Commentary Magazine


Facing a Nuclear Taliban Regime

When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December of 2007, we were appalled but not exactly shocked. In fact, a sort of unspoken consensus about the likelihood of her being taken down had been in the air since she announced her campaign for opposition leadership months earlier. Pakistan tends to deliver in this way.

The buzz now, and it’s palpable, is that the civilian government of Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari will fall to Taliban/al Qaeda forces. Counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen predicts the collapse in “one to six months.” In 2007, there were reassurances from Pakistan that threats to Bhutto were being handled by Islamabad; today, important Pakistanis boast of having the situation under control. Former diplomat Mustafa Malik writes in the Daily Star:

Pakistan is used to “extremism.” The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis can live on $2 a day and weather the economic crisis. And I’ve learned reliably that Pakistan’s nukes are very secure under the vigil of its 600,000-strong armed forces.

There is very little to be “learned reliably” about Pakistan’s security or its nuclear arsenal. An American official who spoke with Zardari on his recent trip to the U.S. accused Pakistan’s president of “outright lies about security now established in every district in the country.”  Things are radicalizing in areas outside of the high-profile Swat valley. There is new, unprecedented popular support for jihad throughout the country, no matter what various groups call themselves. This comes from one supporter: “You can’t use the name al-Qaeda anymore . . . If you say even one good thing about al-Qaeda, you will be arrested. So groups now give themselves different names-Jaish-so-and-so, Lashkar-this-and-that. But it’s all the same. They are all working toward what al-Qaeda is working toward: to destroy America.”

And what is America working toward? For all Barack Obama’s insistence that the U.S. has spent too much time dictating (and not enough time listening) to the Muslim world, Pakistan stands as a tragic testament to the contrary. There is no other Muslim country whose successive regimes have been less deserving of the American respect they’ve received. George W. Bush repeatedly referred to Pervez Musharraf’s government as an ally in the War on Terror, while wanted al Qaeda members lived openly in Pakistan until being offered to the U.S. as bargaining chips. For too long we respected Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty and shied away from hitting high value targets in the ungoverned tribal areas. Both Bush and Obama have continually pledged more aid to Pakistan under both Musharaff and Zardari. Both American administrations have heaped praise upon Pakistan’s abilities to bring the fight to terrorists. Both have worked to obscure Islamabad’s responsibility for terrorist acts and both have worked to prevent India from responding to repeated Pakistani provocations. Years of respect, praise, aid, and protection – and now we’re looking at a probable nuclear Islamist state emerging in a shorter period of time than it will take for Iran to finish developing its bomb.

Before we are faced with both Shia and Sunni extremist nuclear regimes, we’d better make some quick corrections. We are now told, of course, that ratcheting up American aggression inside Pakistan will only create more anti-American sentiment and further embolden the extremists. But how much more emboldened can they be? They are on the verge of seizing the country. We can no longer be held hostage by this concern.

The lesson to follow here is the one learned in Iraq. The U.S. must let the Pakistanis know which is the winning side (if, indeed, that’s to be our side). That means overwhelming military force in the areas we know extremists now control. A total rollback of the organized terror groups could then be followed with the kind of largess only America can provide. And that largess should be tied to benchmarks gauging progress on corruption and reform in Islamabad. Or we would just continue praising the efforts of our ally.

If this seems extreme now, re-read it in one to six months.