Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A question for those who think the Afghan war is essential to maintaining stability in Pakistan

The argument about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons tends to be nested into a multi-pronged rationale for why escalation in Afghanistan is necessary -- very few people will say "the one and only reason we need to be in Afghanistan is to keep Pakistani nukes out of al-Qaeda's hands." But a lot of people (including John Nagl and Dave Kilcullen, unfortunately) will tack this on to whatever other justifications they've got, toss this one in there ominously. And why not? They probably think that even the slightest risk of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists is just about the most terrifying thing most Americans can imagine, and they're probably right.

I guess I should also make it clear that I agree about Pakistani stability being important. In fact, I think it's probably the most important feature of the entire war, and I have no qualms saying that regional stability in south Asia ought to be a bigger priority for America than the utter annihilation of al-Qaeda (which, like Rid, I think is probably impossible and possibly unnecessary) or the vaunted denial of the much-talked-about terrorist safe haven.

But lemme come to the point already: if you think that keeping Pakistani nuclear weapons safe is an important reason for us to stay in Afghanistan in significant numbers, then I want you to answer a question. Ready?

Why do we imagine that a third-party counterinsurgency campaign in the country without the nuclear weapons will be more effective in guaranteeing their security than small-footprint, foreign internal defense (FID)-oriented backing for the government that actually possesses WMD?

Can't we do more to prevent weapons from getting to AQ by engaging with the Pakistani government and military than by running around Helmand shooting at opium smugglers?


  1. HA! great question, and I would venture to say that this was Plan B offered by the Biden/Krulak crowd - more CT in Pakistan, lesser COIN in Af. Are we doing both? sure, but let's not kid ourselves about the Pakistani side. They're doing it under duress, because the US money was going to be turned off (or maybe just reduced) if there was no sign of progress in Pakistan. But Gulliver's observation there is pretty insightful - if the COINdanistas give us this argument about Pakistani nukes, then maybe we need to do more in Pakistan, make it the main effort.

    But alas, the decision has already been made to ignore this wisdom.

  2. Because a) our ability to do FID in Pakistan is highly constrained by Pakistani popular antipathy to the West, and b) just as we can't make lasting progress in Afghanistan without addressing the part of the problem across the border in Pakistan, likewise we can't stabilize Pakistan next to an unstable Afghanistan.

    As I've argued before, instability flows both ways across the Durand Line, and while Pakistan has a stronger institutional structure to withstand its undertow, a fully destabilized Afghanistan would produce some awfully strong currents.

  3. There seems to be some assumption, MK, that US "help" would turn the tide in NW Pakistan. I'm not sure Islamabad believes that.

    Indeed, most Pakistani generals, should you corner them, would ask how "destabilized" Afghanistan and much of their Pasthun provinces were on Sept. 10, 2001.


  4. SNLII - If your point is about the potentially counter-productive effects of US 'help,' I agree: clearly the involvement has to be of a form and degree that doesn't exacerbate the situation. I wasn't suggesting (I don't think anyone is suggesting) a large scale US presence.

    Two responses to your second point. That the West arrived on their doorstep in force shortly thereafter suggests that those Generals' their assessment was wildly off base. Secondly, there's not turning the clock back. The neo-Taliban and associated groups are (broadly speaking) not the same in form, ideology, or ambitions as they were on 10 Sept 2001, so it's moot.