Foreign Policy

The Other Dangers in Pakistan

Is the Taliban a threat to Pakistan?

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If you want Americans to pay attention to Pakistan—not an easy thing to do—your best bet is to conjure up images of Armageddon. The Obama administration, being put out with the Islamabad government, has decided understatement is no virtue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently pronounced Pakistan nothing less than "a mortal threat" because it is "abdicating to the Taliban."

If you've heard the scare story, you probably haven't slept in days. The country's Taliban has forced the imposition of Islamic law in one area, under a truce reached with the national government, and its forces recently advanced to just 60 miles from the capital. That raises the specter of Muslim radicals seizing power, getting their hands on the country's nuclear weapons, and handing them off to al-Qaida.

From there, it's presumably just a matter of time before Manhattan goes up in a mushroom cloud. Given that scenario, it's no surprise to find Time magazine reporting that "if Pakistan collapses, the U.S. military is primed to enter the country and secure as many of those weapons as it can."

But if there is any way to induce the Pakistani military to give its nukes over to extremist cells, a U.S. military invasion is probably it. We run the risk of getting carried away by scenarios that are terrifying but also highly unlikely. In the process, American policymakers are making the questionable assumption that they know better than a democratically elected Islamabad government how to ensure its survival.

The threat from the Taliban has a tendency to shrink upon close examination. The group is a small one of modest military capacity. Says the British magazine The Economist, "there is no chance" of the Taliban seizing the capital: "If, unthinkably, the disparate warlords who make up the Pakistani Taliban were to mass together for a frontal attack, Pakistan's army, which is 620,000-strong and well-drilled for conventional warfare, could crush them."

In addition, radical Islam has scant support among Pakistanis, the vast majority of whom vote for mainstream political parties. Expanding the Taliban's base in a country with a rising economy and long experience with democracy would be much harder than seizing power in Afghanistan—a primitive, war-ravaged society with a history of ungovernability.

Our beef with the Pakistani government is that it shows little appetite for eradicating the militants. But that preference is not necessarily blind or cowardly.

The army, seeing the Taliban as a manageable nuisance, is reluctant to launch a fight to the death that could backfire. Military officers, says The Economist, "think it would be fruitless to pulverize the Taliban, and in the process kill many civilians, while Pakistan's civil institutions are too weak to fill the vacuum that would be created." That, of course, seems to be the option favored in Washington—and the one that, under U.S. pressure, the Pakistani government is now pursuing.

But the country's military and civilian leaders have everything to lose if the extremists triumph, which is a great incentive for them to act wisely. And they probably have a better grasp of their country's political realities than the Obama administration does.

As Donald Rumsfeld might put it, Pakistan abounds not only with things we don't know but things we don't know we don't know. Given the uncertainty, we are probably better off deferring to the Islamabad government's judgment on confronting the insurgency.

The danger of nukes falling into the wrong hands, fortunately, is also less than commonly assumed. The bombs are kept disassembled, with the components stored in separate places to prevent unauthorized use. If the parts could be put together, you will be relieved to know, they probably still would not be usable.

Stephen Younger, former head of nuclear weapons research and development at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, notes in his recent book, The Bomb: A New History, that because of technical safeguards (which Pakistan says it has installed), even weapons designers and technicians can't set off a device on their own. "Only a few people in the world have the knowledge to cause an unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon," he says.

The Obama administration has reason to be wary of what's going on in Pakistan. But as we learned from the Bush administration in Iraq, sometimes the biggest thing we have to fear is fear itself.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. Hope & Change? ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

  2. And [Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders] probably have a better grasp of their country’s political realities than the Obama administration does.

    Whoa now. Let’s be fair. No one has a better grasp on anything, ever than the Obama administration does.

  3. Sometimes entire populations take leave of their senses or if not the entire population enough of the population to have the same effect. Revolutionary France and Nazi Germany are two of the best examples. I point this out because we act like the Taliban aliens or something. Has it ever occured to people that maybe people in Pakistan like the Taliban? It is depressing as hell to think about, but perhaps there are large numbers of people in Pakistan who are raving religous lunatics bent on doing us harm.

  4. Very latest just minutes ago, from NY Times and WaPo: “40,000 refugees fleeing Taliban violence in Swat… Government expects 500,000 to flee… 6 Refugee camps overflowing… Tuberculosis in camps… Taliban scouring camps forceably kidnapping young men to fight on front lines against Pakistani Government Troops…

    And now this: Reports out of Islamabad that the Capitol itself is in grave danger. Schools, Universities, and even Government offices are imposing strict Taliban-style Islamic law, especially on women, and “Western-style” Pakistanis, in anticipation of the Capitol falling to the Taliban in days.”

