the 2008 presidential candidates are busy fielding
questions about how they would confront Iran's nuclear
ambitions, few seem interested in addressing a much more
pressing issue: Pakistan.
understandable, of course. Pakistan
is an infinitely more difficult challenge for a would-be
president to tackle. Unlike Iran - which can be
"deterred," or "ignored" - Pakistan
does not lend itself to sound bite solutions. It's much
easier for candidates to simply ignore our ostensible
ally and hope to pass through the campaign without being
called on it. But events will almost certainly conspire
to deny us the luxury of living in denial for very long.
truth is Pakistan
represents a far greater danger to the U.S.
at least for the foreseeable future. Let us count the
is a nuclear power. Iran
is not. Pakistan
has a proven track record of proliferation, including a
dalliance with al Qaeda. It was Pakistani nuclear
scientists, after all, who met with bin Laden.
Indeed, it was a Pakistani scientist, A.
Q. Khan, whose black-market network
significantly expanded the reach of nuclear equipment
and know-how. Meanwhile, Iranian scientists are still
laboring to master the basic elements of the nuclear
fuel cycle (though
Pakistanwas one of three countries
prior to 9/11 to recognize and provide significant
material support to the Taliban - the one regime whose
accommodation made 9/11 possible. Iran
opposed the Taliban. Elements within the Pakistani
to support rump Taliban elements as they
battle NATO and U.S.
forces in Afghanistan.
The New York Times reported
that Pakistani army elements have gone so far as to
directly fire on Afghan forces (though Pakistan
is vastly more sympathetic to al Qaeda than Iran.
Its religious schools preach
the extremist variety of Sunni Islam that animates bin
Laden's jihad. While Iran's
Shiite theocrats preach "death to America,"
few Iranians have actually embraced the mantra. There
are, for instance, 65
Pakistanis in GuantanamoBay;
there are zero Iranians. Unlike al
Shiite proxy Hezbollah has not embraced mass-causality
suicide terrorism against American civilian targets.
Indeed, Hezbollah's most significant anti-American
strike was against a military target 24 years ago: a
Marine barracks in Lebanon.
single most important element, however, is the presence
of a reconstituted al Qaeda leadership network in Pakistan.
The country plays host (whether willingly
to the architects of the largest massacre on U.S.
soil in history: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In contrast, Iran
reportedly harbors a
small number of lesser al Qaeda figures.
Senate testimony earlier this year, intelligence chief
John Negroponte described Pakistan
as a "secure
hide-out" within which al Qaeda plots
further carnage. In February, the New York Times reported
that al Qaeda "had been steadily building an
operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area
Waziristan" including full-fledged terror training camps. In Waziristan, al Qaeda inhabits a failed
state within a functioning, nuclear-armed one.
sum, the danger to Americans in America
is emanating principally from Pakistan,
What's more, the contours of the Iranian challenge are
recognizable. Much like the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Iran's
government works against U.S.
interests. It is equipping anti-American forces in Iraq
and challenging our influence in the Middle
East. As damaging as these actions are, they are familiar - we
know how to counter and defeat hostile nation states.
nuclear program is a challenge unfolding slowly and in
problem, however, is more complex - a 21st century
dilemma combining transnational terror groups,
"ungovernable" territory, and a government of
if the United States
suffers another 9/11-scale atrocity that traces its
roots to al Qaeda in Pakistan?
(If the British had not successfully thwarted the
plot to blow up ten airliners over the Atlantic,
this would not be a hypothetical.) What, exactly, will
the next president do? Do we hold the government of
Pervez Musharraf responsible? After all, his "Waziristan
Accord" with militant tribes in the
Northwest Frontier, which saw Pakistani forces withdraw
to barracks, ceded vital territory to al Qaeda. At least
some elements in the Pakistani government have trained,
and are reportedly still
facilitating al Qaeda's presence in the
President Musharraf refuses to seriously confront al
Qaeda on his territory after an attack on America,
would he let U.S.
forces do so? If he does not, should the U.S.
invade, or launch large scale military strikes, over his
objections? While justified, the risks of such action
are severe. It could spark a broader war with the
nuclear-armed state. If Musharraf relents or does not
intervene forcefully to counter an American action,
public outrage would almost certainly boil over.
