President Obama announced his new Pakistan-Afghanistan strategy today. Except for advocates of a strict counter-terror strategy in Afghanistan (as opposed to the administration’s plans for a counter-insurgency strategy that includes a healthy dose of nation-building), there is little to disagree with in the specifics. But in the big picture, while a new strategy may be needed for Afghanistan – the key front may be Pakistan.
In the President’s statement Pakistan is primarily seen in terms of Afghanistan, that is how the growing Taliban presence in the Northwest Frontier Province provides support for the Afghani Taliban. If keeping up pressure on al-Qaeda is the top U.S. priority then this makes sense. But while there is no question that this should be towards the top of the foreign policy to-do list, it may not be number one. Keeping al-Qaeda on the run is a CT operation, heavy on intelligence and precision strikes. But the worst outcomes in Pakistan are truly the stuff of nightmares and preventing them will require a far greater commitment of resources (not just in financial and material terms, but also in terms of time and focus by decision-makers and key agencies).
In Pakistan, the specter of radical Islam is very much a national threat. Radical groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have built an extensive infrastructure throughout the country, particularly Pakistan’s most powerful province the Punjab. According to some reports, substantial numbers of Punjabis are traveling to fight in Afghanistan. The Red Mosque siege highlighted that Islamist extremists have penetrated deep into the very heart of the country.
Pakistan’s problems are not confined to a rebellious province. The entire country is in danger. A major crisis or collapse in Pakistan, even if the nukes remain secure, could have vast regional consequences. Major turmoil in Pakistan could create a massive refugee crisis (dwarfing that of Iraq). Millions of Pakistanis could destabilize neighboring India and the Persian Gulf Region. In a harbinger of possible things to come, there are hundreds of thousands of internal refugees in Pakistan fleeing from the violence of the tribal areas. Even a relatively stable Pakistan that, rather than imploding, slowly radicalizes, will have major effects. Pakistan itself will provide a near bottomless well of recruits to radical groups in Kashmir, Afghanistan, and across the greater Middle East – raising the temperature in a region that is already too hot. Through the international Pakistani diaspora this radicalism will be translated worldwide.
In a sense, the President focused on the easy part of the equation. Achieving results with troops on the ground is extraordinarily difficult and requires great sacrifices by the troops. But American options and leverage in that situation are also high. Aid packages provide far less leverage, but in the case of Pakistan those are the best options available.