Belmont Club

Trading Places

Zalmay Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Afghanistan, drafts what would constitute, if it came from the administration, an ultimatum to Pakistan to quit supporting terror. Khalilzad begins by saying that Pakistan is politically divided. Consequently it has behaved both as both an enemy and friend of the US. But the Jekyll and Hyde phase has to end. Now it must choose which of the two personalities it must permanently become.

His strategy for compelling that outcome is as follows:

He says the US should confront Pakistan with evidence of its duplicity and demand a UN inquiry into the behavior of its government. Then it should negotiate alternative supply routes with other countries bordering landlocked Pakistan; not with one, but several in order to spread the risk around. The US should conclude an agreement to position a small, but long term presence in Afghanistan. Freed of its dependence on Pakistan, the US would be in a position to a demand “that Pakistan break the backbone of Al Qaeda in Pakistan by moving against figures like Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri; remove limits on the Predator drone campaign; uproot insurgent sanctuaries and shut down factories that produce bombs for use against American and Afghan soldiers; and support a reasonable political settlement in Afghanistan.”

He forgot the “or else”. But he didn’t have to spell it out. The “or else” — probably starting with sanctions and leading to increasing pressure, is implicit in the whole argument.

This strategy would turn the Southwest Asia theater of operations on its head from a campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan based in Pakistan to a campaign against al-Qaeda in Pakistan based in Afghanistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan would essentially switch places.

Khalilzad’s idea makes perfect sense. It is also extremely problematic for three reasons. The first is that it changes the Obama administration’s model of the War on Terror as a law enforcement problem or at worst, as a campaign against nonstate actors, back into the Bushian campaign against the State Sponsors of Terrorism. Second, it sets up a long term program of pressure and confrontation against a Muslim state — with Pakistan in the role formerly occupied by Saddam Hussein. Third, it sets Obama, who has campaigned on the platform of a “world without nuclear weapons” right on course for conflict with a nuclear armed state. To take Khalilzad’s advice would require Obama to reverse course along not just one, but three axes.

The ultimate cost of the Osama Bin Laden operation has been to lay bare the bankruptcy of pursuing a campaign against the Taliban in Pakistan when its roots — and al-Qaeda’s — run through Islamabad and perhaps, Riyadh. The action opened a can of worms which must either be seen for what it is, or laid on a the white tablecloth of diplomacy, right beside the trout in aspic and champagne, and studiously ignored. If any of the worms crawl out and squirm amidst the canapes,  it should be daintily flicked off as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening.

Rather than bite the bullet, the administration may instead choose to extract a promise from Islamabad to go straight. It can say, as Carlos Santana once put it, “you’ve got to change your evil ways, baby”. But who will answer? The Pakistani Jekyll or the Pakistani Hyde?  It is a divided country and getting an actionable promise from a country with a multiple personality disorder is at best an exercise in trusting to fate. My guess is that the Administration will kick the can down the road and keep its fingers crossed. And whatever promise the diplomats extract will be operative until the full moon comes out and Mr. Hyde decides the time has come to show the infidel who is boss. And after that disaster then maybe everything will go back to Khalilzad’s proposal or some variation of it.

But even if the Khadlilzad proposal were largely adopted it would only mean the start of possible trouble. Such an ultimatum would divide Pakistan and if one political faction were inclined to agree and another opposed there would naturally be a scramble for the nuclear weapons between the two.  The Islamic world is about to face its inner contradictions and will find that nukes, far from empowering it, have only made the resolution even harder than it would have been. About all that can be concluded from the capture of Osama bin Laden is that, rather than ending the War on Terror, it has only served to raise the curtain on the real stage.

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