The Dangers of an Islamist Pakistan
Almost certainly, the war in Afghanistan will be won or lost in Pakistan. President Trump’s announcement last week that he will send more US troops — some sources say another 4,000 — to Afghanistan represents a change in tactics from President Obama’s policy. But the ultimate objective is still opaque, and even once the specifics are articulated, what may ultimately matter more is the still-undeveloped “South Asia policy” promised by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
That means dealing with Pakistan. Islamabad has provided financial and military aid, including privileged sanctuaries, to the Taliban, the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other malefactors, allowing them not just to survive but flourish. President Trump rightly says this must stop and is encouraging Pakistan’s principal adversary, India, to increase its economic assistance to Afghanistan.
But the task isn’t so straightforward. The Bush and Obama administrations also criticized Pakistan’s support for terrorists, without effect. Putting too much pressure on Pakistan risks further destabilizing the already volatile country, tipping it into the hands of domestic radical Islamicists, who grow stronger by the day.
Peter Tomsen, a former State Department regional expert, once described Pakistan as the only government he knew consisting simultaneously of arsonists and firefighters — often the same people, depending on the situation. Pakistan has teetered on the edge of collapse ever since it was created in the 1947 partition of British India. Its civilian governments have too often been corrupt, incompetent or both. The ouster last month of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — he stepped down after the Supreme Court disqualified him for not having been “honest” — is no reassurance. If anything, it shows the judiciary’s excessive politicization, which further weakens constitutional governance.
Islamabad’s military, sometimes called the country’s “steel skeleton,” is equally problematic. It recalls the old remark about Prussia: Whereas other countries have armies, Pakistan’s army has a country. The military is also becoming increasingly radicalized, with Islamicists already in control of its intelligence services and now working their way through the ranks of the combat branches.
In this unstable environment, blunt pressure by the US — and, by inference, India — could backfire. Just as America must stay engaged in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban and other terrorists from retaking control, it is also imperative to keep Islamabad from falling under the sway of radical Islamicists. Hence the danger of inadvertently strengthening their hand by supplying a convenient narrative of overt US dominion. Such a blunder might help Pakistan’s radicals seize power even as the US battles terrorists in Afghanistan.
Remember that Pakistan has been a nuclear state for nearly two decades. The gravest threat is that its arsenal of nuclear warheads, perhaps up to 100 of them, would fall into radical hands. The US would instantly face many times the dangers posed by nuclear Iran or North Korea.
If American pressure were enough to compel Pakistan to act decisively against the terrorists within its borders, that would have happened long ago. What President Trump needs is a China component to his nascent South Asia policy, holding Beijing accountable for the misdeeds that helped create the current strategic dangers.
Of all the external actors, China bears primary responsibility for Pakistan’s and North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. For its own strategic reasons, China gave both countries direct financial, scientific and technological assistance and then flew political cover at the UN and elsewhere. Empowering Islamabad was a hedge against India, China’s biggest threat in South Asia. Helping Pyongyang was a play against the US and its Asian allies. (And, increasingly, against the wider world, since North Korea appears to have sold its technology.)
In both cases China recklessly disregarded the risks of proliferation and breached its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. By comparison, Beijing’s flagrant violations of its World Trade Organization commitments are trifles. China was hardly unaware that Pakistan has fostered and aided Islamic terrorists in Kashmir, threatening Indian control. Yet Beijing has done nothing to stop it, thus indirectly keeping Indo-Pakistani relations tense.
China has also made Pakistan a considerable beneficiary of the massive transportation infrastructure and other projects related to its “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Clearly Beijing intends to bind Islamabad ever more tightly into its modern-day “co-prosperity sphere.”
It must, therefore, be core US policy to hold China to account, even belatedly. The US can use its leverage to induce China to join the world in telling Pakistan it must sever ties with terrorists and close their sanctuaries. The Trump administration should make clear that Beijing will face consequences if it does not bring to bear its massive interests in support of this goal. Washington could also point out that this is in Beijing’s own interest, lest the terrorists rise next among the Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province, what was once “East Turkestan.”
Whether Beijing truly intends to be a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs, as its US advocates insist, should be put to the test — and not merely on monetary and trade issues. Fighting international terrorism and nuclear proliferation requires determination and action, not the kind of smiling repetition of bumper-sticker phrases that China’s military and political leadership blithely ignore.
Starting now in Afghanistan and Pakistan, China should be told its bona fides as a state engaging in a “peaceful rise” are on the line. If real proof of that conceit does not emerge, Washington will be entitled to draw the appropriate conclusions.
This article was originally published by the Wall Street Journal.