What to Do About Pakistan

What to Do About Pakistan

By Robert Tracinski - August 23, 2008

For some time, I've been posting items in TIA Daily with the headline "What to Do About Pakistan?" The question mark was a repeating theme. I admitted that I did not have a good idea about what to do about Pakistan, nor had I seen any good ideas from anyone else.

I realized, of course, that this was not good enough in the long run. It's my job to come up with ideas about what to do in this kind of situation--especially when no one else is doing so. So I have given the issue more thought, and I have intended for some time to offer a few substantive suggestions about how to deal with Pakistan.

But I have been goaded into putting these thoughts down in writing immediately, for two reasons. The obvious reason is the resignation of Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's authoritarian dictator who was our on-again, off-again ally against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The more subtle goad has been observing the reaction of many Western commentators to Russia's invasion of Georgia. What has struck me is the ease and complacency with which many pundits, particularly those on the center-left, have declared that there is not much the US can do to stop Russia or support Georgia--and then just left it at that. What this reaction really indicates is that these pundits don't really regard the issue as important and can't be bothered to think too hard about the things that we actually can do for Georgia.

If an issue really has important consequences, you don't just shrug your shoulders and say, as Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly said to the leaders of Georgia, "This is where we are." You try every idea and search for creative solutions to get from where you are to where you need to be.

So you will notice that I have removed the question mark in the title of this article. What happens in Pakistan is significantly more important for American interests than what happens in Georgia, so it is time to come to a definite conclusion about what we can do about Pakistan.

First, let's state the dilemma clearly. The government of Pakistan has largely given up attempting to fight al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their supporters in the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan. Musharraf signed peace agreements with some of the Taliban groups, effectively ceding control of the tribal regions to them, and the new Pakistani parliament has so far not been much better, adopting its own policy of appeasement toward the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Pakistani intelligence service--which seems to operate on its own agenda, independent of both the parliament and the military--has returned to its old policy of covert support for the Taliban.

As a result, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have formed a new safe haven in Pakistan's tribal frontier, which they are using to plan attacks on the West, train operatives, and send thousands of foot soldiers to attack NATO troops in Afghanistan. The slight resurgence of the Taliban in the past year is almost entirely attributable to the increased support coming in from Pakistan.

Under the Bush Doctrine, this would give us a clear justification to send an ultimatum to the government of Pakistan and, if necessary, to invade and occupy the country. But aside from the fact that there is no longer enough public support for such an action--even President Bush has abandoned the Bush Doctrine--such an invasion is also an enormous undertaking which is probably outside our ability to launch without years of preparation. And it would be enormously difficult in any case; Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation that is twice as large as Iraq with almost six times as many people.

There are two other reasons why an invasion and occupation of Pakistan should be avoided, if possible.

Part of our casus belli against Pakistan is that it is aiding a relatively small insurgency in the smaller nation of Afghanistan. So it does not necessarily make sense to solve that problem by enlarging it to include an occupation and counter-insurgency war in the whole nation of Pakistan, too.

The other reason to hesitate in using force directly against the government of Pakistan is because it is no longer ruled by a dictator. The new government of Pakistan has been dithering and ineffectual in dealing with terrorism, partly because it is truly representative of the population, which is half-sympathetic to radical Islam and doesn't want to have to make a choice between Islam and the modern world. But one of the great virtues of representative government is that it is capable of correcting its mistakes, and when it does choose to act, it does so with greater moral legitimacy and hence more effectiveness than a dictatorship. So there is some hope that the government of Pakistan may eventually be convinced to rejoin our war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

But we can't wait. The next al-Qaeda attack on the United States may originate from its safe haven in Pakistan's tribal zone. So the problem is: what can be done to eliminate that safe haven, short of an invasion and occupation? I suggest a three-prong approach.


The first thing we can do is to win against the Taliban (again) in Afghanistan. This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, isn't the problem we're trying to solve--the Taliban's safe-haven in Pakistan--a large part of the reason we're having problems in Afghanistan?

But the success of the surge in Iraq demonstrates that it is possible to win a counter-insurgency war without necessarily defeating the outside power than supports the insurgency. I was very skeptical about this point and thought that the surge would fail if we didn't "go wide" and take the war to Iran and Syria. But it turned out that the surge was enough to break the back of the insurgency. And winning in Iraq has turned out, alas, to be the only really effective thing the Bush administration has done to damage the regime in Iran.

That it is possible to win a counter-insurgency war without defeating its outside supporters should not actually be that big of a surprise, because this is precisely the context in which counter-insurgency usually arises. Most of these wars--particularly in the 20th century--have been contests in which great powers used insurgents and counter-insurgents as proxies to fight one another indirectly, because they viewed fighting each other directly as far too costly.

