The Greatest Threat?
By Clint Douglas
As Erin wrote, it's not clear how much foreign policy the candidates will talk about tonight. When they do get around to debating their differing visions of America's place in the world, however, they'll likely be confronted by the perennial question: "What is the greatest threat to America's national security?"
It's not a very good question. It traditionally lends itself to sweeping generalizations that are light on specifics and concrete policy proposals. But how the candidates grapple with an answer will shed some much needed light on what will be their national security priorities for the next four years.
What would my answer be? Pakistan.
Pakistan's parlous state constitutes a direct threat to the United States, and more so than any other country or individual terrorist group. In its 60-year history, Pakistan has rarely functioned as a state, regardless of who happened to control the reigns of power. The civilians have ruled just as poorly as the military.
The latest incarnation of civilian rule is Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. During his wife's administration, Zardari was known as Mr.Ten Percent, in honor of the bribes he required. He assumed the presidency earlier this month, and some say he has failed to reinstate the independently minded chief justice of the Supreme Court, who was sacked by Pervez Musharraf, in part to avoid revisiting corruption allegations stemming from the 1990s.
Zardari's tenure, in all likelihood, will be a weak one. The loyalties of both the armed forces and the infamous Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, are anybody's guess. Some are no doubt loyal to the civilian government, others to the primacy of the military as a class, and still others to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. What we do know is that the military controls a substantial nuclear weapons stockpile and that at least a portion of that organization facilitated the nuclear smuggling network of A.Q. Khan. We also know that portions of the security apparatus have assisted Taliban operations in Afghanistan and that we increasingly find ourselves in a shooting war with the Pakistanis in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan. And, of course, it's widely accepted that Osama bin Laden and the leadership of al-Qaeda and the Taliban reside somewhere in Pakistan. The country has always been riven by sectarian, ethnic and class divisions; but today this is compounded by the influence of the Pakistani Taliban, which has grown increasingly bold in its attacks on an already brittle civil society.
But as much as America faces a chaotic and at times belligerent Pakistan, we remain dependent on that country as well. The vast majority of goods imported to Afghanistan originate from or pass through Pakistan. A high percentage of the supplies for our troops in Afghanistan also come from Pakistan, and there are no desirable alternatives. Any successful campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban requires the active support of Pakistan.
Thus, we face something of a Gordian knot; Pakistan is our ally, upon whom we rely, and simultaneously our foe, who gives aid and comfort to our most implacable enemies. The exact balance of inducements and coercions that will be required to shore up Pakistani support for our operations in Afghanistan, without further destabilizing Pakistani civil society, will require the most agile and creative of minds. Pakistan, Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation and trans-national Islamic terrorism are now fully enmeshed. They are one and the same, and a failed state, Pakistan, is the linchpin to them all.
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