The Afghanistan war and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal

One of the thorniest issues in an American troop pullout is concern over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. Does the U.S. have to keep a strong presence in Afghanistan to ward against that – or is it, as some experts argue, a wrongheaded concern? It’s a new domino theory and, writes John Hanrahan, the press needs to do a better job describing it to the American people.

A scene in Lahore in April. How should volatility in Pakistan figure in U.S. plans for Afghanistan? (AP photo)

By John Hanrahan

Long-held assumptions by U.S. policymakers that the Afghanistan war’s outcome will affect Pakistan’s future stability and control of its nuclear weapons – a modern domino theory – are being strongly disputed by backers of a quick, substantial military withdrawal but defended by those arguing for maintaining a larger force for a longer period.

In Nieman Watchdog’s series on Afghanistan, this issue – what about Pakistan? – has, in fact, emerged as one of the thorniest questions. For some the domino theory is as discredited now as it was during the Vietnam era. But others hold to the belief that what happens in Afghanistan impacts strongly on Pakistan’s future.

In a paper presented in June as part of a discussion at the libertarian Cato Institute think-tank, two professors with expertise in military strategy and international affairs presented the case against the need to keep a large presence in Afghanistan because of concern over Pakistan.

The professors, Joshua Rovner and Austin Long, wrote: “The argument about a spillover effect is based on some unspecified notion about the causes of political instability; it imagines that Pakistan institutions will become weaker through some kind of cross-border osmosis. This modern version of the domino theory ignores the fact that the root causes of Pakistani instability are found in Pakistan, not across the border.”

Rovner is assistant professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College, and Long is assistant professor in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. If they are correct in their critique of what they term the “loose-nukes” theory – namely, that “the steps needed to help Pakistan secure its nuclear arsenal have nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan” – then another of the last arguments for a major troop presence in Afghanistan crumbles.

Their position, and similar arguments advanced by other prominent scholars such as Professors Paul Pillar and Juan Cole, deserve full consideration by the Obama administration and the U.S. military. And the press, for its part, needs to dig into the issue and describe it to the American people – something it hasn’t done until now.

In their paper, Rovner and Long also reject oft-expressed Obama and Bush administration concerns that Afghanistan could once more become a safe haven for al Qaeda, a subject Nieman Watchdog explored in a previous piece. Unlike a growing number of critics of the war, though, they do not advocate a complete pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, not even by the end of 2014, the date announced by President Obama for complete combat troop withdrawal.

Rather, they recommend that the United States by the end of 2012 reduce U.S. forces from the current 100,000 down to 10,000-15,000 special operations and conventional troops, substantially below the 67,000 troops that Obama envisions for Afghanistan at that point.

This smaller number, “supplemented by additional intelligence community personnel and contractors,” would engage in counterterrorism operations, including targeting any al Qaeda members returning to Afghanistan, quick reaction, assisting local allies in the south, working with Afghan security forces, and providing transport and fire support to both U.S. and Afghan units.

These remaining troops would be based at U.S. airfields in the south and east of the country where the insurgency is the strongest. Such a drawdown and switch from the current U.S. strategy, which Rovner and Long call “a counterinsurgency and state-building hybrid,” would produce savings of more than $80 billion annually over current $100-billion-plus U.S. war costs in Afghanistan, they estimated.

Given their contention that the “safe haven” and “loose nukes” assumptions are wrong, Nieman Watchdog asked Rovner what is the necessity of having any remaining troops in Afghanistan beyond Obama’s late 2014 full combat troop withdrawal date?

“The crux of our argument is that we’ve done a great deal to undermine al Qaeda over the last decade and it won’t take nearly as much to consolidate those gains,” Rovner told us. “It will certainly not require a large conventional force or a massive state-building effort. The threat is manageable now – it’s certainly nothing like it was in the 1990s – meaning we can do more with much less. We do envision maintaining a small presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to sustain a limited Afghanistan government and support sub-national allies, both of which are necessary to provide a base of operations for continued direct action against al Qaeda.” This is different from places like Somalia, he said, “where it is easier to operate from offshore and from bases in neighboring countries.”

How will this all end? Ultimately, Rovner said, “The decision about ending the war is really a political judgment about how much risk we’re willing to live with.”

Rovner and Long wrote that assertions by the Obama administration, the Bush administration before it, and prominent conservatives regarding the supposed link between success in Afghanistan and stability in Pakistan, amount to a conventional wisdom that is “almost never challenged.” For example, they cite the Obama administration’s White House Interagency Policy Group’s white paper on Afghanistan and Pakistan: “The ability of extremists in Pakistan to undermine Afghanistan is proven, while insurgency in Afghanistan feeds instability in Pakistan. The threat that al Qaeda poses to the United States and our allies in Pakistan — including the possibility of extremists obtaining fissile material — is all too real.”

