In the current era of ideological polarization, throughout the West, the Right and the Left diverge on almost every issue. One of the few convictions that still unifies national security strategists across the ideological spectrum is that it would be a global calamity of the first order if al-Qaida gets its hands on nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, due to the rapid demise of nuclear-armed Pakistan as a coherent political unit, this nightmare scenario is looking more possible than ever. Indeed, if events continue to move in their current direction, it is more likely than not that in the near future, the Taliban and al-Qaida will take possession of all or parts of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
This week has been yet another bad week in Pakistan. On Monday Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari officially surrendered the Swat Valley – an immense district in Northwest Pakistan that encompasses seven provinces – to the Taliban when he signed a regulation implementing Islamic Sharia law in the area. Following the government's capitulation in Swat, the Taliban now controls 18 out of Pakistan's 30 provinces in its northwest and Federally Administered Tribal Areas that border Afghanistan. Only two provinces remain under full government control.
With its new territory, the Taliban now controls the lives of some 6.5 million Pakistanis. For their part, the civilians live in a state of constant terror. Since the Taliban took control of Swat in February, executions, public floggings and bombings of girls' schools, restaurants, video and music stores have become routine occurrences. As a merchant in Swat's main village of Mingora told the Wall Street Journal, "We are frightened by this brutality. No one can dare to challenge them."
And with just 60 miles now separating the Taliban from the capital city of Islamabad, the Taliban are well positioned to continue their march across the country. Indeed, the Taliban appear unstoppable.
The Pakistani government, for its part, seems both unwilling and incapable of taking concerted action to destroy Taliban forces. Again according to the Wall Street Journal, Taliban fighters are flooding the Swat Valley with thousands of veteran fighters from Afghanistan and Kashmir and setting up training camps throughout the areas. Moreover, they are recruiting – both through intimidation and persuasion – still more thousands of locals to join their lines.
A further sign of government capitulation came on Tuesday when Pakistan's Supreme Court released Maulana Abdul Aziz, the leader of the Lal Masjid or Red Mosque in Islamabad, from house arrest. In 2007 Aziz used his al-Qaida/Taliban affiliated madrassa to incite an Islamist takeover of the Pakistani capital. It took then-president Pervez Musharraf three months to forcibly take over the Red Mosque. Arguably, Musharraf's actions against Aziz and his followers were the ultimate cause of his political downfall last year.
According to the online Long War Journal, over the past year, the government has signed capitulation agreements with all of Aziz's Taliban and al-Qaida allies and returned control of the mosque/madrassa complex to the jihadists. At the time of Aziz's attempted overthrow of the Musharraf government and since, the Red Mosque became emblematic of the jihadist war to take over the nuclear-armed state. Aziz's release in turn symbolizes the current government's willingness to surrender.
For their part, US strategists appear despondent in their assessments of the situation in Pakistan, and its impact on NATO's capacity to stabilize the security situation in neighboring Afghanistan. US Army General David Petreaus, who is responsible for the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has called the Taliban an "existential threat" to the Pakistani state. David Kilcullen, who advised Petreaus on his successful counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq and now advises the White House, warned last week that Pakistan could fall within six months. The growing consensus in Washington – particularly given the recent unification of command of Taliban forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan under the so-called Council of United Holy Warriors and their open collaboration with al-Qaida – is that Pakistan is a far greater danger than Afghanistan.
THE US'S assessment of the threats emanating from Pakistan and Afghanistan has been largely the same under both the Bush and Obama administrations. In both cases, the US has identified Taliban/al-Qaida acquisition of nuclear weapons as a primary threat to US security that must be prevented. Both have also asserted that the unimpeded operation of al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan/Pakistan is a grave threat to US and global security.
Then too, the US's strategy for contending with these challenges has been similarly focused for much of the past eight years. The US has sought to militarily and politically defeat the Taliban/al-Qaida in Afghanistan by fighting them on the battlefield and cultivating democracy. In Pakistan, the US has sought to defeat the Taliban by strengthening the Pakistani government, mainly through financial assistance to its civilian and military budgets.
In recent years, the US has also worked to decapitate the Taliban/al-Qaida leadership through targeted assassinations inside Pakistan carried out by unmanned aircraft. Under the Obama administration the US has declared its intention to maintain these strategies but expand them by increasing the number of soldiers in Afghanistan and by increasing its civilian assistance to the Pakistani government to $1.5 billion per year.
