When It Rains, It Pours

by , May 27, 2009

As if the Obama administration didn’t already have its hands full with both Iraq and Afghanistan, it also now faces two crises with Pakistan and North Korea. In Pakistan, the Zardari government is battling the Taliban in the Swat Valley, less than 100 miles from Islamabad. Meanwhile, the North Koreans have conducted a second nuclear test (according to Russian officials, the yield was comparable to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II) and test-fired two short-range missiles.

So what’s a superpower to do?

The answer: Not much.

The Pakistanis are doing what the Obama administration had urged them to do: take the fight to the Taliban (previously, Islamabad’s approach to dealing with the Taliban had been to negotiate, allowing the Taliban to impose harsh Islamic law in the Malakand district in exchange for a cease-fire). But urging is probably the extent of what the United States should do. Certainly, inserting U.S. forces into Pakistan – a country where much of the population has deep anti-American resentment – is out of the question. Moreover, a U.S. military presence in Pakistan would simply reinforce the claims that America is waging a broader war against Islam. And giving the Pakistanis more aid would simply be throwing good money after bad. Since 9/11, the United States has already given more than $12 billion in mostly military aid to the Pakistani government, but almost all of it has been squandered on heavy arms, aircraft (including U.S. F-16 fighter jets), and other equipment ill-suited for counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban and more appropriate for a conventional war with India. Moreover, to think that the U.S. can somehow transform the Pakistani military to conduct counterinsurgency when the U.S. military is still coming to terms with such operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is more than a leap of faith.

For the moment, the Zardari government is acting for its own survival – which is probably the best the United States can hope for. But even that carries risks. Previous military operations against militants have had less than overwhelming support from the Pakistani public, largely because they were viewed as simply doing America’s bidding in a country where anti-American resentment is high. To date, more than 2 million Pakistanis have been displaced from the Swat Valley as a result of anti-Taliban military operations. And the several hundred thousand still remaining are faced with severe shortages of food, water, and medicine. So if those Pakistanis believe they are worse off than when the Taliban was in control of the Swat Valley, then public support for the current offensive could evaporate. Worse yet, they could throw their support to the Taliban.

Of course, the biggest worry for the Obama administration is the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Fortunately, the fighting with the Taliban is occurring in western Pakistan. Since Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are intended as a deterrent against India, presumably they are deployed in eastern Pakistan. But should the worst happen – however unlikely – and the Taliban topples the Zardari government, the one plan the United States should have in place is to take out Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities, since Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan has previously stated, "Osama [bin Laden] can come here. Sure, like a brother they can stay anywhere they want. Yes, we will help them and protect them." (Note: Having such a plan does not necessarily mean executing it – which would be fraught with uncertainties – but, given the situation, it would be irresponsible not to have such a plan.)

Speaking of nukes, maybe it’s time to accept, however undesirable it seems, that North Korea is going to remain a nuclear power. Barring forcible regime-change (probably not a good idea against a country that likely has nuclear weapons, and probably one of the reasons, if not the primary reason, the North Korean regime chose to develop and acquire nuclear capability), it seems highly unlikely that Pyongyang will reverse its nuclear status. To the extent that there’s any chance, however minuscule, that hope might somehow triumph over experience, the Chinese are probably the only ones in any position to persuade the North Koreans to change their minds.

Certainly, U.S. threats don’t seem to work – unless you believe in living out Einstein’s definition of insanity: continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results. At this stage, it might be more productive for the Obama administration to think about how to prevent North Korea from becoming a Wal-Mart for nuclear and other WMD technology, especially to non-state actors. In that respect, further isolating the regime and imposing sanctions are likely to be counterproductive. After all, what good does it do to make an impoverished country even poorer? Moreover, history demonstrates that sanctions will only hurt the general population and not the regime. The likely result is resentment of those imposing the sanctions, i.e., the United States and its allies, and support for the regime.

Instead, the administration needs to think about incentives, such as direct talks between the United States and North Korea. Indeed, many analysts believe the recent nuclear test may be Pyongyang’s way of trying to get Washington’s attention. But along with carrots, the United States must also clearly and credibly communicate sticks. If there is one bright line that North Korea cannot cross, it is supplying nuclear or other WMD capability to terrorists. Any concrete evidence of such should be considered legitimate grounds for regime-change.

Ultimately, the Obama administration does not have a whole lot of good options to choose from with regard to Pakistan and North Korea. But "less is more" may be the best course of action in both cases.

Read more by Charles V. Peña