In this case, it is possible that a "surge" in Afghanistan--if it achieves results similar to what we have seen in the past 18 months in Iraq--could be far less costly than war with Pakistan. The idea would be not only to add to the number of troops in Afghanistan but to shift to a fully executed, integrated counter-insurgency strategy, as we did in Iraq. And this is not at all a pie-in-sky recommendation. We are already increasing our troops in Afghanistan, the mastermind of the "surge" is about to take over the regional command responsible for Afghanistan, and presidential candidate John McCain has had some good things to say about reforming the command structure in Afghanistan to allow for a more effective strategy there.

A successful Afghan surge could have the effect of changing Pakistan's calculations about its interests. Pakistan supports the Taliban partly because they sense weakness. Believing (or hoping) that we are about to lose in Afghanistan, they want to align themselves with the winners in order to influence events in their favor. If we reverse the momentum in Afghanistan, the Pakistani government will feel pressure to drop its support for the Taliban, who will suddenly be seen as a liability that makes Pakistan vulnerable.

But of course, we don't have to wait to turn the Taliban into a Pakistani vulnerability. We can do it right away--and that leads me to my second recommendation.


The success of the recent film Charlie Wilson's War has brought everyone's attention back to the covert war we fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. (If you want a sense for the real facts and the real drama of these events, I recommend the book rather than the movie.) During the 1980s, we supported the Afghan mujahideen with enormous amounts of money and weapons, as well as training and intelligence, while our then-allies in Pakistanis sent large numbers of men to fight.

Why can't we do it all again, but this time in reverse? If a large part of the current problem is that Pakistan is allowing the Taliban to send fighters over the border into Afghanistan, why not return the favor by sending fighters the other way? We should see if it is possible to recruit Afghan proxies (and even Pakistani allies) to send into Waziristan to drive out the Taliban and their supporters, or to force tribal leaders to stop backing the Taliban. We could back these fighters with American funds, American-supplied weapons and training, even with some amount of air support and special forces operations.

By a covert war in Pakistan, I don't mean the sort of thing Barack Obama has proposed, which is one-at-a-time special forces strikes aimed at specific al-Qaeda leaders. We're already doing that, and it's not winning the war. I am suggesting a large-scale, sustained conflict, with the broad strategic goal of uprooting al-Qaeda and the Taliban from Pakistan's tribal regions.

The shift I'm talking about is similar to the change in the Afghan campaign described in Charlie Wilson's War. At first, US support for the mujahideen was seen simply as a way to bleed the Soviets a little and make them uncomfortable, but no one believed that the campaign could actually defeat the Red Army. Charlie Wilson insisted that the goal had to be beating the Soviets, denying them control of the country and forcing them to withdraw.

That's the kind of strategic objective we need for a covert war in Pakistan. And if we do it right, how could the Pakistanis complain? We could maintain "plausible deniability" by claiming that the conflict is just an internecine feud between Pashtun tribes (in the same way we claimed that the mujahideen were a spontaneous, self-sustaining uprising that relied purely on captured Russian weapons). And how could the Pakistanis complain about bloodshed and chaos in the tribal regions, when that is what is already happening under their policies?

And if the Pakistanis get too upset at us, we have some very powerful geopolitical leverage we can use against them.


I have long advocated "playing the India card" by pursuing a commercial, cultural, and military alliance with India, as a strategic counterbalance to China--and to Pakistan, India's bitter rival.

The commercial and cultural connection between the US and India is already strong and growing, and it forms the base for the diplomatic and military aspect of the alliance, which is just beginning to grow. The US has recently concluded a deal with India that will allow US support for India's civilian nuclear energy program, in exchange for our acceptance of India's nuclear weapons. We have also agreed to sell India a decommissioned and retrofitted American aircraft carrier, and we have started a program to train Indian fighter pilots.

Not coincidentally, India has also been courting the Karzai government in Kabul, seeking an alliance with Afghanistan. (This is why a recent terrorist bombing attack in Kabul targeted the Indian embassy.) The irony of Pakistan's support for the Taliban is that it is driving the Afghan government into the arms of Pakistan's arch-enemy.

So we can send a not-so-subtle message to the government of Pakistan: cooperate with us in suppressing the Taliban, rooting out al-Qaeda, and supporting the government of Afghanistan--or wake up in a year or two and find yourself encircled by an Indian-Afghan alliance backed by the United States.

The radical Islamists do not make rational calculations about their interests, because their interests are inherently irrational: as they like to remind us, they love death. But there are enough people in positions of authority in Pakistan--in the military and in parliament--who do make rational calculations, and they will quickly add up the numbers and grasp the situation that we have the power to impose on them.

If they see that the Taliban is a losing cause in Afghanistan, and that the punishment for backing the wrong horse will be the projection of a US-Afghan insurgency into Pakistan, combined with the threat of encirclement by India--then we have every reason to believe that they will suddenly grasp that their interests lie in being good allies to the United States.

Robert Tracinski is editor of The Tracinski Letter and a contributor to RealClearMarkets.

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