Why is the United States fighting a war in Afghanistan? According to the Obama administration's strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the goal of the campaign is to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens." But according to Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a new member of the Defense Policy Board, the more important reason to is to prevent the Taliban from taking over Pakistan. Does this 21st century version of the domino theory make any more sense than its 1960s incarnation?
Writing in The American Interest, Biddle asserted:
If the Taliban regained control of the Afghan state, their ability to use the state's resources to destabilize the secular government in Pakistan would increase the risk of state collapse there. Analysts have made much of the threat that Pakistani Taliban base camps pose to the stability of the government in Kabul, but the danger works both ways: Instability in Afghanistan also poses a serious threat to the secular civilian government in Pakistan. This is the single greatest U.S. interest in Afghanistan: to prevent it from aggravating Pakistan's internal problems and magnifying the danger of an al-Qaeda nuclear-armed sanctuary there.
Inside this otherwise excellent essay, Biddle seems to have forgotten the 1990s. From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban controlled virtually all of Afghanistan and did so with the support of the Pakistani government. During this time, Pakistan suffered its usual episodes of political infighting, high-level corruption, and another military coup. But even with an aggressive theocracy right next door, the takeover of Islamabad by Islamic radicals was never a threat.
Contrary to Biddle's assertion, it seems equally reasonable to argue that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan provided a relief valve of sorts for Islamist pressure that might have otherwise formed inside Pakistan during the 1990s. And although the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban are two distinct movements, the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan may be inciting and pressurizing Taliban activity inside Pakistan. Contrary to what Biddle argues, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan may be increasing rather than decreasing the risk to Pakistan.
Pakistan's powerful Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence seems to see it this way. The ISI recently invited reporters from the New York Times to its offices for a two-hour briefing. During the briefing, ISI officials objected to the U.S. Marine Corps offensive in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. They feared that the offensive would push Taliban fighters into Pakistan's Baluchistan area, destabilizing it.
This is not an argument to abandon NATO's effort in Afghanistan. In spite of the slim odds, it may be worth fighting for the stable self-governance for Afghanistan. As Biddle himself notes, Pakistan may collapse for any number of reasons, regardless of what actions the United States takes in the region. A long-term military presence in Afghanistan may be necessary in order to monitor the region and contain terrorist personnel and assets.
As Biddle points out, the Barack Obama's administration will have a hard enough time maintaining public support for the Afghan campaign. Best to leave the domino theory out of it.