The Bush administration has failed to capture or kill Osama bin Laden or to win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, the administration has also missed the chance to maintain a stable nuclear-armed Pakistan. Like the U.S. policy toward the Shah’s Iran in the 1960s and 1970s, the Bush administration, despite a rhetorical commitment to spread democracy around the world, has put all of its eggs in the basket of an autocrat unlikely to survive—in this case, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Although Musharraf has used the U.S. war on terror to play the United States like a fiddle, the Bush administration believes there is no better alternative. Unfortunately, backing Musharraf could create a nuclear-armed Pakistan controlled by radical Islamists.

Unfortunately, Pakistan probably has already been “lost,” and U.S. policy has played an important role in its demise. U.S. policymakers have repeatedly underestimated the consequences of the deep unpopularity engendered by profligate U.S. government meddling in the affairs of other countries. In Iran, although the Shah’s government was brutal, the regime also became so identified with its unpopular U.S. benefactor that the United States became a major contributing factor in its collapse and replacement with a militant and enduring Islamist substitute.

The Bush administration, with its macho bravado, has had a tin ear for the ramifications of anti-U.S hatred. After 9/11, instead of using the attacks as a justification to go after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Bush administration had the opportunity to eliminate the Taliban in Afghanistan, take full advantage of Musharraf’s limited-time offer to give the U.S. military free reign in Pakistan to hunt down bin Laden and al Qaeda, and then withdraw from the region.

Instead, the Bush administration allowed mission creep to take its eyes off the prize of taking down al Qaeda. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan turned to nation-building, counterinsurgency, and cutting off the drug trade. The continued occupation of Afghanistan by non-Muslim forces and the close U.S. support for the dictator Musharraf in neighboring Pakistan, predictably revved up Pakistani Islamic militants and gradually turned them against his regime. In an attempt to discreetly court these militants to support his government and to maintain the flow of U.S. military aid to ostensibly fight them, Musharraf allowed these groups to operate in the wild tribal regions of western Pakistan on the Afghan border and even reached a truce with them to withdraw the Pakistani government’s military forces from these areas. This wink and nod policy has allowed both al Qaeda and the militant Taliban to recover and step up attacks from these safe havens.

Given Musharraf’s unenthusiastic pursuit of al Qaeda in Pakistan, why does the United States continue to support him? The answer is mainly a fear of “instability”—read, any change of leadership in a nuclear weapons state. The United States fears that the only alternative to Musharraf in a nuclear-armed Pakistan is the Islamic militants; but this outcome is actually more likely if the unpopular United States continues to zealously back Musharraf. At the same time Musharraf’s popularity has faded. He has faced mass protests across Pakistan for his increased despotism and his suspension of the country’s chief justice. Musharraf feared that the judge, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, might issue rulings that would interfere with his attempt to have the parliament elect him to another five-year term. In addition, several former Pakistani generals have talked openly about overthrowing him in a coup. But it may be too late to control a coup and reestablish military rule. The Islamists have been strengthened by Musharraf’s suppression of alternative non-Islamic opposition parties; Musharraf has said that their leaders—exiled former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawa Sharif—will not be allowed to return for upcoming parliamentary elections.

The Bush administration should change policy and end the occupation of Afghanistan, which would cool the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and the Islamic militancy in Pakistan. In addition, the United States should threaten to cut off aid to Pakistan unless Musharraf and his intelligence services make a genuine attempt to capture or kill bin Laden. With a cooling of militant Islam in the region, Musharraf should have more leeway to pursue bin Laden without an Islamist backlash. Finally, the United States should press Musharraf to genuinely open Pakistani elections to non-Islamist parties and allow their leaders to return from exile. These actions would further erode support from the Islamist radicals.

Unfortunately, keeping the Islamists around, but contained, has been good for the autocratic Musharraf regime. The problem is that the instability caused by this policy can no longer be contained. Like the Shah of Iran, Musharraf must use increased violence to put down popular protests, thus further fueling the spreading uprisings. The Shah’s Iran and Pakistan have one important difference, however: Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Tragically, the Bush administration may eventually give the world an Islamist bomb.