    Folks this might be the most serious conflict on the planet since the rise of the Ayatollahs in Iraq in 1979.

    Pakistan has nukes. And one of the nuke bases is literally within 30 miles, of the current fighting.

    And some in the US still have the audacity to downplay this War, and make it seem like a small internal conflict.

  5. DONDEROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

  6. Donderooooooooooooooooooooooo!

  7. I applaud your enthusiasm Xeones, but have some respect for the page width.

  8. “Folks this might be the most serious conflict on the planet since the rise of the Ayatollahs in Iraq in 1979.”

    I think you mean Iran.

  9. From The Economist and the article:

    If, unthinkably, the disparate warlords who make up the Pakistani Taliban were to mass together for a frontal attack, Pakistan’s army, which is 620,000-strong and well-drilled for conventional warfare, could crush them.

    [weighs this against Dondero’s pee-leak, goes back to reading online short stories]

  10. Yo, Warren, fuck the page width.

  11. “Folks this might be the most serious conflict on the planet since the rise of the Ayatollahs in Iraq in 1979.”

    Goldberg…Iceberg…what’s the difference?

  12. “If, unthinkably, the disparate warlords who make up the Pakistani Taliban were to mass together for a frontal attack, Pakistan’s army, which is 620,000-strong and well-drilled for conventional warfare, could crush them.”

    I hope that is true. But I wonder how many of the 620,000 strong army would actually fight and not join the other side. Also, if the Pakistani army is so capable of crushing the Taliban, why haven’t they? Kindness?

  13. Isn’t Pakistan the country which elected a woman who was pregnant as its prime minister within the past 20 years? I don’t think a pregnant politican could win the presidency in the US.

    Can such a population have changed in so quickly to supporters of the 13th century loving Taliban?

  14. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the recent (and, IMO, better) GlobalPost analysis feature “News of Pakistan’s doom greatly exaggerated”. (If you can only read one page, the final one may be the best.)

  15. I wonder what Mr. Chapman would have said about the threat of an aging exiled fundie cleric presented to the Shah in 1978?

    I know, I know. The Pakistani’s would never sign on with fundie nonsense because of anger at a corrupt and incompetent government that cozies up to the United States. They area, after all, far more educated and westernized than Iran was in the seventies.

    Right Steve?

  16. The Revolution in Iran was a conflict? Please, shower us with your wisdom sir.

  17. I mean to say

    “Can such a population have changed so quickly…”

  18. “Can such a population have changed so quickly…”

    You would be surprised. You hit a tipping point where there are enough crazies to make life miserable for the normal people. Then the normal people start leaving and the society turns crazy very quickly. Right now the public education system in Pakistan is non-existant. So, the poor send their kids to Islamic schools to be taught by the loons and the rich send their kids abroad or just move away.

    “The Pakistani’s would never sign on with fundie nonsense because of anger at a corrupt and incompetent government that cozies up to the United States.”

    J sub D is there anything bad in the world that you don’t manage to blame on the US? I mean it couldn’t be that perhaps a fair number of Pakistanis are crazy fucks and a fair number of others are corrupt theives who have fucked up their country. Nope, couldn’t be that. No, the evil US must be responsible.

  19. Also, if the Pakistani army is so capable of crushing the Taliban, why haven’t they? Kindness?

    Chapman addresses this in the article. Just one person’s take, but it’s there.

  20. The Revolution in Iran was a conflict? Please, shower us with your wisdom sir.

    Your right. The taliban is a foreign invasion with virtually no support from the populace. And the Pakistani government has tanks and airplanes and stuff.

    Not a damned thing to worry about.

    Note – I am emphatically NOT advocating the US do a goddam thing other than bring our troops home from that godforsake part of the world and sell weapons to those who have the cash to pay for them. That would be be the Pakistani “democracy”.

  21. J sub D,

    Settle down. That was directed at Dondero.

  22. So, when are we going to occupy Pakistan? Will that make India happy? Tear down that wall!

    China is going to be so pissed when we and India take over Pakistan and reunify it with the rest of the subcontinent. For great justice, of course.

  23. I don’t think Pakistan’s is a mortal threat either, but this

    “If, unthinkably, the disparate warlords who make up the Pakistani Taliban were to mass together for a frontal attack, Pakistan’s army, which is 620,000-strong and well-drilled for conventional warfare, could crush them.”

    is just nonsense. After our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, who the hell believes that there will be some kind of frontal attack? They’ll whittle the army down through guerilla attacks until it collapses.

