Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Best Defense Interview: Armitage on Pakistan’s Tactical Nukes, Afghanistan’s Future, and Why We Should Withdraw Now

Best Defense: Do you think Pakistan turned against the United States in Afghanistan in 2005? What makes you think that? Richard Armitage: "When I was deputy secretary [of state], from 2001 to February 2005, I looked constantly for information that the Pakistanis were aiding the Taliban…. I did see liaison, but I could not find" ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Best Defense: Do you think Pakistan turned against the United States in Afghanistan in 2005? What makes you think that?

Richard Armitage: "When I was deputy secretary [of state], from 2001 to February 2005, I looked constantly for information that the Pakistanis were aiding the Taliban.... I did see liaison, but I could not find" strong evidence of more.

"2005, if you look at casualties [in the Afghan war]. There was the beginning of a sharp rise. I believe two things happened. The Talibs started digging up their weapons and the Pakistanis thought, Maybe the Americans will prove short of breath, and so maybe we should keep our hand in.

Best Defense: Do you think Pakistan turned against the United States in Afghanistan in 2005? What makes you think that?

Richard Armitage: "When I was deputy secretary [of state], from 2001 to February 2005, I looked constantly for information that the Pakistanis were aiding the Taliban…. I did see liaison, but I could not find" strong evidence of more.

"2005, if you look at casualties [in the Afghan war]. There was the beginning of a sharp rise. I believe two things happened. The Talibs started digging up their weapons and the Pakistanis thought, Maybe the Americans will prove short of breath, and so maybe we should keep our hand in.

"There was a background to this. From our point of view, it was black and white. From a Pakistani point of view, it wasn’t. In their view, we are a very unfaithful partner, with four or five divorces since 1947. So in the back of their minds is always, When are they going to cut and run?"

BD: How does that inform your view of the current situation?

Armitage: "My present view of the situation is that the Pakistan government is persuaded of the ultimate ability of the Taliban to form a deal with the Afghan government, with a rough return to corners — the Tajik in the north, Pashtun in the south and east, the Hazaras in the middle getting kicked by everybody, and so on.

"I think in addition, Pakistan dramatically increased its nuclear arsenal after 2008-2009. They fear that we will swoop in and take them.

"With India, they now are looking at tactical nuclear weapons." [Their fear, Armitage said, is that if there is another Mumbai-like attack, India will respond with a corps-sized attack on Pakistan.] "Tactical nukes is what you’d use against a corps." [This might provoke India to escalate further.] "But Pakistan would say that its tactical nukes would deter that."

BD: I saw today (Monday) that 3 SAMs were reported intercepted near the Pakistani border. What do you make of that?

Armitage: If it were true, "That would be seen as a very unfriendly act," one directed not against Afghan forces but against our airpower. "I’d be skeptical of that" report — it more likely is MANPADs than larger SAMs.

BD: As the United States tries to draw down its presence in Afghanistan and turn over security to Afghan forces, what do you expect Pakistan to try to do?

Armitage: "I think they will remain on the trajectory they are on" — that is, supporting Talibs in the south and east, and keeping an eye on Indian (and possibly Russian) dealing with the Tajiks.

If internal unrest grows in Pakistan, "they may have to spend a little more time at home," but still will likely remain on the same trajectory in Afghanistan.

BD: If you had lunch with President Obama today, what would you tell him about the Afghan war and about Pakistan?

Armitage: "Twenty-five years from now, Mr. President, I can assure you there will be a nation called Afghanistan, with much the same borders and the same rough demographic makeup. I probably couldn’t say that about Pakistan."

On the Afghan war, "I would say, Mr. President, it is not worth one more limb." Perhaps just leave enough for counterterror missions and maybe some trainers.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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