The Pakistan problem

Afghanistan’s southern, nuclear-armed neighbor presents immense foreign policy challenges

Last week in this space, we discussed Afghanistan and the myriad difficulties the free world faces in that country; today, itâÄôs time for a look at the other half of Af-Pak. As I said last week, these two bordering countries and their security concerns go hand in hand, but our strategy in dealing with each state must, of course, be different. WeâÄôll start with the most obvious reason: weâÄôre not occupying Pakistan. Pakistan has a bit of a sticky history with civilian government, as you might have heard. As recently as last August, the government was under military control (led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf), and the current civilian regime is far from well-established. Currently, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, holds the presidency, but the jury is still very much out on his ability to competently run the national government. Zardari had a reputation for being aggressively corrupt during his wifeâÄôs time in government; not for nothing did he land the nickname âÄúMr. 10 Percent.âÄù He also is known to be quite the playboy âÄî he sparked outrage in his country when, last fall, he started hitting on Gov. Sarah Palin during the then-vice presidential candidateâÄôs visit to New York City. ItâÄôs obviously a good thing for Pakistan to have wriggled free of military control, but whether Zardari is able to keep Pakistan from flying apart remains to be determined. And the stakes couldnâÄôt be higher. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country, and the collapse of its government would trigger the direst anti-proliferation crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union. As such, anything the United States can do to bolster PakistanâÄôs security and stability is top priority. But thereâÄôs also the sticky question of the Af-Pak border region, where al-Qaida and Taliban forces are currently making their homes. Sensibly enough, they do so on the Pakistan side of the border âÄî with NATO forces in Afghanistan, the southeast side of the line is the safe one. This raises the question of what, exactly, U.S./NATO forces should do about targets camping out in Pakistan. The Pakistani military is impotent in the region and can do very little to hit insurgent targets [assuming the military would even be on board]. But NATO canâÄôt just march into Pakistan. That would trigger the very collapse of the Pakistani government that we must prevent. It would show that the current government had lost all control of its borders. But in some cases that control is slipping badly already. In the Swat Valley region in northwest Pakistan, Taliban actors have taken control of the local government, having signed a truce with the Pakistani government and military. The national forces simply could not hold control of the area, which is currently governed under Islamic law by the Pakistani Taliban. This is an ominous development, to put it mildly. WeâÄôll see how long the truce holds. The Swat area is only about an hour from PakistanâÄôs capital city, Islamabad âÄî pretty close to home for a government to be throwing up its hands in defeat. And so, with Pakistan itself entirely unable to control its half of Af-Pak, it comes as no surprise that NATO would want to strike across the border. And so, unmanned drones have been the weapons of choice for such operations. (You may recall a brief scuffle last fall between then-candidates John McCain and Barack Obama over such missions.) These sorties, though, must walk a fine (and very secret) line. It would be quite damaging for the Pakistani government to openly support the drone strikes: it would be an admission of weakness and increase criticism that the current civilian government is stuffed full of American puppets. Hence the secrecy âÄî at least, until a couple of weeks ago when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Ca., the chair of Senate Intelligence Committee (insert oxymoron joke here) let the cat out of the bag. She casually mentioned during a hearing that our Predator drone strikes within Pakistan were originating out of a Pakistani base. Oops. Suddenly, both sides (the United States and Pakistan) were left scrambling for political cover. Some intrepid reporters hopped on Google Earth and managed to find the airstrips used by the drones, just adding to the headaches. With too many incidents like this, the civilian Pakistani government will lose whatever control of their country they have left. For all this chaos, though, Pakistan is not yet a lost cause. A Pakistani think tank just released the results of a poll they conducted in the northwest part of the country âÄî it found slim support for the drone attacks themselves (especially when you account for what must be an astronomical margin for error), but the poll did find overwhelming antipathy for al-Qaida and the Taliban. If we can keep these unsympathetic movements from gaining widespread support in the tribal areas of Pakistan, we would go a long way towards averting disaster. And we havenâÄôt even mentioned India yet âÄî another nuclear nation with which Pakistan doesnâÄôt exactly have a warm and fuzzy history. That relationship is always lingering, even as we deal mostly with the Af-Pak border. So where does this leave us? The Af-Pak region is going to be occupying more U.S. attention than any other part of the world over the foreseeable future, and weâÄôre going to need a deft touch. Afghanistan has elections coming up, and we will need to make serious security gains there, all the while not upsetting things in Pakistan. ItâÄôs a tall order: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke have plenty on their plates. All we can do, I suppose, is cross our fingers. John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]