In actuality, Rovner and Long contend, “success or failure against the Afghanistan Taliban will not affect the security of Pakistan’s arsenal. The issues are unrelated.”

Rovner and Long do not argue that there is no danger of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of insurgents, and in this regard they outline a number of ways – including recent attacks against Pakistan’s military and nuclear complex – by which militants could come into possession of such weapons. Anther possible method would have insurgents intercepting weapons or fissile materials in transit, but the most likely dangerous scenario appears to be the “insider-outsider collusion” precedent set a decade ago by A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program. In February 2004, Khan reportedly signed a confession admitting he had operated a nuclear proliferation ring that had provided Iran, Libya, and North Korea with design and centrifuge technology for their nuclear weapons programs. Although subject to house arrest, Khan was never charged with any crime.

The two academics note again that none of these potential nuclear weapons issues has anything to do with the war in Afghanistan. “Put simply, the United States does not need to fight in Afghanistan in order to keep nuclear weapons away from terrorists,” they wrote. Rather, the United States could, among other things, provide Pakistan with greater technical assistance, along with “quiet efforts to shore up” that nation’s steps over the last decade “to mitigate the danger of insider-outsider collusion.”

President Obama has himself expressed some optimism regarding the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, stating on April 29, 2009: “I’m confident that we can make sure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure, primarily, initially, because the Pakistani army, I think, recognizes the hazards of those weapons falling into the wrong hands…I feel confident that that nuclear arsenal will remain out of militant hands.”

Former CIA official Paul Pillar, previously interviewed by Nieman Watchdog on the safe-haven issue, also disputes the contention that what happens in Afghanistan will directly affect Pakistan’s stability and control of nuclear weapons. Pillar is a 28-year intelligence veteran including service as deputy chief of the CIA’s counterterrorist center in the late 1990s, and is now director of graduate studies for the security studies program at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies. He calls this notion the “green ooze” theory that “if you don’t deal with instability in one country, it will ooze across the border into the next country.” As for extremists in Pakistan coming into control of that nation’s nuclear weapons, Pillar is likewise skeptical. As he wrote in The National Interest of January 3, 2011:

“As for mad mullahs and the nukes, however, I don’t see a cause for so much worry. The specter is just that; it is not a scenario. I have yet to hear a plausible path that would bring Pakistan to that nightmare.”

Professor Juan Cole, in a recent interview with Nieman Watchdog, also took issue with the commonplace depiction of Pakistan as “a nuclear-armed, unstable country.” Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. (Cole was recently in the news as having been the target of alleged Bush administration-directed CIA efforts to discredit him because of his criticisms of the war in Iraq.)

“That kind of alarmism about Pakistan isn’t warranted,” Cole told us. “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Pakistan the most dangerous country in the world. That kind of statement is invidious and unfair. Pakistan is not North Korea.” Further, Cole said, Pakistan is more secure than Iraq, despite statements from the political right that overall the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country has been some kind of success story.

Cole told us that by the standards of the uprisings earlier this year in Egypt and Tunisia, “everything that happened in the Arab spring had already happened in Pakistan.” He reminded us of Pakistan’s history of the last few years during which Pakistan moved from rule by military dictator General Pervez Musharraf  – who was ousted from power in 2008 under threat of impeachment for alleged corruption – to democratically elected parliamentary rule in August 2008.

When Musharraf in 2007 suspended the Supreme Court’s chief justice following court decisions Musharraf opposed, some 7,000 demonstrators came out to support the jurist, while lawyers and others staged a sit-in in Lahore. As a further move last year toward a strong parliamentary system, Cole noted, Pakistan amended its constitution to limit the power of the president by stripping the office of the power to dismiss the prime minister at will or to cancel or discontinue a session of parliament. Also, this reform, as Cole wrote in his “Informed Consent” blog last year, “gave more autonomy to the provinces within the Pakistani federal system” and the Pashtun people “will finally get a provincial name recognizing them.” (See also this article at the Center for American Progress on the significance of this constitutional amendment.)

The result, Cole wrote, is that “the Pakistani public has conducted a ‘color revolution’ of its own, in the teeth of opposition or skittishness in Washington, and managed to overturn a military dictatorship that had been backed to the hilt by Bush-Cheney, restoring parliamentary governance.” That these reforms were implemented by Pakistan’s politicians “gives them an authenticity that the U.S.-authored procedures in Iraq largely lack.”

In contrast, Cole wrote: “Iraq is a basket case, full of smoldering rubble and an army of displaced people, as well as masses of widows and orphans created by the violence that broke out when [President] Bush created a power vacuum.” He further stated that, “Iraqi politics are far less secular than Pakistan’s,” and Pakistan “is a much more secure country than Iraq, possessing a large and professional army.”

