America's New Pakistan Strategy

Last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rushed to Pakistan in response to a crisis and to reinforce America’s new strategy focused on stabilizing that country.  Pakistan is a nuclear-capable Islamic state in political turmoil and could threaten the entire region should it explode.

The weekend bombing of the Islamabad Marriot — in Pakistan’s capital — shows how fragile Pakistan is.

Mullen unexpectedly flew to Islamabad to meet with senior Pakistani officials amid a tense confrontation between the two allies over stepped-up American operations inside that country.  He sought “cooperation” in spite of the harsh rhetoric spewing from Islamabad.  But there was much more on his agenda than critical words and terrorists in the border region dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan.

What’s not in dispute is that the Federally Administrated Tribal Area (FATA), a mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, is overflowing with Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents who pour into Afghanistan to fight coalition forces.  Pakistan has done little to shut down the FATA, which has forced the U.S. to revert to raids against the terrorists before they cross into Afghanistan.

The U.S. claims a legal right to pursue insurgents in Pakistan because that country is either unwilling or unable to stop the flow of terrorists.  Of course, Pakistan takes exception to that view, despite the fact that it contends the FATA is ungovernable, past the Pakistani government’s writ.

The US military chief arrived in the Pakistani capital hours after that army’s spokesman reportedly said his soldiers had orders to “open fire” if U.S. forces continued cross-border incursions, such as the one on Sept. 3 that reportedly killed 20 people.

But in the back of Mullen’s mind, he must have been thinking about the greater threat posed by the unraveling of Pakistan.  That country is one of the world’s two centers for Islamic radicalism (the other, obviously, Iran),  and its new civilian leadership is having a difficult time dealing with the unrest.  Unless a steady hand throttles that turmoil, Islamabad could explode to become America’s worse nightmare.  

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged, “We are working with Pakistan in a number of areas.  And I do believe that Islamabad appreciates the magnitude of the threat from the tribal areas — particularly considering the uptick in suicide bombings directed at Pakistani targets.”  But Gates also understands the volatility of the country.  “Any deterioration would be a setback for both Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Gates said.  Remember, the war on terror started in this region and America wants to keep the lid on the problem.

America’s worst fear about Pakistan is captured in statements by Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, who warned that Pakistani militants could take over that country.  “If you lost the support of the people of Pakistan, the militants will take full advantage of this and I think the militants will be the greatest beneficiaries,” Masood said.

The retired general cautioned that U.S. action inside Pakistan makes it difficult for Islamabad to resolve economic and political problems that prompt much of the Islamic extremism.  He insists that unilateral American military action is “creating huge complications” for the Pakistanis.

Already militants enjoy the unfettered use of the FATA for staging terrorist activities throughout the region which has popular support among a wide swath of Pakistanis.  Unless these militants are contained, the political situation will cascade out of control, causing the country to fall into radical Islamic hands — which would negatively impact the war in Afghanistan, complicate Pakistan’s tense relationship with neighbor India and possibly reverse the West’s gains against Islamic terror.

The situation in Pakistan hasn’t always been so bleak.  Since the beginning of the Afghanistan war, Pakistan’s volatility has been kept in check by former president Pervez Muscharaff, who ruled with an iron fist and was America’s fair-weather friend.  Muscharaff allowed American raids into the FATA and dealt harshly with domestic dissent, but he’s now out of power and the new government is more sympathetic to the country’s radical Islamic minority.

Mullen’s discussions with Pakistan’s new leaders were likely very candid.  He should have made his strategic concerns clear and then offered leverage — aid and weapons — hoping to enlist Islamabad’s cooperation to deal with the FATA, domestic terrorism and regional stability.

Of course, Mullen is very aware of Pakistan’s counter leverage.  Most U.S. supplies for Afghanistan must flow through Pakistani ports and roads.  Any interference with this access would jeopardize our operations.  Additionally, the U.S. military needs a cooperative Pakistani armed forces and intelligence services to work along the Afghan border if the insurgency is to be stopped.  

That’s why —  for mutually beneficial reasons — both nations must put aside their differences before the situation gets out of hand.   But America also must be realistic about Pakistan.  

Recently — and naively — Donald Camp, the U.S.’s deputy assistant secretary of state, said there is no situation in which the U.S. and Pakistan will shoot at each other.  That view ignores the role Islamic thinking plays in Pakistan’s military and among a sizable portion of the population.  There are no guarantees that Pakistan will see things America’s way, and it is possible Islamabad could change course for our worse.

That’s why America’s new strategy regarding Pakistan must go beyond talk.  It must deal with substantive issues that threaten to push the region into war, like the long-term tensions between Pakistan and India which have festered to near blows in the recent past.  

Then again, America’s new strategy must be resourced.  President Bush has already announced that we will increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan by at least one brigade in 2009.  However, that’s only enough to maintain the status quo in that war-torn country, much less to respond to insurgents flooding in from the FATA.  Many more fighters will be required to bring stability in order to rebuild.

Our strategy must also contain the mechanism to de-radicalize Pakistan’s population.  That can only happen if madrassas, Islamic schools which often teach hatred of non-Muslims, are replaced with moderate and preferably secular institutions.  Unfortunately, our past aid to Pakistan which was intended to be used to replace those radical schools was squandered by Islamabad.

Fundamentally, what’s required in Pakistan is a cultural transformation that has both social and economic roots.  Once moderate views take root and jobs for the disenfranchised become available, that country will begin to abandon its current collision course with the West.  

There is encouraging evidence that some Pakistanis are fed-up with the radicals.  On Sept. 18, Taliban militants wearing suicide vests tried to enter the district of Dir.  They were stopped and killed by armed locals.  Locals taking action against the radicals has previously occurred in Waziristan, Bajaur and Khyber agencies in the tribal areas as well.  Helping Islamabad to encourage locals to turn on the radicals must be a key component to our strategy.

Finally, America’s new strategy must create political incentives for change.  Islamabad must understand the benefits of working with America to defuse tensions and to marginalize the radicals, and Washington must provide tangible benefits for such cooperation.  

The stakes are high in Pakistan.  It’s a politically volatile, nuclear-armed country with an influential and radical Islamic minority.  It has also become the center of the war on Islamic terror and therefore must become a priority for the next American president.