WHICH country harbours Al- Qaeda, the Taleban and nuclear weapons? It is not Iran, it is Pakistan. Which country has proliferated nuclear technology to all and sundry? It is not North Korea, it is Pakistan. Pakistan, an ally of the United States, not Palestine or Iraq, is the country from which almost all the major post-9/11 terrorist plots - from the 2005 London subway bombings to the recent plot to set off explosives in Germany - originated. According to a recent US National Intelligence Estimate, Al-Qaeda has regrouped in the country's tribal regions and is plotting to resume its terrorist activities worldwide. Last Friday, the world got a glimpse of what a Pakistan in the grip of Islamist extremists might look like. At least 136 people were killed and more than 540 were injured when bombs targeting Ms Benazir Bhutto, who was returning to the country from exile, exploded in Karachi. The carnage shows what the alliance between Ms Bhutto and President-elect Pervez Musharraf, even if it holds, would be up against.
And it looks as though the alliance may not in fact hold. Ms Bhutto lost no time in blaming 'certain individuals' within the government for the bombings. She did not directly implicate the government or the military, but spoke mysteriously of officials 'who abuse their positions, who abuse their powers'. There is no evidence to suggest that officials were involved, but the fact that Ms Bhutto is willing to make such allegations reveals her suspicions of them. The Musharraf-Bhutto combine is an alliance of convenience, brokered by a desperate Washington looking for ways to shore up a weakened General Musharraf. Because nothing but expediency holds them together, they will go their separate ways the moment either decides it would be expedient to do so.
What will happen to Pakistan then? Gen Musharraf cannot rule indefinitely with only the support of the military. Elections for a new Parliament may clarify matters somewhat but not by much. Even if Ms Bhutto manages to cobble together a majority, it is not likely to be a substantial one. Her base is in Sindh, a largely rural province dominated by wealthy feudal families like hers. Punjabis dominate the military and the urban middle class, while religious parties dominate Baluchistan and the tribal regions. As unpromising as it is, nothing but the Musharraf-Bhutto alliance looks likely to rescue Pakistan from the abyss. Pakistan's tragedy is that it must hope for statesmanship from such unlikely candidates as these. Hopefully, last week's carnage will remind both the general and Ms Bhutto how much hangs on this desperate hope.