May 7, 2009

Pakistan: This is Obama's 3 a.m. Moment

The open source warfare occurring in Pakistan appears likely to present President Barak Obama with his greatest foreign policy challenge to date. How events in Pakistan play out may prove to be the set of events that defines what his leadership means when it comes to the defense of America's security interests.

Taliban fighters now appear to have hit on a formula and an offering that will co-opt other sources of support to the Taliban cause. The Pakistani government which had recently made a deal with the Taliban ceding control of the Swat Valley to the insurgents, appears to be experiencing buyer's remorse on that deal after the invasion of neighboring Buner and is now pounding Taliban positions with helicopter gunships.

The situation on the ground in Pakistan is an urgent one that inspires nightmare scenarios of the Taliban gaining access to nuclear weapons by force or by co-opting sympathetic elements in the Pak military and intelligence services into helping them obtain them. President Obama met today with the president of Pakistan, President Asif Ali Zardari and Harmid Karzai of Afghanistan and pledged additional troops to Afghanistan and increased development aid to Pakistan.

Neither of these announcements is reassuring to the Season at this point. Both initiatives still appear to be action in need of a strategy. Sending additional troops to Afghanistan increases the availability of forces to take and hold territory, but this is not Iraq. The US and multinational forces may hold the cities, but not the country side and indeed cannot pacify all of the country. The administration thinks of it to some degree as a nation building exercise, but we would argue that after denying Afghanistan as a training ground for terrorists is done, there is not much reason to stay. Providing aid to Pakistan to improve development and opportunity for its people is a sound long term solution, perhaps even of some use in the short term, but will not result in the kinds of changes that will earn the wholesale confidence of the people and most certainly will not stem the advance of the Taliban in the short term.

The other element of the Pakistan appproach so far appears to be a return to heavy reliance on the Pak military to address the Taliban threat. After a series of peace deals, the most recent ceding the Swat Valley, the army appears ready to fight back against the existential threat. However, there is plenty of room to be skeptical. Relying largely on the military to combat a religious extremist insurgency in a country where the military has a history of collaboration with jihadi extremists, and violation of constitutional norms and corruption, is doomed to fail.

Obama's pledges of support to Karzai and Zardari and his calm assurances that he is satisfied that Pakistan's nukes are secure are not enough to allay the fears of the public or policymakers, with supporters like Dick Lugar calling on the President to take strong action to combat the threat to Pakistans' nuclear weapons.

The President in many ways is confronted with lose lose propositions all around and any confidence the American public has that the situation is under control regarding Pakistan's nukes is trusting to the Presidents pronouncements that he is satisfied that the nukes won't fall into the wrong hands. Since the President can't know that first hand, he's clearly relying on intelligence reports and the military's assessment of military contacts to reach that determination. However, we've already experienced one intelligence failure when it comes to WMD, in Iraq, an adventure we are still trying to extricate ourselves from. So it begs the question, can we rely on our intelligence estimates now? And if there is an uncertainty, how will Obama address it? The unstable, corrupt and weak government in Pakistan is largely to blame for this mess. It does such a poor job of meeting the needs of its people that the siren call of Sharia Law sounds attractive by comparison. Were Pakistan to fall to the Taliban, we may find ourselves heartily glad that we laid groundwork with India for greater coordination. In a Taliban controlled Pakistan, India becomes the best game in town.

Pakistan: this is Obama's 3 am moment.