Slate’s Inigo Thomas has a chilling speculation on Osama bin Laden’s master plan in the 9/11 attacks: force America into Afghanistan, then use a resulting anti-American backlash in Pakistan as cover for a raid on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons supply. Thomas quotes the Christian Science Monitor‘s description of Pakistan as a "powder keg". Pakistan’s army and immensely powerful Inter-Service Intelligence agency may not be able to stand by and let the Taliban, their most successful creation be destroyed; America may not be willing to let them do anything else. The Taliban itself is obviously a religious entity — taliban means "religious students" — but its roots lie in a more secular struggle between Pakistani governmental agencies. Pakistan is an Islamic country, but the degree to which it is an Islamist country has varied over the decades. At times the military might have attempted to make Pakistan over as a secular country, much as Ataturk did in Turkey (although the revival of Islamist sentiment in Turkey is a testament to how difficult this can be), but in the late Seventies, the regime of Mohammed Zia al-Huq realized the value of a cadre of young men who would learn the alphabet from words like jihad and Kalashnikov. For Pakistan, the long-running recruitment and training of Islamic radicals largely served a geopolitical, rather than a religious, purpose, and one that the United States approved of.

But specific religious factors do come into play. As might be expected for a religion with a billion practicioners, saying that someone is a "Muslim" is no more specific than saying that she is "Christian". One might ask whether the Christian was a Roman Catholic, an Orthodox, or a Protestant Christian; there are corresponding broad distinctions among Muslims. The three largest families of Islamic sects are Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Sufis. (Sunnis make up almost 90% of the Islamic world.)

The division between Sunni and Shi’i is both a historical and doctrinal one dating back to the death of Muhammad and a struggle over who would be his successor. Contemporary Sunnism descends from the groups which followed the Ummawiyy dynasty; Shi’a descends from the groups that followed the descendents of Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali. And just as a Baptist isn’t the same as a Quaker despite both being Protestants, there are further sectarian divisions among both Shi’ites and Sunnis. The Ismailis, led by the Aga Khan, are a denomination within Shi’a Islam. (The Chechens, who it seems at this point will be sacrificed to Russia to ensure Russian cooperation, are largely Qadiri Sufis.)

In one brief but useful overview, the Wahhabi and Deobandi groups are conflated. This is telling — it’s one of the reasons that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban support one another. Deobandism was based in the Indian subcontinet; Wahhabism found its strongest roots in bin Laden’s Saudi Arabia, but the two are both reformist, puritan Sunni movements.

One reason that I thought the failed efforts to recruit Iran into the anti-bin Laden coalition was a stroke of genius was that Iran has both geopolitical and religious reasons to distrust Afghanistan. As a neighbor of Afghanistan’s, Iran would probably like to have more control over Afghan affairs and to avoid a hot war on its borders. Iran is a Farsi-speaking, Persian, Shi’ite nation; there’s a Farsi-speaking, Persian, Shi’ite minority in Afghanistan that is apparently persecuted by the Taliban. (Afghans come from a number of ethnic or tribal groups, but the Taliban is dominated by Pushtu-speaking Pathans.) And Iran is a Shi’ite nation, even the most fundamentalist of Muslims in Iran lack the doctrinal similarities that bin Laden and the Taliban share.

The Pravda column (yes, that Pravda) linked on the always provocative Ethel was off base in at least one of its criticisms of America’s courtship of Iran — Iran has quite probably sponsored the Hezbollah, but there’s no reason to think that Iran has any desire to cooperate with a radical Sunni movement. When one creates an army by asserting the supremacy of a particular narrow understanding of God and that anyone who isn’t your coreligionist is your enemy, one will have a hard time of convincing your soldiers to make exceptions.

The larger question raised in Pravda is why we are cooperating with known terrorists in our war on terrorism. It’s ugly, it’s realpolitik, and it will quite likely lead to a worse end down the road, but I’m not sure it can be avoided. The other stroke of brilliance in the attempt to recruit Iran was that it made it clear that the anti-terror coalition wouldn’t be an anti-Islam coalition. If the coalition is restricted to those nations that haven’t sponsored terrorism, I fear that that’s how it would be perceived, with possible additional internal threats to the pro-Western Middle Eastern nations. The inclusion of Iran — a fundamentalist, Islamicist country, and one known to be anti-American — would render that argument moot.

And why should we work with terrorists against terrorists? As Cecil Day Lewis wrote during World War II:

It is the logic of our times, No subject for immortal verse — That we who lived by honest dreams Defend the bad against the worse.