Today, as the President Zardari of Pakistan is scheduled to meet with Obama, the news about Pakistan is growing worse and worse.
A nation with nuclear weapons seems on the brink of collapse. Yet it often seems as if the country’s leadership is still more focused on the threat from its historic rival, India. As the New York Times editorial board explained last week:
If the Indian Army advanced within 60 miles of Islamabad, you can bet Pakistan’s army would be fully mobilized and defending the country in pitched battles.
The Pakistani Taliban is now within that distance – 60 miles – of the capital. It’s advance has not been halted and it continues to destabilize and then take over large portions of Pakistan. You can see the strong position the Taliban is in by reading the story published just a few days ago by Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah also in the Times telling the story of a Taliban strategist who gave them an inside look at the Taliban’s regional strategy – which focuses in a large part on exploiting the border between Afganistan and Pakistan over which the Taliban move without qualms, but which U.S. forces generally respect. The Pakistani army and intelligence agencies are both said to be sympathetic to the Taliban and islamist extremism in general – and U.S. strategists believe their goal is to wait out America’s interest in the region and then use these Taliban forces to exert control over Afghanistan and to destabilize India, which they still consider the main threat to their national security. This is why – despite the billions of dollars in funding given to the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies since September 11 for the purpose of aiding them in their war against the Taliban – their forces they have arrayed against the Taliban are ill-equipped and too few in number – as they have used most of these funds to build up their military for a more conventional war against India. David Sanger, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations some weeks ago told a story he described as telling you “everything you need to know about the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.” It is a story, essentially, of a leadership that is friendly with the Taliban – even as they tell the Americans they are doing everything they can to stop them.
President Zardari meanwhile tried to assure American lawmakers – who he met with yesterday – that the money they were sending to Pakistan was being used wisely by likening it “to the government’s bailout of the troubled insurance giant, American International Group” according to the Times.
The fall of Pakistan to the Taliban is perhaps the worst case scenario national security experts can imagine. The Taliban is allied with Al Qaeda – who have planned to use weapons of mass destruction against America. Pakistan has nuclear weapons in numerous locations throughout the country – and is already responsible for more nuclear proliferation than any other nation on earth. It is, what Dick Cheney might call, the nexus of America’s worst fears. And worse yet, none of America’s policies in the region seemed to have had the desired effect – former President Musharraf seemed unable to truly take on the Taliban and terrorist elements, despite his being motivated their attempts to kill him – and America, by continuing to support Musharraf in the face of his desperate bids to hold onto power, alienated many Pakistanis and was finally removed from office due to the pressure from both America and groups organizing for a civil society; Benazir Bhutto, martyred running for office, said all the right things and seemed to recognize that the fundamental enemy of Pakistan was no longer India – but the religious extremists within it’s own borders; but she never had an opportunity to lead Pakistan again; her widower, the current President Zardari has followed too much in the path of Musharraf and had likewise angered many Pakistanis by using his power to undermine political rivals (leading to massive destabilizing protests until he backed down due to pressure from America and groups organizing for civil society) – while at the same time, despite fine words, he has been unable to make progress in combating the Taliban. Instead, he signed a deal with them to allow the Taliban to impose their extremist religion on a large region of the country. Despite the glaringly self-interested actions of Pakistani leaders – and the fact that even today with the Taliban encroaching upon the capital, it is not clear that the government is yet committed to rooting out these insurgents or terrorists – America has been forced time and again to double down in our support of Pakistan’s leaders. What other choice do we have? Pakistan is too important to allow it to fail – and it has nuclear weapons.
Which is why we can longer accept the constant refrain from Pakistan’s leaders that “Everything’s fine; please send helicopters.” Pakistan is “ground zero in many of the worst-case scenario exercises gamed out by national security officials [and seems] on the verge of spiraling out of control.” General Petreaus is apparently saying privately that “the next two weeks are critical [in] determining whether the Pakistani government will survive.” David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert advising the Obama administration, expressed a related point: “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 is where we are – at the edge of an abyss. And it seems there is nothing for us to do but to trust that our government is properly trusting the ineffectual (or perhaps conflicted) Pakistani leadership to control the situation.
Or is that all we can do? Wendy Chamberlin, a former ambassador to Pakistan suggested another idea: “We have to make clear that our relationship is with the people of Pakistan and not with [any] one man…” I don’t this is what she meant – but it seems to me that the best way to make this clear is for Americans to begin communicating with Pakistanis. And I don’t just mean the government.
Remember the Obama campaign – which encouraged tens of thousands of volunteers to call or email or knock on the doors of millions of citizens – in a grass-roots effort to change the nation? We should start that. Here. Today. Go on Facebook. Find someone from Pakistan. Send them a pen-pal letter and ask them what’s going on – so each of us can do our part to figure out what is going on in what we are being told is a very dangerous situation. Be humble; be curious; be respectful. But reach out. It seems kind of silly, but what other choice do we have?