The Obama administration seems determined to continue the CIA’s attacks on al Qaida and Taliban targets inside Pakistan, which it views as a successful tactic. Indeed, officials have bragged that nine of the top 20 al Qaida leaders have been killed in this fashion in recent months. However, the question no one seems willing to ask is whether the deaths of nine terrorists—or 100, for that matter—are worth the price of further destabilizing Pakistan, which is already a nuclear state on the verge of chaos.
The new consensus on the war in Afghanistan is that it cannot be brought to a satisfactory end without resolving many of Pakistan’s problems in its ungoverned western border regions. But the long-term danger to U.S. security interests is not the dissolution of the Karzai government’s tenuous hold on Afghanistan. It is the potential break-up of Pakistan, with its attendant risks of nuclear proliferation, regional conflict, and humanitarian disaster.
Obama is repeating the errors of the Bush administration—increasing long-term strategic risks in the region for the sake of short-term, tactical gains against al Qaida. The drone attacks that began in 2007 and have steadily increased in number are contributing to the territorial losses and political weakness of the civilian government in Islamabad, which has been discredited in the eyes of a public that deeply resents foreign intrusions onto Pakistani territory. Thus the strikes make it less likely that the Pakistani public and military will tolerate an indefinite prolongation of military cooperation against the Taliban and al Qaida.
In a March 30 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Graham Allison and former CIA Director John Deutch urged the administration to reorient its strategy to give Pakistan priority. While some of their recommendations—including the continuation of drone strikes—are not advisable, their main piece of advice was right, insisting “that developments in Afghanistan not undermine Pakistan's stability and assistance in eliminating al Qaida.” However, this has been precisely the result of efforts to secure Afghanistan, especially over the past two years. Already we are beginning to see a breakdown in cooperation as Pakistani authorities cite a trust gap between our governments.
The tactics employed to secure Karzai’s ineffective government in Kabul against Taliban attacks are leading more or less directly to the concessions Islamabad has been forced to make in the Swat valley. At the same time, American demands that the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, cut all ties with the Pakistani Taliban cannot be reconciled with U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke’s admission that the U.S. has very poor intelligence about the tribal regions. While certain elements of the ISI continue to support the Taliban against NATO forces and Kabul, these ties are one of the few means of intelligence available and are bound to continue so long as Islamabad has an interest in Afghanistan.
At each step, Washington keeps trying to have everything both ways. Pakistani sovereignty can be violated with impunity, regardless of the local political consequences, because Islamabad exercises little meaningful control over the tribal regions. But every effort Islamabad makes to retain influence in the west is deplored as collaboration or surrender.
Each time we violate Pakistani sovereignty, we undermine popular support in Pakistan for military operations against the Taliban. As a practical matter, this has worked to improve the political fortunes of our enemies and worsen those of our allies.
Some of this might be justifiable if the stability of Pakistan were not vastly more important than the success of Karzai’s government. But it is. It is not that the Kabul government is expendable or irrelevant, but if Pakistani stability falters, no realistic amount of nation-building, security training, or military success in Afghanistan will mitigate the disastrous consequences.
The financial crisis and global recession exposed Pakistan’s economic weaknesses and have pushed the state to the edge of bankruptcy. The economic aid the president has promised and that the forthcoming Tokyo conference will be raising is a good beginning, but what Pakistan needs more than government aid is direct foreign investment. That remains a long shot if the country continues to be destabilized by Predator strikes aimed at protecting the U.S.’s less strategically vital ally in Kabul.