Obama's Pakistan Nightmare
The Taliban's slow-motion march to the Pakistani capital is creating an unappetizing menu of options for the Obama administration—one of several foreign-policy crises seemingly destined to get worse fast.
Pakistan’s Swat Valley is best known as a lush, gorgeous resort, about as close to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad as East Hampton is to New York. Only now the Swat Valley has been overrun by crazed, bearded Taliban intent on turning one of the most beautiful corners of the world into a medieval hell. To understand the psychological impact on Pakistan’s whiskey-loving elite, consider what might happen if survivalist guerrillas had wrested control of Long Island’s most beautiful beaches from the federal government and started beheading any soldiers and civilians who dared get in their way. Yet Pakistan’s military has essentially ceded the Swat Valley to the Taliban, and the militants have continued to press forward, inching closer to Pakistan’s biggest cities. Keep that in mind as Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan, meets with President Barack Obama this week in Washington.
The danger for President Obama is that his presidency is, after a few short months, entering its LBJ phase. Faced with a mounting economic crisis at home, there is a real possibility that the Talibanization of Pakistan will force him to deploy U.S. forces amid a population that, to put it mildly, wouldn’t greet their arrival with flowers and chocolates.
Zardari is best known in Pakistan as a slick charmer, who has reportedly amassed billions of dollars through outright theft. But as the widower of former Pakistani Premier Benazir Bhutto, assassinated last year just before making a spectacular political comeback, he has been thrust into the unenviable position of standing between Pakistan and total chaos. So far, total chaos is winning. It should go without saying that it is Pakistanis who are suffering the most, particularly for women who’ve fallen under the nightmarish rule of the Taliban, but the Obama administration is looking on with dread as the collapse of Pakistan—which had until recently been happening in slow-motion—accelerates on their watch, threatening to further inflame Afghanistan and, by the way, unleash the nuclear genie in a region full of apocalyptic zealots.
As David Sanger has recently reported, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is still under lock and key. But the Pakistanis have been unwilling to tell the United States exactly where its weapons are located, for the excellent reason that any sane American leader would seriously consider using the information to preemptively capture or destroy said weapons. We can rest assured that somewhere in the Pentagon there is a contingency plan for doing exactly that, but don’t tell the Pakistani military—even now, its leaders seem convinced that the Taliban militants who are lopping the heads off of their men are less of a threat than scheming American generals. Then there is the small matter of India, which Pakistanis see as the Cain to its Abel. The stated reason why Pakistan hasn’t unleashed the full force of its formidable military on the Taliban is that they don’t want to leave their border with India lightly defended.
The Pakistanis disagree with the Obama White House at a very basic level. Because the Taliban forces enjoy considerable support from Pakistan’s Pashtun minority (which amounts to 15 percent of the total population), dislodging them militarily isn’t a matter of booting out an invading army—rather, it’s about waging war on the kind of wild-eyed crazies Pakistan has cultivated for decades. Pakistan’s military is shrewd enough to know that the Americans expect a show of force, but there is only so much they can—or will—do.
If Pakistan really does fall apart, the United States will have to turn to Plan B. One scenario is that the U.S. could abandon Islamabad in favor of separatists in Baluchistan, a large province that borders Iran and Afghanistan and that has a large Chinese-built port at Gwadar—thus offering a route into southern Afghanistan. Of course, any talk of an American plot to dismember Afghanistan doesn’t really warm the cockles of Pakistani hearts.
The danger for President Obama is that his presidency is, after a few short months, entering its LBJ phase. Faced with a mounting economic crisis at home, there is a real possibility that the Talibanization of Pakistan will force him to deploy U.S. forces amid a population that, to put it mildly, wouldn’t greet their arrival with flowers and chocolates. Obama’s commitment to his domestic reform agenda would be sorely tested by a shooting war in Pakistan, not least because the antiwar left would—very understandably—be in open revolt.
Pakistan is only one of the simmering foreign-policy disasters that await President Obama. We’ve all heard about Iran’s nuclear program, and about the Obama administration’s effort to lower the temperature of U.S.-Iranian relations by reaching out to Tehran. But how will President Obama react if Israel chooses to take unilateral action? It’s hard to see how the Israelis could succeed in attacking Iran without flying over U.S.-controlled Iraqi airspace, which means that any Israeli attack will at least look as though it has Obama’s seal of approval. In the absence of an Israeli strike, it’s easy to imagine that all the jawboning in the world won’t prevent Iran from going nuclear, a move that would lead Saudi Arabia and Egypt and possibly other regional powers to develop their own crash nuclear programs. And let’s not forget energy prices, one of the few “bright spots,” if you can call it that, of our economic meltdown. News of an Iranian nuke will propel gas prices skyward, endangering any recovery and possibly forcing the United States into rolling blackouts. The pressure on Obama to do something dramatic will be immense.
Finally, there is Mexico, a country that is more entangled with our own than any other. After various military thinkers floated the idea that Mexico was in danger of becoming a failed state, cooler heads countered by pointing out that Mexico is a big, relatively rich country that can handle its bloody war against the narco-gangs. And that could very well be true. But as Mexico’s economy continues to tank, and as unrest builds in the impoverished south, is it really unthinkable that the country could sputter and fail?
You can see why President Obama might feel a little bitter about the hand he’s been dealt.
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.
Xtra Insight: Nicholas Schmidle: The Playboy Running Pakistan
Xtra Insight: Fatima Bhutto: Stop Funding My Failed State
Xtra Insight: Leslie H. Gelb: The Taliban Ticking Clock