02.15.11

Marc Grossman Inherits the Worst Job in the World

Richard Holbrooke's successor as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan takes office when a jihadist takeover in Pakistan is a possibility for the first time. Bruce Riedel on America's challenges in that nightmare scenario.

Marc Grossman, a veteran American diplomat called out of retirement, is about to take over one of toughest jobs in U.S. foreign policy—special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Grossman's challenge will be particularly difficult on Pakistan, where a dispute over the diplomatic status of Raymond Davis, an American official accused of two murders by the Pakistani police, threatens to undo two years of patient efforts by the Obama team to build a strategic relationship with the most dangerous country in the world. High-level talks have been suspended and President Obama's planned visit to Pakistan is in jeopardy. The Hill is calling for aid cuts. Unless Grossman can get the bilateral engagement back on track, Pakistan could be heading for even more troubled days ahead.

Bruce Riedel, who chaired Obama's review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policy at the start of the administration two years ago, has looked at the worst nightmare scenario in Pakistan in his new book, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad. The book raises the question: What if Pakistan is taken over by the jihadist Frankenstein that threatens the dream of democracy in the Islamic world's second-largest country? Riedel addresses the issue in this excerpt from the book:

The news from Pakistan gets more ominous every day. The country with the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world and home to more terrorists than any other faces almost daily violence—from the murder of the governor of its largest province to suicide bombs to a growing war between the army and the Pakistani Taliban. President Obama rightly called its border lands with Afghanistan the most dangerous place in the world and has defined his goal in South Asia as the defeat of al Qaeda and the terrorist syndicate around it. Two years ago he asked me to chair his review of American policy there and this year he has promised to visit Pakistan himself. On Air Force One, I briefed him on the threat we face now and the threat we could face in the future.

Benazir Bhutto, just before her 2007 murder by terrorists, said al Qaeda could be "marching on Islamabad in two to four years.” The growing strength of the network of terror in Pakistan raises the serious possibility (but not yet the probability) of a jihadist takeover of the country. A jihadist victory in Pakistan would have devastating consequences, not only for Pakistan but the entire planet. American options for dealing with such a state would be limited and costly. Although this nightmare scenario is, thankfully, neither imminent nor inevitable, it is a real possibility today for the first time in Pakistan's history.

A jihadist Pakistan would emerge through some combination of violence and intimidation. The simplest way would be another military coup led by a general who shares the worldview of Zia ul-Haq, the Pakistan dictator who ruled the country in the 1980s and defeated the Soviets with our help in Afghanistan, thus initiating the global jihad we face today. Are there new Zias in the Pakistan military? Almost certainly yes, although it is impossible for an outsider to determine how many officers are sympathetic to the jihadists.

The United States is so unpopular in Pakistan today that its endorsement of a politician is the kiss of death.

A Pakistani emirate would welcome Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri from their hiding places of the past decade, although they would presumably keep a low profile to avoid being attacked by outside security services. Free of any significant constraints on their activities from the Pakistani authorities, al Qaeda, and a host of other terrorist groups would have much more room to operate, particularly if they have access to Pakistan's embassies from which to stage terrorist operations abroad.

As it purged the army of any dissident voices, the new regime would also take control of the nuclear arsenal. In response, many outside Pakistan would probably call on America to "secure” Pakistan's nuclear weapons, but since no outsider knows where most of them are located, such efforts would be in vain and pose a hollow threat to the regime. Even if force were used to capture some of the weapons, the emirate would retain most of its arsenal as well as the capacity to build more. It certainly would make their production an even higher priority than it already is.

An Islamic takeover in Pakistan would make the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's current mission in Afghanistan virtually untenable. A jihadist Pakistan would be even more of a safe haven for the Afghan Taliban than now. Pakistan's relations with Iran would probably deteriorate. Shia jihadist Iran and Sunni jihadist Pakistan would become enemies, each competing for influence on Afghanistan's battlefields. Both would also be tempted to meddle with each other's minorities. China, historically Pakistan's main arms supplier, would be threatened as well by jihadists meddling in its far west.

A jihadist Pakistan would be particularly bad news for India, which would have little choice but to build up both its nuclear and conventional forces. Any chance for a peace agreement in Kashmir would be dead, and the new militant regime in Pakistan would increase support for the insurgency. A major mass-casualty attack like the one on Mumbai in November 2008 could spark a war. The impact on Israel would also be huge; the emirate would become a more practical supporter of groups like Hamas, providing them with money and arms.

A militant Islamic state in Pakistan—the second-largest Muslim country in the world and the only one with a nuclear arsenal—would have a massive ripple effect across the Muslim world. Extremists would be strengthened. 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: U.S. options to change the regime by means of a coup or by assisting dissidents 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. Military options against a nuclear state would be unappealing at best and counterproductive at worst. Assuming we were forced to act, what would the United States do after military operations 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.

For the past 60 years, American policy toward Pakistan has oscillated wildly. At times—under the Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush administrations—the United States was enamored of Pakistan's dictators and embraced its policies without question. At other times—under Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton—the United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan, blaming it for provoking wars and developing nuclear weapons. In the love-fest years, Washington would build secret relationships (which gave rise to the U2 base in Peshawar and the mujahideen war in the 1980s) and throw billions of dollars at Pakistan, with little or no accountability. In the scorned years, Pakistan would be demarched to death, and Washington would cut off all military and economic aid. Both approaches failed dismally.

Throughout the relationship, America endorsed every Pakistani military dictator, despite the fact that they started wars with India and moved their country ever deeper into the jihadist camp. John F. Kennedy entertained the first dictator, Ayub Khan, at Mount Vernon in the only state dinner ever held at the home of the nation's first family. Richard Nixon turned a blind eye to the murder of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis to keep his friends in Pakistan's army in power, a strategy that ultimately failed. Ronald Reagan entertained Zia ul-Haq even as Zia was giving succor to the Arab jihadists who would become al Qaeda. George W. Bush allowed Pervez Musharraf to give the Afghan Taliban a sanctuary from which to kill American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.

In contrast, George Bush senior sanctioned a democratic Pakistan for building a bomb that Reagan knew Pakistan was building. Bill Clinton sanctioned Pakistan for testing the bomb after India goaded it into doing so. One obvious lesson of these past interactions is that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship needs to be on a more constant and consistent footing. To that end, the United States must engage reliably with the Pakistani people, support their democratic process, and address their legitimate security concerns. Candor needs to be the hallmark of an enduring commitment to civilian rule in Pakistan.

None of this will be easy. Pakistan is a complex and combustible society undergoing a severe crisis, which America helped create over the years. If it does not come to Pakistan's aid now, it may have to deal with an extremist Pakistan sooner rather than later, or witness a repeat of 9/11, this time originating from Pakistan. Even worse, a crisis in the subcontinent could lead to a nuclear war in South Asia. These all-too-possible nightmare scenarios should impel the United States to focus on the current state of Pakistan. It needs to do better in Pakistan. For Obama, 2011 may be the year of Pakistan.

Bruce Riedel, a former longtime CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At President Obama’s request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.