In the Arena

The Pakistan Problem

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This is typically excellent work by Fred Kaplan, especially these two paragraphs:

President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have said that their limited mission in Afghanistan is to keep that country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists who want to attack the United States and its allies or to destabilize the region. And yet the Taliban appears to have been given just such a safe haven inside Pakistan—a much richer state that has nuclear weapons—with the blessings of the Pakistani government, which is supposedly our ally in the war on terror…

The question now arises: If Islamist terrorists have an officially sanctioned haven inside Pakistan itself, does the fate of Afghanistan matter very much? How much blood and treasure is a sideshow worth?

Good question. And, as Kaplan acknowledges, there are not only no easy answers in Pakistan, there don’t seem to be any answers at all. Over the weekend in Doha, I was part of a security conversation featuring more than a half-dozen prominent but powerless Pakistanis. The Americans at the table–me included–kept asking them for specific ideas: What can we do to help? What can you do about the deteriorating situation in the border areas? They had no coherent answers. (And this was before the Swat deal with the Taliban.)

In fact, I haven’t heard a coherent strategy yet from anyone about Pakistan. (And from what I hear, the accumulated U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence knowledge of that benighted, and ridiculously complicated, country is surprisingly minimal.) As Richard Holbrooke said last night on Lehrer, there is a notable level of disagreement among U.S. experts about the intent of the Pakistani Army and ISI (inter-services intelligence agency).

Last summer, I first reported that the U.S. intelligence community now considered Pakistan the centrol front in the war on terror. Well, we’re not talking about wars on terror any more, but the situation in Pakistan is, without question, the most sever foreign policy problem that we’re facing right now. Kaplan’s right: it needs to take precedence over Afghanistan.