Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
In the eight years since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, political pundits have used, and largely overused, all the available historical references. We have had the comparisons to the British 19th century failures there, to the Great Game, and to the Soviet Union’s disastrous experience in the 1980s. More recently, it has been labelled ”Obama’s Vietnam”.
The latest leitmotif is the domino theory - the view that Vietnam had to be saved from communism or other Asian countries would go the same way. In the case of Afghanistan, the argument is that if it falls to the Taliban, then Pakistan too might become vulnerable – an infinitely more dangerous proposition given that it is a country of some 170 million people with nuclear bombs.
Britain’s Paddy Ashdown alluded to this idea in an op-ed in the Independent titled “What we must do to win this war in Afghanistan”. “I start from the proposition that the war in Afghanistan is one we have to fight and must win. The cost of failure there is just too great. It includes the certain fall of Pakistan and the possible emergence of the world’s first jihadist government with a nuclear weapon …” he writes.
In an article in the American Interest, analyst Stephen Biddle spells this out further by arguing that the main reason for the United States to fight in Afghanistan is to prevent it from destabilising Pakistan.
Is Henry Kissinger trying to update the domino theory to fit what he fears in 2008? He had a "Lunch with the FT" interview in Saturday's Financial Times and surprised his interviewer, historian Stephen Graubard, by linking the war in Iraq and Muslims in India. As Graubard wrote:
He believes the military “surge” is working and says the next question is when to start to move away from an exclusively military option. “This is not a war of states,” Kissinger says. “If we withdraw from Iraq, the radical elements in all the neighbouring Arab countries will be greatly encouraged.” We will, he fears, be unable to maintain ourselves in Afghanistan, or to retain our present position in Pakistan.
On a visit to Pakistan in April, two comments stayed in my mind, encapsulating the Pakistani view of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. One was from a political analyst in Islamabad, which stood out for the unusualness of the imagery. “Obama,” she said, “has tried to put his feet in both boats.” The other was from a senior serving officer, who appeared to be giving a personal opinion rather than reading from the script prepared for more official briefings. “The Pashtun areas (of Afghanistan) are slipping out of the hands of ISAF and NATO, and everybody knows it,” he said.
The Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal - the drama aside of firing a top commander in wartime - is remarkable in the extent to which it plays up a similar assessment of the war in Afghanistan.
Very roughly summarised, this 21st century version of the domino theory suggests that a victory for Islamist militants in Afghanistan would so embolden them that they might then overrun Pakistan – a far more dangerous proposition given its nuclear weapons.