  24. They’ll whittle the army down through guerilla attacks until it collapses.

    But the Pakistani Taliban in this scenario is the invader, not the defender.

  25. But the Pakistani Taliban in this scenario is the invader, not the defender.

    Well yes, but they’re pretty well-established in the country already, no?

  26. I’m with you, but to take over the capital and commandeer the nukes is very different than wearing down an invading force.

  27. True. But I think that discipline and morale in the Pakistani Army are lower than this article lets on, while sympathy for the Taliban is higher. This is just my impression, though. In any case, I’m not advocating foreign intervention.

  28. “If, unthinkably, the disparate warlords who make up the Pakistani Taliban were to mass together for a frontal attack, Pakistan’s army, which is 620,000-strong and well-drilled for conventional warfare, could crush them.”

    Uh, duh, that’s why they’re still guerillas. They haven’t moved to the “open combat” phase yet. These guys are probably at least smart enough to have a translation of Mao sitting around to tell them when not to do dumb stuff that gets their early-stage guerilla movement smashed.

  29. On a related note, World Politics Review’s Judah Grunstein has this post (link via UN Dispatch)…

    I’ve been taking my time to fully digest the wildly fluctuating press reports coming out of Pakistan and Washington over the past few weeks. But I tend towards a bit of skepticism towards both. There seems to be a lot of “not seeing the forest for the trees” on both sides. In Pakistan, that means an almost casual, business-as-usual approach to a residual problem that totally misses the increasingly urgent cues coming from the Obama administration. In Washington, that means a heightened alarmism that is better adapted to shaping American opinion than it is to addressing what amounts to a residual problem.

    Residual problem, because I do not believe that the Taliban pose an “existential threat” to the Pakistani state. It’s not even certain they’re capable of destabilizing the civilian government enough to provoke a military coup. And I don’t for a second believe they pose a threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Without those linchpins, it’s impossible to see the Taliban as a mortal threat to the U.S.

    The danger here is how similar the rhetoric about Pakistan is beginning to resemble the rhetoric in the run up to the Iraq War: a potentially mortal threat to the U.S. that the government in question is unwilling to address, while the region and world look on helplessly. Because even assuming, for the sake of argument, that I’m wrong on all of the above counts, the strategy currently being offered to address the threat is woefully inadequate.

    When it comes to questions of war, American opinion is like a supertanker: once it gets started in one direction, it takes an awful lot of time and energy to reverse course. It increasingly appears that we’re in the second phase of an opinion-shaping effort whose only outcome, short of Pakistan acting in ways that betray its core interests, is an escalation of American military involvement in the region.

    This might just be the fatal flaw of President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan exit strategy. Regionalizing the solution, while attractive on paper, means squaring increasingly divergent interests. That, in turn, requires deploying increasingly heavy-handed political pressure. The rest is Clausewitz.

  30. Residual problem, because I do not believe that the Taliban pose an “existential threat” to the Pakistani state. It’s not even certain they’re capable of destabilizing the civilian government enough to provoke a military coup. And I don’t for a second believe they pose a threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Without those linchpins, it’s impossible to see the Taliban as a mortal threat to the U.S.

    They are steadily increasing the territory under their control, have thoroughly infiltrated the military, are 60 miles from the capital and within 30 miles of some known nuclear facilities, and have shown zero inclination in doing business with or being coopted by the government. I don’t think that’s speculation, I think those are the facts on the ground.

    Why that doesn’t add up to an existential threat, or why they wouldn’t love to be a nuclear power, is a little mysterious to me.

  31. They are steadily increasing the territory under their control, have thoroughly infiltrated the military, are 60 miles from the capital and within 30 miles of some known nuclear facilities, and have shown zero inclination in doing business with or being coopted by the government.

    From page 2 of the previously plugged GlobalPost item

    But how would the Taliban go from being a rag-tag guerrilla army in the mountains to rulers of the second largest Muslim country in the world? It’s a fantastically tall order.

    First they would have to cross a mountain range to enter at the northern gates of Islamabad and run over the modern capital of nearly 2 million people. In the process, they would presumably encounter one of the most advanced armies in the world – and on the military’s home turf for a change.

    From there, Lahore (a city of 10 million people) is a three-hour drive down an eight-lane highway that runs through some densely populated green agricultural plains – not the Taliban’s pick for a battle field.

    Moreover, Lahore is the capital of the Pakistani heartland Punjab – if the province of 81 million people were a country it would be the 15th most populous in the world, just behind Germany. Even if the Punjab goes, there would be places like the southern port city of Karachi, the third largest city in the world, that could prove to be logistical nightmares for the Taliban, who have yet to control a town of more than a few hundred thousand in Pakistan.

