Pakistan: America`s Pandora`s Box?
December 21, 2009
Chronicles: A Magazine
of American Culture,
January 1st, 2009
On September 10, 2008,the New York Times
reported that, back in July, President Bush had
authorized ground incursions and missile attacks to
destroy Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan`s
Federally Administered Tribal Areas. As the
“It is unclear precisely what legal authorities the
United States has invoked to conduct even limited ground
raids in a friendly country.”
After the first ground assault on September 3, which
lasted several hours and involved two-dozen Navy Seals,
the unanimous reaction of Pakistan`s democratically
elected parliament was to call on its government to
repel future U.S. incursions with military force.
Pakistan`s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, agreed,
declaring that his country`s territorial integrity
“will be defended
at all costs.”
Seeking to justify future incursions into Pakistan,
President Bush announced on September 9 that Pakistan,
Iraq, and Afghanistan were
“all theaters in the same overall struggle.” But when the U.S.
military attempted another ground attack on September
15, employing armed helicopters, it was forced to
retreat after coming under sustained fire from
Pakistan`s army. The next day, Pakistan`s military
issued a press release announcing its policy on U.S.
orders are clear . . . open fire.”
If war with a nonnuclear-armed Iran would be folly,
war with a nuclear-armed Pakistan would be a disaster.
It would open a Pandora`s box of instability, crises,
and conflicts that could engulf neighboring states.
It would undermine U.S. strategic interests abroad and
further erode American liberties at home. Yet the
Bush administration has been laying the foundation for
such a war for months, and Barack Obama has raised
eyebrows with his tough talk about invading Pakistan in
hopes of killing Osama bin Laden.
On January 25 of last year, the Washington Post
reported that the Bush administration was building
eight bases along the Afghan-Pakistan border from which
to attack Islamic militants in Pakistan`s Northwest
Frontier Province. Defense Secretary Robert Gates
stated that “The Pentagon is `ready, willing and able` to send U.S. troops to
conduct joint combat operations with Pakistan`s military
against al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan`s tribal
Secretary Gates` announcement was disingenuous,
coming as it did after Pakistan had publicly rejected
the idea of U.S. troops operating inside her borders.
This suggests that the Bush administration was
considering unilateral military intervention despite
warnings from the Pakistani government that
action by the United States would be regarded as an
Where would the money come from for a war with
Pakistan? The proposed military budget of the
Department of Defense grew from $396 billion in 2003 to
$440 billion in 2007; an additional 40 percent is now
off the books, and this figure does not include the cost
of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the Center
for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation estimates at $700
billion. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy has been
battered by rising oil prices, a falling dollar, the
subprime mortgage crisis, a credit crunch, a
deteriorating housing market, layoffs, a volatile stock
market, a mounting national debt and deficit, and a
meltdown in its financial sector.
Where would the U.S. government get the necessary
troops for such a war? The U.S. military is
already stretched to the breaking point in Iraq and
Afghanistan. Enlistments are down, and reinstating
the draft would be politically unpopular and socially
divisive. In Iraq, approximately 156,000 troops
still have not been able to defeat the insurgents, and
plans to reduce troop levels have been suspended.
Washington is attempting to lower the level of violence
against U.S. troops by bribing Sunni tribes to attack
foreign jihadists. While these Sunnis oppose the
American occupation of their country, they eagerly
accept U.S. money and weapons so they can defeat their
political rivals and prepare for a future showdown with
their benefactors. In Afghanistan, the base for
the proposed intervention in Pakistan, the United States
lacks sufficient troops to roll back a resurgent Taliban
that effectively controls the southern half of the
country, the homeland of the Pushtuns. Washington
has been forced to call on NATO members for several
thousand additional troops—a request not likely to be
Both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border are
inhabited by Pushtuns whose combined population of over
38 million is larger than that of Iraq. In
contrast, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is
estimated at only 25,500. Pushtuns in Afghanistan
form the backbone of the Taliban and are bound to their
brethren in Pakistan by ties of blood, 60 major tribes
and over 400 clans, custom and law, the Pushtunwali, and
now an Islamic and nationalistic anti-Americanism.
Will the eight U.S. military bases along the
Afghan-Pakistan border become eight Dien Bien Phus?
U.S. diplomatic policy toward Pakistan has been
self-defeating. Washington persuaded the Musharraf
government to attack alleged Al Qaeda and Taliban
militants hiding in the Northwest Frontier Province.
That destabilized the region, radicalized the tribal
population, and resulted in the establishment of an
Islamic Emirate of Waziristan, which Islamabad was
forced to recognize to end the disastrous war.
The February 18, 2008, election resulted in a victory
for the secular anti-Musharraf opposition, comprising
the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim
League. However, hostility to U.S. military
intervention is found across Pakistan`s political
spectrum, government and opposition, Islamists and
secularists, pro- and anti-American politicians.
Under these circumstances, how could Washington
intervene without causing further damage to the
international reputation and strategic interests of the
Although Washington insists it wants a stable
Pakistan free from Islamic radicalism, the policy it is
pursuing in neighboring Iran is ensuring the opposite.
