Last week, General David Petraeus (commander of America’s Central Command, which covers all U.S. forces in the Middle East and south Asia), reportedly said Pakistan may be just two weeks from falling to Islamic extremists. There’s not much the U.S. can do to prevent that fall, and the implications for Pakistan, Central Asia, and the entire world could be catastrophic.
Petraeus’ statement is based on current operations — the stuff reported in the press — and secret signal and human intelligence which expose the enemy’s true plans. Those secrets coupled with a disastrous set of circumstances apparently convinced Petraeus the Taliban intends to quickly consume Pakistan.
The Telegraph, a British paper, reports Petraeus said that “the Pakistanis have run out of excuses” for failing to take on the Taliban. He is reported to have urged action to destroy the Taliban in the next two weeks before the U.S. decides its next course of action.
Petraeus’ pessimism is understandable. Pakistan’s government has shown weakness when dealing with the Taliban, a radical Islamist enemy allied with al-Queda. Pakistan naively surrendered land for Taliban promises of peace that were quickly broken. Now, the insurgents are methodically transforming Pakistan into an Islamic camp. The extremists are closing on the capital and promise to continue their march until all Pakistan falls.
Pakistan’s military has been slow to counter the Taliban’s advance. Rather, it keeps most forces along the border with India. Besides, the army has performed poorly against the Taliban in part because it lacks counterinsurgency skills and equipment but also because it lacks the will to fight its own citizens.
Petraeus is also aware that Pakistan has reached a tipping point because of economic and social realities which have created an opening for the Taliban.
Its economy is in free fall, which fuels discontent. Inflation is double digit and jobs are scarce. Pakistanis, according to surveys, say things are getting worse, which bolsters the extremists’ leverage.
“The Taliban know only that when the government is unable to deliver services, and when there is unhappiness among the general population because food prices have gone up tremendously, gasoline is not available, electricity shortages are rampant, that it is much easier to convince the people that the Taliban have the solution rather than the government,” said Shuja Nawaz, a director with the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
Pakistan has hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who fled before the advancing Taliban. These people form temporary camps which drain government resources and create massive discontent which plays into the Taliban’s hands.
Pakistan is also home to more than 12,000 madrassas — Islamic schools — which for more than 20 years have fed and housed hundreds of thousands of children while pushing a militant brand of Islam. Madrassas offer no instruction beyond the memorizing of the Koran, creating a widening pool of young minds that are sympathetic to militancy.
Police in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, say more than two-thirds of suicide bombers had attended madrassas. That’s why Ibn Abduh Rehman, who directs the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, warned “We are at the beginning of a great storm that is about to sweep the country.”
Pakistan is a bomb, the fuse is burning and as Petraeus has said, time is short.
Pakistan is the center of gravity for the global war on terror. It harbors al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, provides safe haven for terrorist training camps and is the staging ground for terrorist operations across the globe. It’s also a snake-pit ripe for extremist recruiting.
Imagine how bad things could become if that 170 million person country were run by extremists. It would be worse than the pre-2001 Afghanistan — a country run by strict Sharia (Islamic) law, a training ground for hundreds of thousands of jihadists, home for laboratories for mass murder weapons and a country that comes equipped with a relatively modern military armed with nuclear tipped missiles.
Everyone should be concerned about Pakistan’s 60-100 atomic weapons and their ballistic and cruise missile arsenals. The Pakistani military assures the Obama administration the nukes are secure. But the Pakistanis have never shown the U.S. where and how the weapons are secured even though America gave Islamabad more than $100 million to create a secure arsenal.
We have every reason to question their assurances. The same Pakistani agency that created the Taliban now controls the atomic weapons. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence service, created the Taliban with American help in the 1980s to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, but the ISI continues to supply and employ Taliban services. Why should America trust the ISI, especially if its Frankenstein takes over the government?
The Taliban have also announced their terrorist intentions. Taliban commanders promise to welcome and support al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other militants aiming to oust Americans from Afghanistan. Imagine what al-Qaeda could do with a country like Pakistan which has a large Indian Ocean coastline — think Somalia with nukes.
America’s war in Afghanistan will suffer a serious set-back with extremists in Islamabad. We depend on Pakistan’s Karachi port and two main supply routes through that country to sustain operations in Afghanistan. A Taliban-run government would immediately sever those routes.
So what can the U.S. do to prevent Pakistan from being taken over and then what should we do should that happen?
There’s very little the U.S. can do to vaccinate Pakistan from the extremists. American leaders have already prodded Islamabad to fight back, and our promised economic and military aid will take months to begin arriving and may not be enough even then.
Our diplomats could appeal to India, Pakistan’s arch enemy, to withdraw forces from their common border. That would take pressure off Pakistan, providing them the freedom to shift some of their 250,000 forces now on the Indian border to the counterinsurgency fight.
But the best short term solution would be a military coup that replaces Pakistan’s weak government, declares martial law and quickly redeploys the army against the Taliban. Even that solution may be too late if the army doesn’t vigorously take charge.
The Obama administration must prepare for the worst — Pakistan falls into extremist hands.
Our first priority must be securing Pakistan’s atomic weapons. We should develop plans with and without Pakistan’s ISI and military to move all atomic weapons out of that country to a secure location like Kandahar, Afghanistan’s military air field. This risky operation depends on whether the ISI and or the military cooperate, which is far from assured.
We must find new resupply routes to Afghanistan. Our options are either look to the north accepting Russia’s pre-conditions and or turn to Iran which will demand a steep diplomatic cost as well. Unfortunately, we lack the aircraft to sustain our forces in land-locked Afghanistan.
With extremists running Islamabad, the Afghan war would expand to include Pakistan and quite likely morph into a broader regional war that includes India. It’s doubtful the U.S. and NATO will commit more forces to a Central Asian region-wide war. This could become justification to quit Afghanistan and bring our forces home and accept the consequences, such an atomic missile armed al-Qaeda.
Obama promised Afghanistan would be his first priority. The current crisis in Pakistan gives him the opportunity to act upon that promise.