Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on 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.
“Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it’s going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm,” it says. “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” it quotes Major General Bill Mayville, chief of operations for McChrystal, as saying. “This is going to end in an argument.”
In that context, McChrystal’s departure, and the very public washing of dirty linen over the conduct of the war, is unlikely to change the working assumptions Pakistan has about Afghanistan, and in consequence its policy decisions. And given that Pakistan (nuclear-armed, population 170 million, base for al Qaeda and many other militant groups) is a bigger strategic nightmare for the United States than Afghanistan if it goes wrong, those policy decisions may well count for far more than the fate of a single general.
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.
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years since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, political pundits have used, and largely overused, all the available historical references.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.
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.