American Options: Bad and Worse
A jihadist Pakistan would be the most serious threat the United States has faced since the end of the cold war. Aligned with al Qaeda and armed with nuclear weapons, such a state would be a nightmare, and all U.S. options for dealing with it would be bad.
Engagement would be almost impossible: the new leadership in Islamabad would have no faith and little interest in any dialogue with the Crusaders and Zionists. If the United States retained an embassy in Pakistan, it would be at constant risk of attack, if not from the regime itself, then from jihadi allies like al Qaeda. Islamabad would almost certainly demand an immediate and complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from neighboring Afghanistan and consider any counterterrorist operations on its territory cause for retaliation elsewhere against American interests. In an international forum, Pakistan would outdo Iran as the leader of the anti-Israel cause and would increase demands on India to turn over all of Kashmir.
U.S. options to change the regime by means of a coup or by assisting dissidents such as the MQM would be limited. The United States is so unpopular in Pakistan today that its endorsement of a politician is the kiss of death. Benazir Bhutto learned this lesson the hard way. The Pakistani Shia community would look to Iran, not America, for help.
Military options would be unappealing at best and counterproductive at worst. The United States would discover the same difficult choices Indian leaders have looked at for a decade. Striking terrorist training camps achieves virtually nothing since they can easily and cheaply be rebuilt. The risk of collateral damage—real or invented—probably creates more terrorists than a raid kills. Even a successful operation creates new martyrs for the terrorists’ propaganda machines.
A naval blockade to coerce behavioral change would mean imposing humanitarian suffering on the greater population. It would also prompt terrorist reprisals in and outside of South Asia. Combined with air strikes, it might impose real costs on the jihadist regime but is unlikely to topple it and would be hard to sustain.
Invasion in the Iraq manner of 2003 would require a land base nearby. Landlocked Afghanistan would be a risky base from which to work; Iran is a nonstarter. India might be prepared in some extreme scenario to attack with American forces, but that would rally every Pakistani to the extremists’ cause.
The Pakistanis would, of course, use their nuclear weapons to defend themselves. While they do not have delivery systems capable of reaching America, they could certainly destroy cities in Afghanistan, India, and, if smuggled out ahead of time by terrorists, perhaps in the United States. A win in such a conflict would be Pyrrhic indeed.
The hardest problem would arise the day after. What would the United States do with a country twice the size of California and burdened with enormous poverty, 50 percent illiteracy, and intense hatred by its populace for all that America stands for, especially after U.S. soldiers have fought a nuclear war to occupy it?
The worst thing about the military option is that the United States might be forced to pursue it if al Qaeda launched another 9/11-magnitude attack on the country from a jihadist Pakistan. A jihadist Pakistan would be highly unlikely to turn over bin Laden for justice after a new “Manhattan raid,” and sanctions would be a very unsatisfying response to the killing of thousands of Americans, or even worse, if al Qaeda had acquired one of Pakistan’s bombs.
In short, a jihadist, nuclear-armed Pakistan is a scenario that must be avoided at all costs. That means working with the Pakistan of today to try to improve its very spotty record on terrorism and proliferation. While many (on both sides of the U.S.-Pakistan dialogue) are pessimistic that cooperation/engagement between America and Pakistan will succeed, there is every reason to try, given the alternatives.
On May 1, 2010, a naturalized American citizen, Faisal Shahzad, set a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square. According to one analysis, had the bomb exploded, the blast would have reached speeds of 12,000 to 14,000 feet per second. Anyone standing within 1,400 feet of the explosion—a distance of about five city blocks—could have been hit by shrapnel or flying shards of glass.7 Broadway would have looked like Tel Aviv or Baghdad.
Shahzad was born in Pakistan, has pleaded guilty to the crime, and confirmed that the Pakistani Taliban taught him how to make the bomb.
The Taliban has claimed responsibility for his attempted attack. As mentioned earlier, Shahzad’s father is a retired air vice marshal in the Pakistani air force, a very senior rank, but his sympathies for the jihad are unknown. Less than a month after Shahzad’s failed plot, the Washington Post reported the U.S. military was examining options for a military response to a mass-casualty attack in America that might be staged or supported by jihadists in Pakistan.8
As in the scenario of a jihadist Pakistan, U.S. options here would be bad and worse. A purely diplomatic response—summoning the Pakistani leadership to Washington for intense discussions to achieve renewed assurances that Pakistan would “do more” to fight terror—would be necessary but probably insufficient to satisfy domestic calls for action. The White House would come under immense political pressure to take unilateral action.
A limited military excursion into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), perhaps into North Waziristan, would be a doable mission, but one fraught with risks. It would clearly violate Pakistani sovereignty and provoke an outcry in Islamabad, even if the Zardari government tacitly accepted it as a political necessity. It would have to be a temporary mission unless the United States wanted to take long-term responsibility for administering some Pakistani territory and expand the already huge burden of the Afghan war and constant friction with Islamabad. Yet a short in-and-out mission is not likely to have any lasting impact on Taliban or al Qaeda capabilities. In any case, few of America’s NATO and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) allies in Afghanistan would want to join in a new mission across the border, and it would be difficult to persuade the United Nations to legitimize any such endeavor.
A larger military mission to purge all of Pakistan of terrorism would require an invasion. As noted earlier, it would be a mission from hell. No president should contemplate this outcome as anything but a nightmare scenario. There are no good choices.