Pakistan is in political and military play. And the stakes in its struggle against Islamic extremism could not be higher for the South Asian country or the United States. Until the past few weeks, Pakistan was viewed by President Obama as a sideshow to the main event in the stiffening Taliban insurgency within neighboring Afghanistan.
Now 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 the Obama administration.
The ferocity of the Taliban’s military and psychological offensive within northwestern Pakistan caught Mr. Obama off-guard. Since taking office, Mr. Obama has proceeded with plans for a graduated military buildup in Afghanistan of 21,000 troops, bringing the total American commitment to about 60,000 by late summer, in time for the Afghan presidential election.
But instead of waiting defensively for the U.S. forces to arrive, the Taliban struck first in a flanking offensive within Pakistan, a maneuver as elementary to warfare as the end run is to football. Their forces have swarmed to within 60 miles of Islamabad, the capital. The Taliban militias and their al Qaeda allies have at the least imperiled the U.S. and NATO supply lines snaking through Pakistani territory, along with calling into question the nearly exclusive focus on Afghanistan.
This is al Qaeda’s second application of an outflanking tactic. The first came after the United States, with NATO in tow, toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001. Along with their 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 Anbar province and Baghdad among the Sunni population. Al Qaeda’s threat to Iraq demanded that President George W. Bush deem that country the venue for his main counterthrust, not a generally quiescent Afghanistan, until mid-2005. Just when U.S. pressure was sure to mount on Afghanistan, the Taliban changed the battlefield to Pakistan.
This recent offensive 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 the war-torn country, the Taliban sprang a surprise recovery in Afghanistan.
Now, the Taliban has again stolen a march on the United States by launching an unexpected and rapid advance in Pakistan. Not appreciating the Taliban-al Qaeda threat to Pakistan in light of the Iraq experience reminds one of the old saw: Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
So far, the Obama administration has characterized its chief concern about a possible Pakistani collapse into Taliban hands in terms of the 100 or so nuclear weapons developed by Islamabad and tested in 1998. Should all, or even one, of these atomic bombs wind up in the clutches of al Qaeda or another terrorist group, it would go a long way toward fulfilling the sum of all our fears.
Yet a loss of nuclear arms into jihadi hands is not the only fear emerging about a Taliban victory in the beleaguered country of 170 million people. Scant attention is being aired in Washington about what a Talibanized Pakistan would entail 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 in those times thought such defeats impossible, too.
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 some anticipated manifestations and many unexpected dimensions.
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 in huge swaths of the planet.
It even would toss the near stability in Iraq into doubt. At a minimum, it would give an exhilarating boost to the Taliban and its sympathizers. It would lay open a sanctuary for planning and launching jihadi 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 Kashmir occupation would be a front-line state against a Taliban Pakistan. New Delhi might be forced to invade to take possession of Pakistan’s nuclear arms.
A Taliban takeover in Pakistan threatens not only Afghanistan, but also countries to its 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 their co-religious Shi’ite brethren 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 foresee a pacific verdict from the stock-taking among extreme Islamic militants 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 on its operations against the Taliban in the Swat Valley. Terrorists struck last week with deadly effects in several Pakistani cities.
America can no more pull out from helping Pakistan than the Bush administration could abandon Iraq once al Qaeda menacingly surfaced. Even permanent Taliban control in a corner of Pakistan would change the region’s dynamics and offer sanctuary for jihadi 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.
Thomas H. Henriksen is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His most recent book is “American Power after the Berlin Wall” (Palgrave 2007).