The Pakistan Puzzle

Gregory Scoblete has a troubling piece in TCS Daily arguing that Pakistan presents a bigger foreign policy challenge than Iran. In many ways, he’s on point. Our nightmare scenario is a terrorist group getting their hands on a nuclear weapon or another weapon of mass destruction and using it against the United States or one of its allies. Pakistan has both nuclear weapons and a major problem with terrorism. While Pakistan is a nominal ally in our global war against Islamic extremism, they are an erstwhile ally at best. As Scoblete explains:

What if the United States suffers another 9/11-scale atrocity that traces its roots to al Qaeda in Pakistan? (If the British had not successfully thwarted the plot to blow up ten airliners over the Atlantic, this would not be a hypothetical.) What, exactly, will the next president do? Do we hold the government of Pervez Musharraf responsible? After all, his “Waziristan Accord” with militant tribes in the Northwest Frontier, which saw Pakistani forces withdraw to barracks, ceded vital territory to al Qaeda. At least some elements in the Pakistani government have trained, and are reportedly still facilitating al Qaeda’s presence in the region.

If President Musharraf refuses to seriously confront al Qaeda on his territory after an attack on America, would he let U.S. forces do so? If he does not, should the U.S. invade, or launch large scale military strikes, over his objections? While justified, the risks of such action are severe. It could spark a broader war with the nuclear-armed state. If Musharraf relents or does not intervene forcefully to counter an American action, public outrage would almost certainly boil over. Musharraf has already survived two assassination attempts. For his Islamist enemies, the third time might be the charm. A murdered Musharraf would throw the country and its nuclear weapons into tumult at a moment of maximum anti-Americanism.

Pakistan presents us with a major problem. We know beyond any doubt that the leadership of al-Qaeda is active in Pakistan, and that almost certainly includes Osama bin Laden. President Musharraf, despite being a less than democratic leader, is viewed as the one firewall between Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and al-Qaeda. Even that firewall is less than sufficient, as the “Waziristan Accords” demonstrate. While the Pakistani military is fighting al-Qaeda, and many Pakistani units have taken serious losses in that fight, the reality is that Pakistan does not have the kind of control over its frontier with Afghanistan to stop al-Qaeda from taking refuge there.

There are no easy answers to the question of what to do with Pakistan. However, that is no excuse for pretending that the status quo can continue indefinitely. Pakistan may be more stable than it was a few years ago, but one successful assassination attempt could unleash a tidal wave of consequences. A nuclear-armed Pakistan in the hands of extremists could attack the United States or spark a devastating nuclear war with India. In many ways, Iran remains a looming threat, while Pakistan is a clear one. How we handle the situation in Pakistan now will have crucial effects into the future security of the United States and its allies.

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