What Do We Do about Pakistan's Nukes?

If Pakistani border posts fired on NATO troops before they called in last week’s air strike, the simplest inference is that Pakistan provoked the whole incident in order to wrong-foot the United States. This seems to be Pakistan’s answer to American charges that its intelligence services helped set up the Sept. 13 attack on our Kabul embassy by the al-Haqqani network, as outgoing JCS Chief Michael Mullen charged on Sept. 22.


How does Pakistan get away with it?

In this morning’s “Spengler” column at Asia TImes Online, I observe that Pakistan has successfully deployed the “Blazing Saddles” defense against the United States: take yourself hostage and point a gun at your own head. “One step closer and the [N-word] gets it!,” the black sheriff tells a prospective lynch mob in Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic. Much as I admire Rick Santorum, his notion that we must be Pakistan’s friend because Pakistan has nuclear weapons is the wrong way to look at it. On the contrary, the U.S. should call the bluff, and threaten Pakistan with dismemberment and state failure in the event that it fails to control the terrorists who infest its military and intelligence services. It is a win-win proposition.

As I wrote:

If America puts a figurative gun to the head of the Pakistani government and orders it to extirpate the radical Islamists in the military, two outcomes are possible. One is that Islamabad will succeed. The second is that it will fail, and the country will degenerate into chaos. That is the scenario the American policy is supposed to avoid at all costs, but it is hard to see why America would be worse off. If the elements of Pakistani intelligence that foster terrorism cannot be suppressed, it is clear that they are using resources of the central government to support terrorism. In the worst case, they will continue to foster terrorism, but without the resources of the central government. From America’s vantage point, a disorderly collapse of Pakistan into a failed state is a better outcome than a strong central government that sponsors terrorism. At worst, a prolonged civil conflict between American-backed elements of the Pakistani military and Islamist radicals would leave the radicals weaker than they are now.


Pakistan’s congenital incapacity to be a “friend” of the United States stems from the fact that it is an artificial state in constant danger of fragmenting into ethnic components, and America’s objectives in Afghanistan exacerbate its problems. We have painted ourselves into a corner:

America’s misguided attempt to stabilize Afghanistan allows Islamabad to blackmail the United States by threatening to promote instability. If the United States accepts Afghan instability as a permanent condition and uses its in-country capability to wear down its enemies in a standing civil war, it can turn the tables by threatening to export the instability to Pakistan. Pakistan has been truncated before, when it lost Bangladesh. It could happen again. The object is not to dismember Pakistan, but rather to persuade Islamabad to behave. If this seems harsh, it is worth recalling that Washington has done this sort of thing before. The Reagan administration did its best to prolong the Iran-Iraq war.

As for the nukes: in the worst case, send in U.S. forces and take them away. That’s not as far-fetched as it might sound, as Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder report in the December issue of The Atlantic. China’s presence in Pakistan complicates matters, but the Chinese have more to lose from Pakistani terrorism than we do (Pakistan’s intelligence services are training Muslim Uyghur separatists for infiltration into China’s Xinjiang province next door).



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