Pakistan is in political and military play, and the stakes in its struggle against Islamic extremism could not be higher for that South Asian country and the United States.
Until recently, Pakistan was viewed by President Barack Obama as a sideshow to the main event: the stiffening Taliban insurgency within neighboring Afghanistan. Now, however, the outcome of the U.S.-led counterinsurgency in Afghanistan hinges on the fate of Pakistan’s conflict with Islamic militants. The Taliban and the allied terrorist network Al-Qaeda have proved themselves more adept practitioners of a quickly executed strategy than has the Obama administration.
The ferocity of the Taliban’s military and psychological offensive within northwestern Pakistan caught the administration off guard. After taking office, Obama boosted U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan by 21,000 soldiers and Marines, to a total of 68,000. But then the president agonized, Hamlet-like, over General Stanley McChrystal’s request for an additional 40,000 troops and an all-encompassing counterinsurgency strategy to combat Taliban advances, before deciding to deploy 30,000 more troops.
Meanwhile, instead of waiting for the White House to make up its mind or for any additional U.S. forces to arrive, the Taliban struck last summer in a flanking offensive within Pakistan, a maneuver as elementary to warfare as the end run is to football. Its forces swarmed at one point to within sixty miles of the capital of Islamabad, and though driven back by the Pakistani army the militants have since regrouped. Autumn saw a series of attacks against military targets as Pakistan’s army pressed a campaign in South Waziristan, a stronghold of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
The summer offensive was Al-Qaeda’s second application of a flanking tactic. The first came after the United States, with NATO in tow, toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001. Along with its Taliban hosts, Al-Qaeda fled to Pakistan. Rather than immediately contesting its defeat in Afghanistan, the terrorist network shifted its focus to Iraq after the U.S.-led coalition dispatched Saddam Hussein from power.
Operating through a local branch headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda agents spearheaded the anti-American insurgency in Iraq’s Anbar province and in Baghdad among the Sunni population. Al-Qaeda’s threat to Iraq demanded that President Bush deem that country, not a generally quiet Afghanistan, the location of his main counterthrust until mid-2005. Then, just when U.S. pressure was sure to mount on Afghanistan, the Taliban changed the battlefield to Pakistan.
The recent Taliban offensive in Pakistan echoes a previous militant initiative. As the U.S. operational “surge” in Iraq of 28,500 additional combat troops and a revamped counterinsurgency strategy in 2007 brought near stability to that war-torn country, the Taliban staged a surprise recovery in Afghanistan. Now the Taliban has again stolen a march on the United States, this time in Pakistan.
The Obama administration has too often characterized its chief concern about a possible Pakistani collapse into Taliban hands in terms of the hundred or so nuclear weapons developed by Islamabad and tested in 1998. Should all, or even one, of these nuclear bombs wind up in the clutches of Al-Qaeda or another terrorist group, it would go a long way toward fulfilling all our fears.
Yet nuclear arms in jihadist hands is not the only fear emerging about a Taliban victory in the beleaguered country of 170 million people. Scant attention is being paid in Washington to what a Talibanized Pakistan would mean for the United States. The defeat of a U.S.-allied Pakistan by the Taliban would rank with the surrender of France to the Nazi armies in 1940 or even the communist takeover of China in 1949. Many people in those times also thought such defeats impossible.
A Pakistani catastrophe would dwarf the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran in 1979 by Islamic revolutionaries who replaced a pro-American monarchy with a hostile anti-American theocracy that spreads terrorism and works to build nuclear weapons.
A Taliban triumph in Pakistan would profoundly transform the global geopolitical landscape in ways both anticipated and unexpected. It would send seismic shock waves throughout South Asia, Central Asia, and the greater Middle East. In the minds of many people in these regions and beyond, it would be interpreted as a realignment of political forces that would point toward an all-but-guaranteed radical Islamic conquest of huge swaths of the planet.
It would even toss the near stability in Iraq into doubt. At a minimum, it would give a boost to the Taliban and its sympathizers and open a new sanctuary for planning and launching jihadist attacks around the world.
All of Pakistan’s neighbors would be compelled to rethink their border security and their relations with Washington. India and its disputed territory in Kashmir would be a frontline state against a Talibanized Pakistan. New Delhi might feel compelled to invade to take possession of Pakistan’s nuclear arms.
A Taliban takeover in Pakistan would also threaten countries to the north. The Chechens, Uighurs, and Uzbeks would take heart in their respective terrorist-insurgent campaigns in the Russian Caucasus, China, and Uzbekistan. Even Iran would need to reassess its international stance toward Islamabad if the Taliban persecuted Iran’s Shiite co-religionists in western Pakistan. Would Iran move closer to a possible accommodation with the United States or continue to strike out on its own disruptive actions in the Middle East?
The international reverberations of a Taliban win in Pakistan would be felt and acted on throughout the Muslim Middle East and portions of Africa. It is difficult to see extreme Islamic militants heading in a peaceful direction if a Taliban regime sits in Islamabad, preaching jihad against the world’s infidels.
Pakistan is a politically wounded state and will remain so for a long time, despite encouraging reports from the Pakistani military about its operations against the Taliban in the Swat Valley. Those operations are far from conclusive.
America can no more pull out from helping Pakistan than the Bush administration could abandon Iraq once Al-Qaeda surfaced. Even permanent Taliban control of a corner of Pakistan would change the region’s dynamics and offer sanctuary for jihadist terrorism worldwide. The Obama administration will need to pay Pakistan much more strategic heed than it has to date, devise a sustainable plan for a long-term battle, and avoid being outflanked again.