Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Nightmare Scenario for Pakistan

As the seventh anniversary of the 911 attacks approaches and the Americans prepare to vote in November, a major terrorist attack from Pakistan's tribal areas on the US soil is the nightmare scenario that may unfold in 2008. Such an attack would immediately trigger massive bombing and invasion of Pakistan by the US and NATO, with or without the approval of Pakistani authorities. It could also result in the removal of the democratically elected government and installation of a new military regime in Pakistan. Not only would this scenario set Pakistan as well as South and Central Asian regions back by decades, it would unleash terrible consequences for Pakistani diaspora around the world. In addition to unparalleled death and destruction, such a scenario could turn Pakistan into a failed state with widespread unrest, homelessness, poverty, hunger and disease. With the potential take-over of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal by the US, it would render Pakistan unable to deter its neighbors from adventures into Pakistan. Within the United States, it would mean the election of John McCain as the new president continuing the current policies of George W. Bush.

This nightmare scenario is not far-fetched. It is almost certainly on the minds of US military planners planning contingencies. At the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings recently, General David H. Petraeus, the newly-nominated head of the US Central Command, answered in the affirmative to a question by Sen Jack Reed if he agreed with the intelligence community and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen's assessment that the next terrorist attack on the United States would most likely come from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area. The US intelligence Community, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and future CENTCOM commander all agree that Pakistan poses the greatest danger as the potential source of a major terrorist attack on the US.

There is a rising chorus of international criticism of Pakistan as the newly elected government in Islamabad attempts to change its policy on dealing with the terrorist threat along Pakistan-Afghan border. It seems that the Pakistani military is showing signs of weariness in its fight against the Taleban who have local roots in the tribal belt on both sides of the highly porous Durand line. The NWFP provincial government and Islamabad are eager to try negotiating peace with the militants to improve security within Pakistan. However, the US, NATO, and Afghan governments are concerned with rise in attacks on their forces from the militants who are alleged to be operating from Pakistani side of the border. With the rising death toll on the Afghan side, there are warnings coming from US General Dan McNeill and President Hamid Karzai to Pakistan to stop the cross-border attacks.

As the Pakistani leadership currently focuses on restoration of judges, peace deals with the Taleban in tribal areas, and calls for UN inquiry into Bhutto assassination, this rising chorus of criticism has the potential to blind-side the newly elected government with sudden escalation along the border with Afghanistan. It is time for the new Pakistani leaders to start to pay attention to Pakistan's vital relations with the West and prevent any precipitous action by US and NATO along the Pak-Afghan border. Pakistan must persuade and involve US in any peace deals with the Taleban to avoid creating suspicions. The Taleban must be told not to provide sanctuaries to foreign terrorists and extremists and to stop cross-border attacks as a condition for any peace deals. Pakistan and US must focus on isolating and marginalizing the extreme elements within the Taleban and offer incentives to those who agree to cooperate in ending the hostilities threatening the entire region.

On the US side, there is some hope that a precipitous and a major and purely military action along the western border can be avoided. The new CENTCOM commander General Petraeus believes in the use of diplomacy along with the military force. “In most of the issues we'll address, a purely military approach is unlikely to succeed,” he noted, “and our strategy must recognize that.”

General Petraeus said he’d seek to deal with the underlying causes of challenges in the region. Thoughtful joint planning and coordination with the US and NATO as well as internal strategizing by Pakistan's diplomatic and security analysts can help Pakistan avoid the nightmare scenario to assure Pakistan's democracy and economic progress. It is important that Pakistan's leaders recognize the far-reaching significance of their actions regarding the war on terror and feel the urgency and full weight of responsibility while making political and security decisions.

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