In the Arena

Our Pakistani Allies Cont.

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From the start, my worst fear has been that there would be a “colonels’ coup” in the Pakistani military, in which Islamist junior officers ousted their more pro-western superiors. That scenario seems closer than ever today, as the Times reports that Army chief Ashfaq Kayani is on shaky ground–because the U.S. was able to stage the Osama bin Laden raid without the Pakistani military knowing about it. Even if there’s no coup, Kayani’s probably going to have to tack toward his anti-American constituency. This throws a major spanner into the current talks about how and when, and how completely, the U.S. should leave Afghanistan.

In the immediate future, it seems likely that Pakistan won’t try to limit–indeed, it may increase support for–its Haqqani network Taliban clients. According to US military sources, the Haqqanis have been the fiercest of the three Taliban factions and the most dangerous Taliban force remaining, after the Quetta shura Taliban (Mullah Omar’s main force) was driven from its Arghandaub River valley homeland.

In the longer term, it will make Pakistan less likely to join in and cooperate with the reconciliation deal that Karzai and the U.S. hope to cut with the Taliban in negotiations that may begin later this year. Already, the Pakistanis have been a major anti-negotiation force, imprisoning the most prominent Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader, who had been negotiating with the Karzai government.

In the longest term, this means that a U.S. special forces and intelligence presence will be necessary in the region to keep tabs on the threat of an Islamist coup. (This was always true, but the recent events make this an even higher priority than it already was.) And all of the above strengthens the hand of those, mostly in the military, who wanted a slower withdrawal from Afghanistan than I believe is possible and necessary. Politics, I suspect, works to the disadvantage of sanity in this case as well–the tougher Obama seems on the Taliban, the harder it is for Republicans to make a foreign policy case against him (the GOP field’s dovish performance at their first debate, which sent shivers through the party’s neoconservative wing, was evidence of that).

But most important, this news puts the lie to all the happy talk we’ve been hearing about the U.S.-Pakistan relationship being strong despite the bin Laden dust-up. This is a relationship in deep trouble. It is an alliance that may no longer exist. It is most dangerous foreign policy crisis that we face.