Voice

Three questions about Pakistan

The New York Times reports that Obama administration officials are increasingly worried about the Pakistani government's willingness to mount an effective defense against the Taliban. Although the Pakistani military is large and fairly well-equipped, it remains focused on defending the state against long-time rival India and is not well-prepared for a counter-insurgency campaign. Given that Pakistan reportedly has sixty or more nuclear weapons, the possibility of complete government collapse at some point in the future needs to be taken seriously, though other dangers may in fact be more likely.

I don't know enough about the situation to offer firm answers on what we should do, but here are some questions and comments.

1. First, why is there so much disagreement about Pakistan's prospects among knowledgeable experts?

Juan Cole is no Pollyanna and knows a lot more about Pakistan than I do, and he’s still relatively sanguine at the prospect of Pakistan turning into a failed state, in part because he believes the army will hold together. By contrast, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who presumably has some knowledgeable people advising her) recently said that extremist elements in Pakistan pose "a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world." Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, now an informal White House advisor, offers a similarly grim prognosis, saying "We have to face the fact that if Pakistan collapses it will dwarf anything we have seen so far in whatever we're calling the war on terror now."

This disagreement partly reflects the inherent difficulty of anticipating revolutionary situations. As Timur Kuran and Susanne Lohmann explained some years ago, revolutionary upheavals (and state collapse) are hard to predict because individual political preferences are a form of private information and the citizenry's willingness to abandon the government and/or join the rebels depends a lot on their subjective estimate of the costs and risks of each choice. If enough people become convinced the rebels will win, they will stop supporting the government and may even switch sides, thereby create a self-reinforcing snowball of revolutionary momentum. Similar dynamics may determine whether the armed forces hang together or gradually disintegrate. As we saw in Iran in 1979 or in Eastern Europe in 1989, seemingly impregnable authoritarian governments sometimes come unglued quite quickly. At other times, however, apparently fragile regimes manage to stagger on for decades, because key institutions hold and the revolutionary bandwagon never gains sufficient momentum.

The dispute may also reflect different views on what the real danger is.  Even if the Pakistani state doesn't fall, anti-Americanism and Taliban influence may continue to grow within the Pakistani population and within key institutions -- including the military -- thereby creating serious problems even if the country as a whole is not a "failed state."  

In any case, this is a disagreement with enormous implications, and I’d like to know who’s got the better case here.

2. Will India Help?

If Americans are worried about Pakistan turning into a failed state, Indians ought to really concerned. How would you like a Talibanized Pakistan armed with nuclear weapons on your border? So instead of its traditional goal of trying to weaken Pakistan, you'd think India would be going to considerable lengths to shore up the Zadari government. Pakistan's military isn't strong enough to pose a conventional threat to India, and New Delhi ought to be looking for ways to allow Pakistan's armed forces to reorient their attention away from India and towards the real danger. This wouldn't a concession on India's part; it would be a smart strategy. But it would also require a level of foresight that few governments manage to display, so I ain't optimistic.

3. The Big Question: What is the best way to protect Pakistan's nuclear arsenal?

For Americans, the greatest concern regarding Pakistan's future is the possibility that its nuclear arsenal might fall into the hands of anti-American terrorists who might try to use one against the United States itself. I assume U.S. intelligence has gone to considerable lengths to figure out where Pakistan's warheads might be and that we have contingency plans for trying to secure them in the event of a state collapse. But any attempt to grab them by surprise, stealth or force would be a high-risk affair, and might trigger a very hostile reaction from within Pakistan itself. As one U.S. official said back in 2007, "it could be very messy." Another official involved in efforts to war game the U.S. response to this nightmare situation has admitted that "most of them don't end well." Moreover, the more that the Pakistani military worries about this possibility, the greater the risk that they move the warheads preemptively or take other actions to preclude that possibility. 

In a perfect world, the United States would quietly establish connections to key figures within Pakistan's armed forces and work out arrangements for the U.S. (or conceivably some third party) to airlift the weapons out if it looked like bad guys might get their hands on them. Unfortunately, rising anti-Americanism in Pakistan is probably making it harder for key officials to maintain close ties with the U.S. military or U.S. intelligence, and has made the generals in charge of their nuclear arsenal more reluctant to cooperate with us on issues of nuclear security.  Indeed, given that the head of Pakistan's nuclear program, General Khalid Kidwai, has declared that their security arrangements are "foolproof," it's likely that some Pakistani leaders see us as a greater threat to their nuclear arsenal than the Taliban. As David Sanger of the Times has reported, "Pakistani officials are understandably suspicious that the real intent of the American program [to help improve nuclear security] is to gather the information needed to snatch, or neutralize, the country's arsenal."

And if I haven't scared you enough, the real danger may not be state failure and a subsequent Taliban takeover. The more likely danger could be a progressive radicalization of the Pakistani military and the possibility of an "inside job," (i.e., the seizure of some part of the arsenal by anti-American radicals within the Pakistani armed forces). A less immediate but still serious danger would be infiltration of the nuclear program by scientists sympathetic to radical forces, and the dissemination of information to them. So if our real concern is Pakistan's nuclear arsenal -- and it ought to be -- then we need to reverse the rising tide of anti-Americanism within Pakistan more generally.   

And that's my last question: If nuclear security is our main concern, does the current emphasis on targeting suspected al Qaeda or Taliban leaders with Predators and Reapers really make strategic sense, if it inevitably leads to significant civilian deaths and reinforces anti-Americanism among the Pakistani population and possibly the armed forces as well?

INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images