Unfortunately, the US's efforts in Pakistan to date have failed miserably and there is little cause to believe that expanding them will change the situation in any significant way. Both under Musharraf's military dictatorship and under Zardari's civilian government, the Pakistanis have failed to stem the Taliban's advance.
The Pakistani military and Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI) have refused to divert their resources away from fighting India and toward fighting the Taliban. They have refused to take any concerted action against terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, that openly operate on Pakistani soil. Against the wishes of the US, they have continued to surrender territory to the Taliban in the framework of "peace accords." And still today, the Pakistani government and military openly oppose US military action on Pakistani territory, preferring to allow the Taliban to take over the country to permitting the US to help the Pakistani military defeat them.
What the situation in Pakistan clearly exemplifies is the fact that sometimes there are no good options for contending with international security threats. Once Pakistan became a nuclear power in 1998, the US lost much of its ability to pressure the Pakistani government and military. Washington understood that if it pushed too hard, the Pakistanis could opt to abandon the West and collaborate with the Taliban and al-Qaida, which by then were not only openly operating from Pakistani territory after having taken over Afghanistan with Pakistani support two years earlier. They were also attacking US targets – including the 1998 attacks against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
SINCE THE September 11 attacks demonstrated just how dangerous jihadists in Pakistan/Afghanistan are to global security, it has been clear that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is a primary threat to global security. For eight years, the US's chosen methods for staving off the threats have effectively served as little more than holding actions because Pakistan's governments have been both unable and unwilling to wage successful military or political campaigns against the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Musharraf believed that he could play a double game of at once helping the US in Afghanistan and sheltering al-Qaida and the Ta
liban in Pakistan. The Zardari government, which exerts little control over the military and the ISI, has simply expanded and intensified Musharraf's policy of capitulating to the jihadists. Due to the Taliban's current control over the territories bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan is no longer in a position to support NATO operations in Afghanistan. And in the meantime, the advancing Taliban forces in Pakistan itself place Pakistan's nuclear weapons and materials in unprecedented jeopardy.
Given the failure of the US's political strategies of securing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal by supporting Pakistan's government, and fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, it is becoming apparent that the only sure way to prevent the Taliban/al-Qaida from taking control over Pakistan's nuclear weapons is to take those weapons out of commission.
The US has two basic options for accomplishing this goal. It can send in forces to take control of Pakistan's nuclear installations and remove its nuclear arsenal from the country. Or, it can destroy Pakistan's nuclear installations. Both of these options – which are really variations of the same option – are extremely unattractive. It is far from clear that the US military has the capacity to take over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and it also unclear what the ultimate effect of a military strike against its nuclear arsenal would be in terms of lives lost and areas rendered uninhabitable due to nuclear fallout.
The only other option that is discussed by US strategists today is that India may serve as deux ex machina and destroy Pakistan's nuclear arsenal itself. Reasonably believing that India would be the first target for Pakistan's nuclear weapons – which Pakistan built in order to threaten India – US military strategists do not expect India to sit back and wait for the US to defend it against a Taliban/al-Qaida-ruled nuclear-armed Pakistan.
For India however, the calculation is not as clear as one might assume. New Delhi knows it can expect the US to support the imposition of various political and military sanctions against it if it were to attack Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Consequently, it is possible that Washington's unwillingness to make a tough but necessary call may mean that no one is willing to make it.
THE SITUATION in Pakistan of course is similar to the situation in Iran. There, as Iran moves swiftly towards the nuclear club, the US on the one hand refuses – as it does with Pakistan – to make the hard but essential decision to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. And on the other hand, it warns Israel daily that it opposes any independent Israeli operation to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state. That is, the Obama administration is forcing Israel to weigh the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran against the threat of an abrogation of its strategic alliance with the US in the event that it prevents Iran from becoming a nuclear power on its own.
In both Pakistan and Iran, the clock is ticking. The US's reluctance to face up to the ugliness of the options at its disposal will not make them any prettier. Indeed, with each passing day the stark choice placed before America and its allies becomes ever more apparent. In both Pakistan and Iran, the choice is and will remain one between seeing the US and its allies taking swift and decisive action to neutralize nuclear programs that threaten global security, or seeing the world's worst actors successfully arm themselves with the world's most dangerous weapons.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.