commentary

(YaleGlobal Online)

May 12, 2009

Pakistan, Taliban and Global Security – Part II

by Robert D. Blackwill

The US and India need to work together to prepare for an increasingly chaotic Pakistan

MUMBAI: For every good reason, the Obama Administration is devoting enormous thought to Pakistan. In my judgment, the evolving situation in Pakistan is potentially the most dangerous international situation since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. An unintended consequence has been to re-hyphenate India with Pakistan, after having removed the coupling in the last few years. Since Talibanization of Pakistan would affect India as much as it would the United States, it may be time to talk candidly with India and consider working together with other nations on a common strategy to contain Pakistan's Wahabist extremism.

As Vice President Biden has warned: "It is hard to imagine a greater nightmare for America than the world's second-largest Muslim nation becoming a failed state in fundamentalists' hands, with an arsenal of nuclear weapons and a population larger than Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and North Korea combined." And President Obama deserves great credit for his April 29 statement that, "on the military side, you are starting to see some recognition just in the last few days that the obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan has been misguided, and that their biggest threat right now comes internally." It has been many, many years since an American President has spoken so publicly, truthfully, and bluntly to the leadership and people of Pakistan.

In my view, the United States has four vital national interests concerning what the Obama Administration calls AfPak: first, to prevent Pakistan's nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the possession of Islamic extremists; second, to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a sanctuary for terrorists to launch attacks against the United States and its allies and friends; third, to avoid war between India and Pakistan; and fourth, to prevent the Taliban and its radical collaborators from gaining control of Pakistan. Although under the dynamic leadership of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke policymakers are attempting to positively influence Pakistan, every single important trend that I can identify is negative and getting worse.

The Obama Administration clearly has its work cut out for it. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, recently confirmed that elements of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) maintain links with militants on Pakistan's borders with both Afghanistan and India. General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, noted that "in the fairly recent past" the ISI appeared to have warned terrorists that their positions had been discovered. Meanwhile, Wahabi-based fanaticism and violence inside Pakistan has been spreading from the Taliban's northwestern mountain strongholds into Punjab.

The possible effect of such an enveloping U.S. preoccupation with Pakistan seems on its way, in practical terms, to re-hyphenating the U.S.-India relationship, leading the Obama Administration to see India largely through the lens of deeply disturbing developments in Pakistan, at the expense of a focus on strategic cooperation writ large between Washington and New Delhi. This will produce an understandable and growing U.S. interest in trying to reduce tensions in the India-Pakistan relationship, not least because Islamabad will speciously argue that tensions with India and the Kashmir dispute are preventing it from moving robustly against the Islamic terrorists within its midst. So India may well encounter eventual U.S. pressure on the subject of Kashmir. This would be ironic, to say the least, since the Indian Government reached, through secret negotiations with General Musharraf, a momentous breakthrough on Kashmir which, alas, did not survive Musharraf's downward spiral and ultimate fall from power.

The Obama Administration's efforts to internationalize the Pakistan problem and bring to bear as many external resources and capabilities as possible to try to begin to improve the situation in Pakistan are well advised. However, it would be a mistake for Washington to treat India as mostly at the margins of U.S. consideration of policy toward Pakistan, as a lesser player on issues related to the future of Pakistan. After all, it is India that is the object of Pakistan's obsession. It is India that is attacked by terrorists based in Pakistan with the support of elements of the Pakistan military, and today infiltration across the Line of Control is increasing. It is India that Pakistan claims is illegally occupying Kashmir. And it is only India that could again find itself at war with Pakistan, triggered by another Mumbai-like attack against India. So India is profoundly connected to the future of Pakistan, not on the periphery of it.

Let me make another point concerning Pakistan. Some Obama Administration officials opine that the United States, India, and Pakistan are now together in facing "a common threat, a common challenge, a common task" in seeking to defeat Islamic terrorists based in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Oh, if that were only so. But it is not. The fact is that the Pakistan army has for three decades regarded Islamic terrorists as an abiding policy instrument against India and a crucial element in Pakistan's enduring concept of strategic depth. These objectives are deep in ISI's DNA and there is no magic wand available in Washington that will make that hard fact disappear.

It has to be noted that no one in Washington on either side of the political aisle has a set of penetrating prescriptions that promise to end the internal slide of Pakistan. Neither has India taken such measures. Conditioning military assistance on the Pakistan army acting vigorously against the Taliban and its allies should be a U.S. requirement. Training the Pakistan army in counter-insurgency techniques makes sense. Working out joint management of Predator attacks would reduce the public outcry in Pakistan. Diversifying NATO supply routes into Afghanistan to avoid over-dependence on Pakistan would help. Staying out of Pakistan's domestic politics is a must.

But none of this gets in the next year or two at the fundamental problem. Islamic extremism is systemically on the rise in Pakistan, and elites there – both civilian and military – do not appear to have the will or the means to resist. It is also important to understand that U.S. policy instruments are too weak to affect significantly these evolving and disturbing societal trends in Pakistan. That is a preeminent task for Pakistanis. But maladroit U.S. actions can make the situation in Pakistan worse.

Finally, in my judgment, there should be intimate, intensive, and utterly private U.S.-India talks on how to deal with a turbulent and increasingly chaotic Pakistan in the period ahead, including examining the policy implications of various specific scenarios regarding deteriorating events in Pakistan. I recognize that this is an exceptionally sensitive suggestion, but it is absolutely necessary for a host of reasons, not least because it would be the United States and India that would be most affected by a Talibanization of Pakistan. With that in mind, how can it be that we are not comprehensively and candidly talking together about it? Indeed, there may come a time if Pakistan continues its gradual descent into anarchy when the United States and India may be forced to adopt together, along with Iran and other nations, a strategy of attempting to quarantine the Wahabi infection as much as possible within Pakistan and to try to minimize its export.


Robert D. Blackwill, former U.S. Ambassador to India, is a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. This commentary, adapted from a speech before the Confederation of Indian Industries in Mumbai on May 7, 2009, reflects his personal views.

Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online at yaleglobal.yale.edu.

This commentary originally appeared on YaleGlobal Online on May 12, 2009. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.