The White House revealed last week that General David Petraeus had given a stark and urgent warning about Pakistan. The embattled and torn nation now finally finds itself upon the precipice and the next two weeks, the General assured, are critical for the very survival of Pakistan. And if the nuclear power fails to meet the challenge laid before it by al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the dire consequences require little elaboration: Terrorists with direct or indirect control over nuclear weapons.
The situation is critical and the consequences both dire and realistic enough to command the American public’s greater attention. It is therefore important for us to understand the coming news cycles before they get here rather than being left to the mercy of a dizzying flurry of information when time is critical.
Pakistan has spent the better part of the past eight years denying the necessity to confront and eliminate the extremist elements within its borders and, especially in the case of its intelligence services, within its institutions.
The more moderate and democratic among Pakistanis have deferred the conflict sought actively by the Taliban and al-Qaeda by instead identifying the United States and former president Pervez Musharraf as the greater threats to a peaceful and democratic Pakistan. Pakistan’s military, which must do the dirty work of actually fighting the violent terrorists who have designs on the Pakistani state, has likewise deferred direct conflict by projecting greater ire and suspicion onto India. Unfortunately for this thinking of convenience, neither the United States nor India has designs of conquest within Pakistan. Such cannot be said of the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance, which is now barely 60 miles from Islamabad.
With the Pakistani surrender in February, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda were ceded the Swat district and permitted to enforce their strict Sharia law there, the terrorists were not eased by the Pakistani relenting nor impressed with favorable negotiations. They were, as terrorists in conquest are, emboldened by the clear display of fear and weakness. And instead of laying down their arms as the terms of the co-signed ‘peace’ agreement called for, they raised them and stormed into the neighboring Buner district and took it, too, by force.
This seems to have woken some in Pakistan from their fearful slumber of procrastination. Pakistan has fought back to re-take Buner. But thus far, the manner of its fight still leaves much room for doubt about their commitment to defeating the terrorists among them. Rather than employ its most professional military forces in what must now be recognized as a fight for its very survival, Pakistan has chosen instead to again rely on less capable paramilitary forces and imprecise area weapons such as field artillery barrages fired from miles away and helicopter gunships.
They have made gains, but the reluctance to fully employ its professional military is cause for concern. This is why General David Petraeus has said that the next two weeks are critical for Pakistan’s very survival. It is in a fight for its life, yet the military remains reluctant to commit fully while the fractured and divided civilian government teeters ever closer to outright collapse as the assault from the terrorists exacerbates internal chasms between the two leading political forces inside Pakistan.
The United States has confidence in the Pakistani military as an institution, with little doubt it could survive a Pakistani political collapse. It is the one institution within Pakistan that has remained relatively strong through all of Pakistan’s internal trials over the decades. While the military is divided into two camps, the religious and the secular, the decade under Musharraf has assured that the secular generals have ascended to many important positions of power. And it is lead by Chief of Army Staff, General Kiyani, who is an American-trained general. This is critical because America’s top priority is not the democratic functioning of Pakistan, but rather the security of its nuclear arsenal.
But while American officials are confident that the Pakistani military can survive an internal political collapse, the Pakistani generals are not confident it can survive an all-out putsch against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In fact, top Pakistani military officials stated last week that pushing the Army to forcefully into conflict with the Pakistani Taliban would likely lead to the disintegration of the military.
And there lies the rub. It appears that Pakistan seems doomed; damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If the Taliban are not confronted and defeated, they will succeed in bringing about the collapse of the Pakistani government and likely assume the reigns of control, directly or indirectly, over the government that – on paper – oversees the military tasked with the security of the nuclear arsenal. And, according to Pakistani top brass, if they do confront the Taliban in a headlong fight, the military itself will disintegrate with parts siding with the Taliban, parts remaining loyal and others just melting away with no stomach for the fight either way.
President Zardari is hapless and useless. He is president simply because his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated by the Taliban and al-Qaeda during her campaign. He doesn’t even command the support of his entire party, with half of it despising him and supporting Bhutto’s son rather than her widower. His political opposition, Nawaz Sharif, comes with all the blessings and financial of Saudi Arabia and the support of many of the powerful lawyers. But he is a political snake and commands absolutely zero loyalty from – nor ascribes any to – the Pakistani military establishment. This is essentially the state of (and prospects for) the Pakistani civilian government.
In short, no one has confidence in the Pakistani civilian government as it regularly feeds and grows its own divisions. The Taliban have political assets in place to capitalize on a political vacuum should it collapse. The United States has confidence in the stability of the Pakistani military establishment and knows that it can provide security for the nuclear arsenal, which is priority #1. But it does not want to risk its possible direction to any extent under a government in whole or in part controlled by the Taliban. The Pakistani military lacks the confidence that it can survive a full-frontal assault on the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or the North West Frontier Province.
That’s quite a stew. What seems to be brewing, considering all of these factors? If, with an American nod of approval, Kiyani can lead a coup and reinstall an at least stable and strong military atop the Pakistani government, the United States and the rest of the West can be assured of the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. All other immediate priorities pale in comparison. Such a coup would pre-empt the natural collapse of the Pakistani civilian government, thus preventing a Taliban usurping.
This does not mean that the military will defeat the Taliban in the short term. In fact, for the military, it may mean that they can entertain procrastination for a bit longer, putting off the inevitable. Nor does it mean that the threat posed by the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance will be abated or that the Pakistani people will react favorably. But it will mean that the nightmare scenario of terrorist access to and/or control of a nuclear arsenal will be at least forestalled for another day.
Welcome to Pakistan.