cover on the hunt for Osama bin Laden. That story clearly showed how important the tribal region along the Afghan-Pak border is to the jihadists who take refuge in its mountainous terrain. From the Soviet invasion to the Taliban to the war that began six Octobers ago, Afghanistan can seem more familiar, Pakistan more of a riddle.
This week's cover should help many of us understand the place better. The question of Pakistan and its relationship to Al Qaeda and the Taliban was given new urgency last Thursday when terrorist bombs killed at least 134 people in Karachi in an apparent attempt on the life of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who had just arrived back in the country.
Though the attack provides the occasion for our report from Pakistan, the piece in this issue ranges far beyond the events in Karachi last week. Our reporters went into the field in Peshawar and the nearby refugee camps, in Afghanistan and in cities such as Quetta and Karachi.
The familiar story about Pakistan in the past few years runs something like this: radical elements in the country, particularly in the tribal regions, are a constant threat to the Musharraf government, a regime that could lose control of its nuclear arsenal if internal strife grows too fierce.
Driven by on-the-ground reporting, however, Ron Moreau and Michael Hirsh found an even more complicated and disturbing story. The contention of our cover is that what some in Pakistan call "Talibanization" has moved from the distant mountains to the cities, and too many Pakistani officials are uninterested in cracking down on their Afghan kith and kin—kith and kin who were heroes of Islam when they were fighting the Soviets. That Americans and many others in the West are living in a different world, one whose daily reality seems shaped less by the cold war than by the attacks of September 11, does not appear to matter very much. Whether the Bush administration or its successor can change that is a critical priority that has understandably been overshadowed in the popular mind by Iraq (where, as Mark Hosenball reports in Periscope this week, unpublished military figures record a drop in the number of violent incidents of late).
The difference between Iraq and Pakistan—what makes Pakistan, in our view, more dangerous from an American perspective—is that while Iraq remains an open war zone, Pakistan is a nuclear state that is now host to some of the most radical jihadists in the world, jihadists who, as Ron and Mike note (with reporting from Mark), have access to airlines and clearer means to reach the West.
Ron arrived in Pakistan from his post in Southeast Asia soon after 9/11 and has since covered Afghanistan, Pakistan and India from his Islamabad base. He has, he says, monitored the events of the last six years with trepidation and fascination. "I have been amazed," Ron says, "to watch as the war in Afghanistan escalated and inexorably spread into Pakistan. Now jihadists seem to be equally determined and deadly on both sides of the border."
Determined, deadly—and dependent on the kindness, or at least the absence of active hostility, of the Pakistanis. An observation from our story this week: "Pakistan is like your shoulder that supports your RPG," Taliban commander Mullah Momin Ahmed told NEWSWEEK, barely a month before a U.S. airstrike killed him last September in Afghanistan's eastern Ghazni province. "Without it you couldn't fight. Thank God Pakistan is not against us." His prayer should give the rest of us pause.