In Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles, a welcoming committee for a
new sheriff turns into a lynch mob when it discovers the man is black. He
points his gun at his own temple and says, ''One step closer and the [N-word]
gets it!'' The townspeople back off, rather like the American government every
time it catches Pakistan supporting the Taliban or other enemies of the United
States. Pakistan menaces the United States with the prospect of its own
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum summed up the Washington
consensus at last week's national security debate, ''Pakistan must be our
friend'' because it has nuclear weapons. America can't do without Pakistan,
that is, because if Pakistan breaks up, nuclear weapons might reach the hands
of terrorists. The flaw in this argument is that Pakistan itself is governed by
terrorists. That is why it has been so successful. It scares its neighbors.
American policy, instead, should force the burden of uncertainty onto Pakistan.
Last week's North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air strike on Pakistani
frontier outposts prompted Islamabad to stop resupply of NATO forces in
Afghanistan, leaving Washington to apologize for the ''unintended tragic''
deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers. Rather than calling Pakistan to account for
the attack on the American embassy in Kabul by the al-Haqqani network, which
outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen September 22
called ''a veritable arm'' of Pakistan's ISI, America finds itself on the
defensive. If the Pakistanis fired on NATO forces before the latter called in
an air strike, as the Afghan government claims, we should infer that Pakistan
provoked the incident in order to wrong-foot the United States.
Considering that the United States wants Pakistan to pursue military operations
against a largely Pashtun insurgency in Afghanistan, while Pashtuns comprise a
fifth of the Pakistan's people, friendship seems an odd choice of words.
American policy threatens to tear Pakistan apart, and Islamabad's
double-dealing is understandable under the circumstances. The only way to make
Pakistan behave is to convince Islamabad that it will be torn apart if it does
not accommodate American demands. Absent the threat of encirclement and
dismemberment, Pakistan will do everything to avoid exacerbating what already
amounts to a low-level civil war. America's strategic objective in the region -
eradicating Islamist terrorists - poses an existential threat to the Pakistani
state. The only way to force Pakistan to accommodate itself to American
objectives is to pose an even worse existential threat.
Pakistan's pursuit of ''strategic depth'' - projecting its influence through
support for Islamist groups in Afghanistan, and Kashmir, as well as terror
attacks inside India - stems from weakness. As Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi writes in
the Winter 2012 issue of Middle East Quarterly, ''Pakistan itself is an
artificial state composed of diverse ethnic groups that are united solely by
religious affiliation. Hence, fear of Pashtun and Baloch (Pakistan's largest
provinces geographically) desires for autonomy or independence, together with
concern about India's influence, also provides a basis for pursuing Pakistani
strategic depth. For example, to suppress Baloch nationalism, the Pakistani
military and intelligence have engaged in human rights abuses including the
arrest and disappearance of some 8,000 Baloch activists in secret prisons.''
After three years of American strategic disengagement under the Obama
administration, that has become a difficult proposition. Involving the Indian
military in Afghanistan with a limited by open-ended mandate would have served
notice to Islamabad that America was serious. Two years ago, Pakistani websites
fluttered with rumors that India would deploy 120,000 soldiers in Afghanistan,
staking a claim as America's strategic partner. It is doubtful that any such
offer was on the table, but India at the time was prepared for a smaller
deployment. Under present circumstances, New Delhi wants no part of an
adventure that the Americans are preparing to abandon.
India simply does not trust the Obama administration to stand up for American
interests in the region. China has moved into the vacuum left by American
policy in Pakistan, deploying 11,000 soldiers in the Gilgat-Baltistan region of
southern Kashmir. Ostensibly the Chinese are there to secure high-speed road
rail links between the Chinese-built ports on Pakistan's coast and Western
China, but their presence also reinforces Pakistan's control over a rebellious
region. The small Chinese force, moreover, raises the stakes in any potential
confrontation over Kashmir between India and Pakistan; if Chinese troops were
to get in the middle of a fight, China might be drawn in on Pakistan's side.
Pakistan now has two air force squadrons flying China's JF-17 ''Thunder'' jet
and shortly will add a third.
After the September 13 attack on the American embassy in Kabul, the United
States made belated and tentative gestures to India, including the first formal
offer to sell India the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. As M K Bhadrakumar
argued in this space (see
Hindu art of double hedging against China, Asia Times Online, November
10), New Delhi must weigh the advantages of its strategic alignment with the
United States against the fact of American strategic disengagement under the
Obama administration. Whether India takes up the American offer for the F-35's
depends on a number of factors, including the disappointing pace of progress in
its joint development of a Fifth Generation fighter in cooperation with Russia.
