9 October 2015

Pakistan: Too Big to Fail

October 7, 2015, By Kevin Hulbert

As U.S. counterterrorism successes mount in eliminating terrorists in Pakistan, the al-Qaeda “glue” that holds the U.S.-Pakistan security relationship together has seemed to weaken. What is the future of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship? Tired and worn out by our long-running engagements in far away lands since 9/11, there is real temptation to wash our hands of the region. But one should heed the lessons learned from our experience washing our hands and leaving. Doing so in Iraq created a political and security vacuum into which the Islamic State surged, threatening world order and creating an all-new nightmare for the U.S. to confront. 

We left Pakistan alone before, remember, back in 1989 after our extensive and well-choreographed U.S.-Saudi-Pakistan effort to train and supply the mujahedeen was successful in dislodging the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. We all celebrated as the last Soviet forces rolled across the Afghan-Uzbek Bridge on their retreat. Soon after, the U.S. was only too happy to wind down its very close engagement with Pakistan and move on to other challenges. That’s the way we are with our foreign policy. With a limited attention span, we almost always move along too quickly once we think a challenge has been met. The U.S. is like a cat playing with a ball of string—at first, the string fascinates us and occupies all of our attention, but after a while, just like the cat, we tire of things, and so we leave the ball of string on the floor and walk away. 

The good news on Pakistan is that al-Qaeda’s core in Pakistan’s troubled Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is largely destroyed. The U.S. government has decimated al-Qaeda and its extremist allies in the FATA, and it is telling that none of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s named successors are located in Pakistan. It is also telling that in order to stay alive, Zawahiri has isolated himself to the point of being irrelevant. He cannot communicate with his followers, he provides no command and control, and it takes him weeks, sometimes months, to respond in any meaningful way to current events. 

This is not to say al-Qaeda is now incapable of planning and organizing an attack against the homeland—they are. Such is the difficulty of declaring a total victory in a situation that is such an asymmetrical war. While we have the most sophisticated and capable military and intelligence apparatus the world has ever known, the asymmetrical nature of the fight means that two brothers working independently and with good operational security will always be able to plan and launch an attack that the best military and intelligence service in the world will not be able to detect and defeat in advance. 

But, now, at this juncture… what are we to do about Pakistan? The Pakistan of 2015 is a much different and a more complicated place than the country I first visited in 2003. Many of the trend lines seem to be moving in the wrong direction. For years, Pakistan felt justified in its use of jihadist militias to attack India in a war of attrition. It pursued a perverse double-dealing game where they supported “good” radical Muslim extremists that helped them in their proxy war against India, while at the same time trying to hold the line against the “bad” radical Muslim extremist elements who were focused on bringing down the Pakistani state. A large percentage of the Pakistan population does not view jihadi groups, including the Taliban and other militant religious groups, as dangerous elements, but rather as good soldiers of Islam comprised of men performing their religious duty. The fight against al-Qaeda in Pakistan was largely seen as a U.S. fight, not a Pakistan fight, and Pakistan’s unwillingness to make the hard choices required to confront the growing menace of radical extremism, created a monster. 

Today, Pakistan finds itself in a very complicated security situation where there is little differentiation among radical groups. Terrorist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, are suddenly allied with al-Qaeda, while Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Pakistan Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, and other assorted miscreants and non-state actors are intent on bringing down the elected government of Pakistan. While the Pakistan government dithered, the militancy in the country took firm hold. 

But, aside from the very compelling terrorism issue, there is also an overlay of a troublesome and rapidly growing Pakistani nuclear program along with an unusual problem: Pakistan is not a rogue state that might go nuclear, but rather a nuclear state that might go rogue. Such a situation presents an almost endless stream of nightmare scenarios for U.S. policymakers. 

Pakistan also has one of the highest birthrates in the world and a population paradigm that is exploding with young people entering the workforce. Into this maelstrom, there is a corrupt, faltering, and virtually bankrupt economy that, for the last 13 years, has limped by, largely financed by the hat trick of IMF “loans," U.S. coalition support funds, and U.S. foreign aid. There is little hope for millions of young men entering the workforce every year. This failure of the state to provide jobs leads to an endless pool of potential converts to violent radical extremism. Likewise, the State’s failure to provide basic security has caused Foreign Direct Investment in Pakistan to founder. 

While Pakistan is not the most dangerous country in the world, it is probably the most dangerous country for the world, and as such, a serious case for close and continued U.S. engagement with Pakistan can be made. As a country ripe with the triple threat of terrorism, a failing economy, and the fastest growing nuclear arsenal, Pakistan has the potential to create more nightmare scenarios for U.S. policymakers than any other country. Like it or not, Pakistan is similar to a bank or company considered too big to let fail because of the ripple effect it might cause across the entire economy. The specter of the sixth largest country in the world being a failed state is a hypothetical catastrophe that would unleash a world of unintended consequences. Rather than risk it, and as much as we might like to move on, we really should increase the level of engagement with Pakistan, not decrease it. 

Kevin Hulbert is a former senior intelligence officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations who retired in June 2014. He is currently the President of XK Group. Kevin served multiple overseas tours as CIA Chief of Station and Deputy Chief of Station.

This article originally appeared at The Cipher Brief.

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