    And, from page 3…

    The Taliban today control something less than 5 percent of Pakistan’s landmass and perhaps an even smaller percentage of the population is under their rule. This is not very impressive when compared to other guerrilla forces like the FARC, which has operated in Colombia for three decades and has controlled anywhere between a fifth to a quarter of Colombian territory. Or consider the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, also a force slowly built over three decades that at its height of power occupied the entire northern tip of the island nation.

    The Taliban can’t even really compare in volume to the Maoist Naxalites of India, who are spread over nearly a quarter of the administrative districts of India.

    Perhaps the real potential of the Taliban is not their capacity to overrun the state, but their capacity to create enough panic and hysteria to allow for opportunistic political forces to jump in. Perhaps the Taliban, like Garibaldi’s Red Shirts, Mussolini’s Black Shirts and Hitler’s Brown Shirts, is a group that will leave a path of destruction for others.

    […]

    Last month the government agreed to impose sharia law in some northern districts of Pakistan where the Taliban had a stronghold. The deal with the Taliban was not alarming in its content (Pakistan is an Islamic republic, after all, whose constitution states that all laws be in compliance with Islam) but in the fact that the state willingly abdicated its religious authority to a militia that had no real claim to it. It is the kind of incoherence that Washington might be more alarmed at than Taliban advances in the poor rural Pashtun sectors of Pakistan.

    The Taliban have never expressed interest in ruling from Islamabad. But they are exposing weaknesses of the Pakistani state and its constitution in a way that hasn’t been seen in Pakistan’s 60-year history.

  32. “They are steadily increasing the territory under their control, have thoroughly infiltrated the military, are 60 miles from the capital and within 30 miles of some known nuclear facilities, and have shown zero inclination in doing business with or being coopted by the government. I don’t think that’s speculation, I think those are the facts on the ground.

    Why that doesn’t add up to an existential threat, or why they wouldn’t love to be a nuclear power, is a little mysterious to me.”

    Let’s not forget that the article that we are commenting on specifically said that *nukes are kept in a disassembled state* and *very few people know how to put them back together* and *there’s no guarantee that they’d work if you COULD put them back together.* If all these corollaries are true, then there is effectively nil chance that we’re in any real danger.

  33. I’m with Eric Dondero here.

    I’m not willing to say Pakistan is lost, yet. But I’m not seeing a decisive response from the administration. I have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes, of course.

    It’s really hard to predict anything, but I do believe we could easily see the collapse of the Pakistani state in a matter of months. If not sooner.

    Not taking the Taliban seriously isn’t helping here.

  34. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdul_Qadeer_Khan

    A.Q. Khan could probably put them back together.
    He deisgned them.

  35. “”” You hit a tipping point where there are enough crazies to make life miserable for the normal people.”””

    Are we there yet?

    “”” It’s not even certain they’re capable of destabilizing the civilian government enough to provoke a military coup. And I don’t for a second believe they pose a threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Without those linchpins, it’s impossible to see the Taliban as a mortal threat to the U.S.””””

    With regards to the first sentence, I wonder if Afghanistan said the same thing prior to the taliban taking control.

    Refusing to hand over OBL was linchpin enough before, why do we need to up the bar?

  36. Expanding our occupation of Afghanistan is going to end in disaster. How did we twist words to end up with troops in Afghanistan? Occupying a foreign country in order to steal its oil should not be presented as any attempt to defend or extend liberty

    It’s a purely capitalist/imperialist move, and it’s wrong. Why doesn’t Obama bring the troops home?

  37. The drones are killing about 6% extremists, and about 94% innocent people. Here in the U.S., if the military accidentally kills innocent people, they would be liable for millions of dollars worth of personal damages to the surviving family members.

    If we really believe that all men are created equal, we should extend the same principle to those in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This will shrink the ranks of the extremists, and is a better use of military dollars than investing in more weapons that kill roughly 6% of our enemy and 94% innocent people. Also, the U.S military will have an incentive to avoid operations which are beset with such a gruseome batting average.

    If we had a world court system where every person had the right to take the military of any soverign nation to court for damages, we would end up with a different sort of military before too long.

    If a SWAT team is asked to rescue an innocent person from terrorists, they cannot kill as many innocent bystanders as they want to do so, but for some reason the U.S. military thinks it is all right.

  38. Wait a minute. So the xenophobic scare mongering and hype by the mainstream media is completely unfounded bullshit fed to them via government propaganda channels or invented from whole cloth? Who’da thunk it?

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