Scary Pak­istan sce­nar­ios

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Pak­istan is in po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary play. And the stakes in its strug­gle against Is­lamic ex­trem­ism could not be higher for the South Asian coun­try or the United States. Un­til the past few weeks, Pak­istan was viewed by Pres­i­dent Obama as a sideshow to the main event in the stiff­en­ing Tal­iban in­sur­gency within neigh­bor­ing Afghanistan.

Now the out­come of the U.S.led coun­terin­sur­gency in Afghanistan hinges on the fate of Pak­istan’s con­flict with Is­lamic mil­i­tants. The Tal­iban and the al­lied ter­ror­ist net­work al Qaeda have proved them­selves more adept prac­ti­tion­ers of a quickly ex­e­cuted strat­egy than the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The fe­roc­ity of the Tal­iban’s mil­i­tary and psy­cho­log­i­cal of­fen­sive within north­west­ern Pak­istan caught Mr. Obama of­f­guard. Since tak­ing of­fice, Mr. Obama has pro­ceeded with plans for a grad­u­ated mil­i­tary buildup in Afghanistan of 21,000 troops, bring­ing the to­tal Amer­i­can com­mit­ment to about 60,000 by late sum­mer, in time for the Afghan pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

But in­stead of wait­ing de­fen­sively for the U.S. forces to ar­rive, the Tal­iban struck first in a flank­ing of­fen­sive within Pak­istan, a ma­neu­ver as ele­men­tary to war­fare as the end run is to foot­ball. Their forces have swarmed to within 60 miles of Is­lam­abad, the cap­i­tal. The Tal­iban militias and their al Qaeda al­lies have at the least im­per­iled the U.S. and NATO sup­ply lines snaking through Pak­istani ter­ri­tory, along with call­ing into ques­tion the nearly exclusive fo­cus on Afghanistan.

This is al Qaeda’s sec­ond ap­pli­ca­tion of an out­flank­ing tac­tic. The first came af­ter the United States, with NATO in tow, top­pled the Tal­iban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001.

Along with their Tal­iban hosts, al Qaeda fled to Pak­istan. Rather than im­me­di­ately con­test­ing its de­feat in Afghanistan, the ter­ror­ist net­work shifted its fo­cus to Iraq af­ter the U.S.-led coali­tion dis­patched Sad­dam Hus­sein from power. Op­er­at­ing through a lo­cal branch headed by Abu Musab al Zar­qawi, al Qaeda agents spear­headed the anti-Amer­i­can in­sur­gency in An­bar prov­ince and Bagh­dad among the Sunni pop­u­la­tion. Al Qaeda’s threat to Iraq de­manded that Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush deem that coun­try the venue for his main coun­terthrust, not a gen­er­ally qui­es­cent Afghanistan, un­til mid-2005. Just when U.S. pres­sure was sure to mount on Afghanistan, the Tal­iban changed the bat­tle­field to Pak­istan.

This re­cent of­fen­sive echoes a pre­vi­ous mil­i­tant ini­tia­tive. As the U.S. op­er­a­tional “surge” in Iraq of 28,500 ad­di­tional com­bat troops and a re­vamped coun­terin­sur­gency strat­egy in 2007 brought near sta­bil­ity to the wartorn coun­try, the Tal­iban sprang a sur­prise re­cov­ery in Afghanistan. Now, the Tal­iban has again stolen a march on the United States by launch­ing an un­ex­pected and rapid ad­vance in Pak­istan. So far, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has char­ac­ter­ized its chief con­cern about a pos­si­ble Pak­istani col­lapse into Tal­iban hands in terms of the 100 or so nu­clear weapons de­vel­oped by Is­lam­abad and tested in 1998. Should all, or even one, of th­ese atomic bombs wind up in the clutches of al Qaeda or an­other ter­ror­ist group, it would go a long way to­ward ful­fill­ing the sum of all our fears.

Yet a loss of nu­clear arms into ji­hadi hands is not the only fear emerg­ing about a Tal­iban victory in the be­lea­guered coun­try of 170 mil­lion peo­ple. Scant at­ten­tion is be­ing aired in Wash­ing­ton about what a Tal­iban­ized Pak­istan would en­tail for the United States. The de­feat of a U.S.-al­lied Pak­istan by the Tal­iban would rank with the sur­ren­der of France to the Nazi armies in 1940 or even the com­mu­nist takeover of China in 1949. Many in those times thought such de­feats im­pos­si­ble, too.

A Pak­istani catas­tro­phe would dwarf the over­throw of the Pahlavi monar­chy in Iran in 1979 by Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who re­placed a pro-Amer­i­can monar­chy with a hos­tile an­tiAmer­i­can theoc­racy that spreads ter­ror­ism and works to build nu­clear weapons. A Tal­iban tri­umph in Pak­istan would pro­foundly trans­form the global geopo­lit­i­cal land­scape in some an­tic­i­pated man­i­fes­ta­tions and many un­ex­pected di­men­sions.

It would send seis­mic shock waves through­out South Asia, Cen­tral Asia and the greater Mid­dle East. In the minds of many peo­ple in th­ese re­gions and be­yond, it would be in­ter­preted as a re­align­ment of po­lit­i­cal forces that would point to­ward an all-but-guar­an­teed rad­i­cal Is­lamic con­quest in huge swaths of the planet. It even would toss the near sta­bil­ity in Iraq into doubt. At a min­i­mum, it would give an ex­hil­a­rat­ing boost to the Tal­iban and its sym­pa­thiz­ers. It would lay open a sanc­tu­ary for plan­ning and launch­ing ji­hadi at­tacks around the world.

All of Pak­istan’s neigh­bors would be com­pelled to re­think their bor­der se­cu­rity and their re­la­tions with Wash­ing­ton. In­dia and its dis­puted Kash­mir oc­cu­pa­tion would be a front-line state against a Tal­iban Pak­istan. New Delhi might be forced to in­vade to take pos­ses­sion of Pak­istan’s nu­clear arms.

A Tal­iban takeover in Pak­istan threat­ens not only Afghanistan, but also coun­tries to its north. The Chechens, Uighurs and Uzbeks would take heart in their re­spec­tive ter­ror­ist-in­sur­gent cam­paigns in the Rus­sian Cau­ca­sus, China and Uzbek­istan. Even Iran would need to re­assess its in­ter­na­tional stance to­ward Is­lam­abad if the Tal­iban per­se­cuted their co-re­li­gious Shi’ite brethren in west­ern Pak­istan. Would Iran move closer to a pos­si­ble ac­com­mo­da­tion with the United States or con­tinue to strike out on its own dis­rup­tive ac­tions in the Mid­dle East?

The in­ter­na­tional re­ver­ber­a­tions of a Tal­iban win in Pak­istan would be felt and acted on through­out the Mus­lim Mid­dle East and por­tions of Africa. Amer­ica can no more pull out from help­ing Pak­istan than the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion could aban­don Iraq once al Qaeda men­ac­ingly sur­faced. Even per­ma­nent Tal­iban con­trol in a cor­ner of Pak­istan would change the re­gion’s dy­nam­ics and of­fer sanc­tu­ary for ji­hadi ter­ror­ism world­wide. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion will need to pay Pak­istan much more strate­gic heed than it has to date, de­vise a sus­tain­able plan for a long-term bat­tle and avoid be­ing out­flanked again.

Thomas H. Hen­rik­sen is a se­nior fel­low at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity’s Hoover In­sti­tu­tion. His most re­cent book is “Amer­i­can Power af­ter the Berlin Wall” (Pal­grave 2007).

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