There Is No Plan

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Making Plans for Pakistan.

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Nothing in Foreign Policy is simple, but problems don’t get any thornier than what do about Pakistan.

One of the most perplexing elements of the discussion surrounding the current hand-wringing over what to do in Afghanistan is how little Pakistan is mentioned as ‘the reason’ for our Afghan policy. This despite the coining of a racy new phrase to describe US policy in that arena “Af-Pak” (mainly for use on Twitter) as well as clarion calls from lots of Foreign Policy Wonks (FPWs) that Pakistan is where the action is.

So why is this? Why is Pakistan the nexus of US foreign policy in the region?

There’s really only one reason for this.  Pakistan has nukes, and the word around Washington is that those nukes are less than secure.

Sure, the rise of the Pakistani Taliban is a deeply unsettling development for the US. But a little perspective is useful here. They are not a threat to the US homeland unless they get access to a usable nuclear weapon. But if they do, they represent probably the single most dangerous threat that the world has faced in this short and already violent century.

The Taliban’s success in sequestering power in Pakistan is a product of many factors, but despite being medieval thugs, we, America are seen in a lesser light. The truth is that body politic in Pakistan is a strange and unpredictable beast indeed. Most Pakistanis distrust the militants almost as much as they hate America or India, while their government stumbles on, loathed, despised and ineffective. It’s hard to for America to make national security judgments when Pakistani society seems to be in constant state of an odd mix of utter and post-colonial good sense.

Meanwhile, the real power broker in Pakistan, the Army, is itself weak.  The Taliban absorb the body blows of their brutal campaigns to quell the insurgency, and attack the heart of the Army establishment at will. The US has tried – rightly – to build a strong relationship with the Pakistani army but the results have and will continue to be disappointing. Distrust reins supreme.

So what’s a superpower to do?  The answer is not too much.


Nation building is out. They quite simply don’t want our help. Don’t trust it. Fierce nationalism undermines our ability to buy them the old fashioned way.  The best we can hope for in Pakistan in the short term is to keep a lid on the place and try to make sure it doesn’t blow up in our faces. Keeping the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban on the defensive so they can’t export their special brand of fun to the rest of the world is something we can achieve and be proud of

But more important than the export of conventional terror, is nuclear control. We have to recognize that if the Taliban and insurgents get close to control of a nuclear weapon, all bets are off and we have to deal with that, our way.  The word is that the hijackig of a Pakistani nuke might be an inside job, with militants from inside the army staging the heist. That’s quite simply a no-no for us.  So it’s vital that the US establishes and maintains cast-iron intelligence assets in the Pakistani army, and throughout the government, as well as in the hot-spot regions to monitor every hint of that and be prepared to act fast if a threat solidifies.


And what of our presence in Afghanistan?  It’s vital. Not so much to secure a better future for the Afghans (which is just not possible right now), but to provide a jumping off point for our forces in case an attack on militants in Pakistan becomes necessary. We must continue to garrison Baghram AFB, and have a Rapid Deployment strike force of at least 2 brigades ready when necessary. We must also boost our Special Forces presence to keep the Afghan Taliban on the defensive – particularly where it hurts them most – in the wallet. America maintains strategic garrisons in many a distrusting or hostile nation (the most famous of which is Cuba), and the Afghan government – like them or not – are going to be quite amenable to a military force that will protect them from the none-too-pleasant fate met by past Afghan leaders.


Containment sounds kind of dull. But Pakistan is too thorny a problem to leave alone, and too much of a potential quagmire to jump into feet first.  Containment is a time-honored US strategy that’s used when there are just too many dead ends for anything else to work.  And unlike the Afghan troop surge and the Counter-Insurgency strategy, containment is not a “perfect world” scenario where everything has to go right for the concept to work. Life just isn’t like that.


America is still living in the shadow of Bush’s disastrous nation-building dreams. But remember where all that exporting democracy stuff came from. It was only when we didn’t find WMD in Iraq that talk of Democracy became a la mode. It should be put back into the box of bad ideas from whence it came.

Let’s try and be a little less ambitious this time.


Written by coolrebel

November 11, 2009 at 5:30 am

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