David Rothkopf

Three juntas and a democracy

I don’t know about you, but I find it a little peculiar that after an election campaign during which it was regularly argued that Pakistan was one of the most dangerous places in the world — and after the new administration’s very appropriate decision to devote significant new resources to the challenges we face in ...

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I don’t know about you, but I find it a little peculiar that after an election campaign during which it was regularly argued that Pakistan was one of the most dangerous places in the world — and after the new administration’s very appropriate decision to devote significant new resources to the challenges we face in that country…and after top officials working the issue since almost day one…and despite the fact that throughout this period the country was primarily described as the unstable haven of our terrorist enemies — it now turns out, rather surprisingly, that there seems to be an organized civil war going on there in which those same enemies were making substantial progress marching on the capital. They are functioning more as a coordinated guerrilla force and the prospect of them picking off multiple provinces of the country (much as the FARC did in Colombia creating pockets of failed or radicalized provinces in the wrapper of a weak state…what you might call a hybrid state) is looming as a real one. 

Even given the fact that Pakistan was the site of one of our greatest intelligence failures of modern history (failing to catch their development of nuclear weapons…a failure that may, in future, look even worse than it does today) it is still surprising to think that we have been viewing this situation so incorrectly for so long. Yet, as evidenced by Admiral Mullen’s reactions following his recent trips, the situation has deteriorated dramatically and we seem to have been caught flat-footed. Sure, the Zardari government has now started to make a show of going after the Taliban. And yes, their ambassador Husain Haqqani, an old friend and a good, smart guy with a tough job, had a piece in the Wall Street Journal saying “everything’s fine, please send helicopters” yesterday as an attempt to soothe fraying American nerves. But behind the scenes, policy types and military leaders are concerned this country, which is ground zero in many of the worst-case scenario exercises gamed out by national security officials, may be on the verge of spiraling out of control.

That would be a very, very bad thing. What with the nukes and all. Made worse by the fact that the options available to us are slim. The Pakistanis don’t want us on the ground. (So instead they get Predator attacks which they don’t much like either. And, utterly appropriately, Holbrooke attacks which, as Slobodan Milosevic would tell you…if he weren’t deservingly dead…can be worse.) We can’t work too closely with our best potential ally in the region, India, because it would only inflame the Pakistanis. And the situation in Afghanistan is also not so great. 

One specter that is raised in my mind is that Pakistan becomes a bit like Cambodia. Everyone has accepted our troops should be on the ground in a neighboring country but the war has shifted across a border and we are now faced with the dilemma of whether or how we should cross that border. The Cambodia thing, by the way, did not turn out so well. (The main difference of course, is that back then the primary war was in Vietnam. Today, it is in Pakistan.)

So what are we left with? Comforted by? Well, by Plan B of course. And to understand that, you have to meet General Plan B: Pakistan’s top soldier, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Kayani, who replaced former President Musharraf as head of the army, is the first Pakistani chief of staff who also headed up their notoriously unreliable (which is to say divided in terms of loyalties) intelligence services, the ISI. He’s the default option for DC policy hounds, the guy who steps in when the bell finally tolls for Zardari as it inevitably will. He is the man whose leadership stands between us and 60 or more Pakistani nukes going unsecured, between us and a radicalized Pakistan.  

And the American people will gladly go along with it. It won’t be much comfort to Musharraf…in fact, he may find the irony rather galling, but if we could be sure that a strong military government could keep a lid on Pakistan for the foreseeable future we would jump at it. Jump back at it. Take it again.  Democracy schemocracy.  Let’s have stability and worry about the details later.  Heck, we’re taking a stand against torture that ought to buy us at least this pragmatic diversion from our alleged national ideals, right? At least that is pretty much the conventional wisdom in Washington. (Which, oddly enough, in this case actually makes pretty good sense.)

In fact, looking at the region and the instability in Afghanistan and Iraq, it does not seem farfetched at all to imagine a successful Obama presidency ending with strongmen or juntas in charge of each of these countries. Because the alternatives are messy and unstable at best, requiring more military resources than we can muster or military options we’d rather not consider at worst. 

Ironically, the one country in the region we have not invaded, Iran, may be the one with history and the public discourse most likely to actually produce something like sustainable democracy. (Which as one noted expert in the region suggested to me…somewhat optimistically…could spill over into the political approaches of Hezbollah and Hamas.) It’s not on the imminent horizon to be sure, but it is fair to say that Iran has always been a better candidate for stable, functioning democracy than the other three places. 

So, could that be the Obama legacy? Three juntas and a democracy? In these four places? It wouldn’t be according to the game plan and we’d have to hold our noses from time to time, but it’s worth considering just how welcome such an outcome would be if it produced greater stability and the time we needed to reduce our dependence on the region’s oil and contain the region’s nuclear and terrorist threats. Come on, admit it, you’d take that deal in a heartbeat.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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