Musharraf has already survived two assassination
attempts. For his Islamist enemies, the third time might
be the charm. A murdered Musharraf would throw the
country and its nuclear weapons into tumult at a moment
of maximum anti-Americanism.
do we give Pakistan
a pass, hoping, as we have with Saudi Arabia,
that maintaining close government-to-government ties
will ultimately allow us to make the most headway
against the jihadist threat? After all, without Pakistan's
help the most
senior al Qaeda leaders captured to date
would still be at large.
useful, in this light, to consider the events of September 12, 2001.
that day, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage
placed a call to Pakistan's
intelligence minister and Taliban supporter, General
Mahmood who happened to be in Washington D.C. Armitage's
mission was as consequential as it was brief. According
to the 9/11
Commission, Armitage served notice to the
government of Pakistan
that its policies had to change. Fast:
gave Mahmood a list of seven "non-negotiable"
demands, among them a requirement that Pakistan
end its relationship with the Taliban and grant the U.S.
territorial access to conduct operations against al
Qaeda. According to the Commission's final report,
made its decision swiftly. That afternoon, Secretary of
State Powell announced at the beginning of an NSC
meeting that Pakistani President Musharraf had agreed to
request for support in the war on terrorism.
interesting to note the tone of the exchange between the
two nations suddenly thrust into cooperation. Armitage,
in a Frontline
interview, gives us a hint:
was a very brief 15- or 20-minute meeting, where I
presented [Mahmood] with the list, read it to him, and
told him that this was not a negotiable list; it was all
or nothing. He said that he knew how the president
thought, and the president would accept these points and
was with us. I said, "With all respect, that's not
good enough. The president of Pakistan,
President Musharraf, must agree to these, and my
secretary will be calling in a couple of hours."
The secretary called or so Eastern time that
day, about an hour and 15 or 20 minutes after we'd
finished the meeting. President Musharraf agreed to all
the conditions, without exception.
that Armitage threatened to "bomb Pakistan
back to the stone age" if help was not forthcoming.
Armitage disputes that characterization. What is not in
dispute is that, after the carnage of 9/11, America
served notice to Pakistan.
the next president deliver such an ultimatum? Would it
be wise to do so?
the staggering loss of life on 9/11, attacking al Qaeda
was seen as either too harsh or too daunting a prospect
based on the carnage al Qaeda had inflicted to date. It
was only when viewed in the light of nearly 3,000 dead
that our passivity looked irresponsible. Today, we don't
need hindsight to understand that, barring forceful
action from Musharraf now, al Qaeda will eventually
strike the U.S.
again (although a strike is altogether possible even
with strong action). At that point, will our Pakistan
policy look similarly irresponsible?
the downside costs of strongly pressing Musharraf or
attacking al Qaeda in Northwest Pakistan are steep, while the price
of our relative inaction has been modest. While several
attacks - notably
the July 7 London tube bombings - have been
traced back to the country, the U.S. and Western allies
have preferred to tread lightly with Musharraf, viewing
him as the best of a set of bad options. At what point
is Musharraf's desultory attitude toward bin Laden no
longer acceptable? What can we realistically hope to
accomplish if we turn on him?
represent two distinct threats. While we persist in Iraq,
will be a direct threat to our troops. Its nuclear
program and terrorist network, however, represents less
a threat to American lives than to America's
influence in the Middle East.
For those who wish to maintain that
influence at any cost, beating back Iran
is a top priority. But for those concerned with securing
American lives, Iran
is a serious but lesser-order concern.
is quite the opposite. The terrorist network on its
soil, the uncertain allegiance of its military and
intelligence forces, its evident willingness to
proliferate, and the precariousness
of Musharraf's regime most directly threaten the lives
of Americans. The tough questions that surround our Pakistan
policy don't get any easier if we ignore them. The
people who are vying to lead our country owe us their