Endeavoring to promote
in Tehran, Washington is supporting ethnic secessionist
groups in Iran. Among them are the Baluch, who
inhabit adjoining territory called Baluchistan, the
largest province in Pakistan, accounting for 44 percent
of the country`s area. The Bush administration has
enlisted, funded, and armed the Baluch in a Sunni
fundamentalist army called Jundullah (Army of God).
From bases in Pakistan, Jundullah is waging a guerrilla
war attacking installations and personnel inside Iran.
The Baluch of Pakistan have been fighting for decades
for their independence from Islamabad. By arming
them to fight Iran, Washington is giving them the means
to resume fighting Pakistan. Such a policy is
undermining Pakistani authority and political stability
in Baluchistan. It is making it more likely that
the Baluch of Pakistan, not Iran, will be the ones to
achieve their independence. If Baluchistan breaks
away, Sind and the Northwest Frontier Province will
eventually secede as well. The impact of any
balkanization of Pakistan on India, Islamic radicalism,
and nuclear proliferation would adversely affect U.S.
strategic interests in South Asia.
U.S. diplomatic policy toward Pakistan is
schizophrenic. The Bush administration has
demanded that Pakistan suppress Islamic fundamentalists
among the Pushtuns in the north, but support Islamic
fundamentalists among the Baluch in the south. By
sponsoring Jundullah, Washington is, in many ways,
recreating the Mujahideen of the 1980`s from which Al
Qaeda and the Taliban sprang. This is potentially
a greater threat to U.S. national security than the
disintegration of Pakistan (though the two may go hand
The United Nations estimates Iraq`s population at 29
million and Afghanistan`s at 27 million.
Pakistan`s population is more than five-and-a-half times
larger. Washington may wish to fight only Islamic
militants in the Northwest Frontier Province, but for
all practical purposes it would be at war with 162
million people. U.S. military operations would
also be severely hampered by rugged terrain; limited
air, road, and rail transportation; and financial
An attack on Iran has been prevented, to date, by
Defense Secretary Gates and Commander of CENTCOM Admiral
Fallon. The United States has neither the manpower
nor the resources for the job, and any attack would
endanger U.S. troops in Iraq. But in September,
Secretary Gates said that the United States could have
10,000 more troops in place to intervene in Pakistan
“in the spring
and summer of 2009.” Admiral Fallon has taken
early retirement and has been replaced by David
Petraeus, who had been commanding general of the
Multi-National Force—Iraq. Iran has a population
of 71 million. Pakistan`s population is more than
twice as large. Iran has one of the world`s
largest paramilitaries, numbering over 11 million, but
its active service strength is 420,000, with a reserve
of 350,000. Pakistan`s active service strength is
619,000, with a reserve of 528,000.
The U.S. military would quickly defeat the Pakistanis
in a conventional war, but there would be American
casualties, and the victory would be hollow, since those
Pakistani soldiers who were not killed or captured would
likely join the guerrillas in attacking U.S. troops,
supplies, and installations.
Then there is Pakistan`s atomic bomb. Would an
intervention to eliminate Islamic militants in the
Northwest Frontier Province require the U.S. military to
seize Pakistan`s nuclear warheads to prevent them from
falling into the hands of Islamic militants or
disaffected Pakistani military officers? If the
U.S. military did not seize those warheads, would the
government of India exploit a U.S. intervention to
launch a surgical strike to seize or destroy the nuclear
weapons of its political rival?
In February 2003, the U.S. Navy Center for
Contemporary Conflict estimated Pakistan already had
between 35 and 95 nuclear bombs. These warheads
have not been placed on missiles but are kept separate
in a secure facility. Pakistan has modified F-16
fighter jets to carry warheads. Unless all
warheads and modified F-16s are secured, the threat of a
suicide pilot dropping the bomb on U.S. forces would be
very real. And, should India join in the
intervention, New Delhi could also be targeted.
Even if the Indian government takes no action, it
will still be perceived by many Muslims in India as an
accomplice in Washington`s efforts to weaken and
humiliate Pakistan. India still has not recovered
from the Muslim-Hindu bloodletting that occurred in
Gujarat, an Indian state bordering Pakistan, in 2002.
A U.S. military intervention in Pakistan would mean an
upsurge in radicalism among Muslims in India that would
increase political volatility, outbreaks of communal
violence, and economic difficulties for the country as a
The U.S. military might be able to secure Pakistan`s
nuclear weapons, but even if Washington could redeploy
all U.S. forces to Pakistan, it would still be unable to
occupy a country of 162 million hostile people.
Yet it would have to occupy the country in order to have
a realistic chance of extricating Islamic militants.
Thus, any intervention would result in American
casualties but would not achieve any desirable political
ends. It would only win converts for the cause of
radical Islam; destabilize the subcontinent and much of
the Middle East; ensure that anti-Americanism dominates
popular passions in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and
Pakistan for the foreseeable future; cripple the U.S.
military; weaken an already feeble U.S. economy; and
play havoc with international markets.
Joseph E. Fallon writes
from Rye, New York.