The F-35's though, will not change the perception that Washington is guarding
its rear as it withdraws from the region.
The Obama administration has painted itself in to a corner. It cannot cajole or
threaten Pakistan. On the contrary, Pakistan is threatening Washington. China's
growing presence in Pakistan reduces America's capacity to punish Pakistan, for
example, by withdrawing support for American-built fighter aircraft. India
remains understandably cautious. And the Afghan war, as Mr. Al-Tamimi wrote in
the Middle East quarterly, ''will prove at best a massive drain on US resources
and lives, possibly reaching a cost of up to $100 billion a year, all for
killing a few dozen al-Qaeda militants in a country whose annual gross domestic
product is a mere $13 billion.''
To persuade India to align itself decisively with American interests, and China
to lower its profile, the United States would have to execute a 180-degree
turn. It would have to repudiate Obama's disengagement and declare its intent
to remain the world's unchallenged superpower, and make this credible by
investing in strategic superiority. That would require major investments in
aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft, drone technology, and theater missile
That is expensive, but there are other ways to economize. At the same time,
America should renounce nation-building in Afghanistan and settle instead for a
prolonged, if not perpetual, war of attrition against its enemies. By
historical analogy, Washington should handle Afghanistan the way that Cardinal
Richelieu dealt with the German Empire during the Thirty Years' War. Rather
than fund a corrupt and ineffective Afghan army dominated by Tajiks, the United
States should acquire Pashtun capabilities of its own; perhaps it should
quietly support Pashtun and Balochi separatists operating inside Pakistan.
Among other things, this is cheaper than maintaining an army of occupation.
Cutting off aid to the corrupt Karzai government, moreover, will drastically
reduce the cost of hiring local armies.
America's misguided attempt to stabilize Afghanistan allows Islamabad to
blackmail the United States by threatening to promote instability. If the
United States accepts Afghan instability as a permanent condition and uses its
in-country capability to wear down its enemies in a standing civil war, it can
turn the tables by threatening to export the instability to Pakistan. Pakistan
has been truncated before, when it lost Bangladesh. It could happen again. The
object is not to dismember Pakistan, but rather to persuade Islamabad to
behave. If this seems harsh, it is worth recalling that Washington has done
this sort of thing before. The Reagan administration did its best to prolong
the Iran-Iraq war.
China has a general interest in limiting American power, but it also has a
specific interest in forcing Pakistan to crack down on Islamist terrorism. The
100 million Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang constitute the greatest threat of a
breakaway province within China's borders, and Beijing has complained that
Pakistan's intelligence services are training Uyghur terrorists for
infiltration into China. Islamabad, once again, is not in control over radical
Islamists in its own military.
If America puts a figurative gun to the head of the Pakistani government and
orders it to extirpate the radical Islamists in the military, two outcomes are
possible. One is that Islamabad will succeed. The second is that it will fail,
and the country will degenerate into chaos. That is the scenario the American
policy is supposed to avoid at all costs, but it is hard to see why America
would be worse off. If the elements of Pakistani intelligence that foster
terrorism cannot be suppressed, it is clear that they are using resources of
the central government to support terrorism. In the worst case, they will
continue to foster terrorism, but without the resources of the central
government. From America's vantage point, a disorderly collapse of Pakistan
into a failed state is a better outcome than a strong central government that
sponsors terrorism. At worst, a prolonged civil conflict between
American-backed elements of the Pakistani military and Islamist radicals would
leave the radicals weaker than they are now.
The simplest solution to the problem of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is to
frighten the Pakistani army into eliminating the prospective terrorists who
might use them. The second-best solution is to send the American army into
Pakistan and take the nuclear weapons away. I believe Jeffrey Goldberg's and
Marc Ambinder's report in The Atlantic Monthly that if the United States were
to deploy troops in Pakistan to secure the country's nuclear weapons, China
would raise no objections. If Islamist terrorists were to get hold of
Pakistan's nuclear weapons, China would be at the top of their list of
Much as China might enjoy America's discomfiture in the region, American and
Chinese interests converge around terrorism (and especially nuclear terrorism).
Given America's present weakness, it may take some effort to iterate towards
convergence with China. Threats to China's territorial integrity, though, have
Beijing's undivided attention, and if America makes clear that draining the
Pakistani swamp reflects support for China's efforts to preserve territorial
integrity, rational self-interest will assert itself.