As Cole concluded:

…Pakistan, by democratizing from within and challenging the paradigm of liberal imperialism, either falls off the U.S. radar (it isn’t our project, so why even pay attention?) or is actively disparaged as a form of ‘instability.’ It all has to be about us…Iraq is being lauded as a role model not because it is a success but because it is an American project, in which the little brown irrational people have allegedly once again…had the precious tutelage of white Europeans (and Euro-Americans) generously bestowed upon them. Pakistan, which at the moment has had a much better political outcome, is ignored or disparaged because the hand of the West is hard to discern in its achievements.”

On the other side of the ledger, Cole said that Pakistan has a “host of daunting problems” — widespread corruption, “the continued undue power of the military and of Inter-Services Intelligence, Taliban-driven political violence…a legacy of support for terrorism in Kashmir and Afghanistan…high population growth rates, lack of land reform, and relatively low literacy and internet use.” These problems could undo its recent gains, he said, but for now the United States should recognize that progress has been made there in recent years and not view Pakistan as beyond hope.

Those who present a more dire picture

Other academic and think-tank experts who argue for a continued, substantial U.S. military presence paint a more dire picture of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and warn that, contrary to the Rovner-Long arguments, U.S. military failure in Afghanistan would have dangerous repercussions in Pakistan.

Dr. Marvin Weinbaum, scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute think-tank, said in an interview with Nieman Watchdog that what happens in Afghanistan very much affects what happens in Pakistan, as well as in the entire region. Also, he said, while the Pakistani military has “all the latest know-how in command and control” of its nuclear weapons, the concern “is not that they will give it away, but rather that extremist militants could penetrate” the country’s nuclear facilities “because of inside help.”

Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst in the State Department (1999-2003) and author of several books, said that President Obama has made a mistake in stating that destroying al Qaeda is our primary objective in Afghanistan, since al Qaeda can plot against the United States “from Somalia or Munich and doesn’t need a stronghold in Afghanistan.”

This emphasis on al Qaeda obscures our true regional national security objectives to which al Qaeda’s destruction is of only marginal importance, he said. If al Qaeda were to suddenly vanish from Pakistan (as it has virtually done in Afghanistan where the U.S. military estimates it currently has no more than 100 fighters), Weinbaum said, the insurgencies facing both Pakistan and Afghanistan from the Taliban and other groups would scarcely diminish. U.S. stakes in the region “require that we remain engaged militarily, politically, and economically until both countries are able to stand up to those forces that threaten their stability and our strategic concerns,” he warned in a recent paper titled, “Defeat Is Not An Option.”

“The U.S. cannot accept defeat by the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he wrote. “Nor can it abdicate responsibility for assisting Pakistan against militant extremism and many social and economic challenges it faces. Of first concern is that failure in Afghanistan will expand the space for terrorists to train and launch attacks.”

Another major concern regarding U.S. military failure in Afghanistan (which Weinbaum said is not given enough public airing) is the threat of “almost certain ethnic civil war and regional struggle that, as in the 1990s, will pit the non-Pashtun north [of Afghanistan] aided by Russia, Iran and India against a Pakistan-backed Taliban. Hundreds of thousands of new refugees can be expected to stream out of Afghanistan, most headed for a fragile Pakistan. While Taliban control of Afghanistan’s south and east could make available a sphere of influence for Pakistan across its western border, this would be more than offset by a blowback that energizes Pashtun ethnic nationalism and insurgency within Pakistan.” As for Pakistan’s nuclear facilities, Weinbaum warned that such “spreading militancy and extremism could place at risk Pakistan’s large nuclear arsenal.”

Going to a strictly counterterrorism approach in Afghanistan, Weinbaum told us, would amount to “effectively ceding the country to the Taliban.” And he raised the oft-used and often-criticized credibility argument in calling for a continued strong military presence. “A premature American departure from Afghanistan,” he wrote, would cause governments across the Muslim world “to question American resolve in the region, and terrorist elements everywhere would be crowing about their victory.”

At the recent forum at the Cato Institute, one prominent supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took issue with fellow panelist Rovner. Michael O’Hanlon, director of research and senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in response to Rovner’s presentation: “What happens on one side of a border matters a lot” to a neighboring country “both in civil war and insurgency.”

“Were the Pakistani Taliban to have a sanctuary in Afghanistan, that would certainly be undesirable, to put it mildly,” O’Hanlon said. Experts he relies on, O’Hanlon said, warn that such a situation could threaten both Pakistan’s fundamental stability and its nuclear arsenal.

A drawdown of troops to the 10,000-15,000 level proposed in the Rovner-Long paper, he said, “creates a big risk of losing the entire south” of Afghanistan to the insurgents. Rovner and Long, in fact, contemplate that under their plan the Taliban would control slightly more of the country than it now does, but limited mainly to Pashtun areas. With continued U.S. support, Afghanistan’s central government “would be able to control at least half the country,” including the major cities of Kabul and Kandahar, they said.

O’Hanlon said he supports the current U.S. approach in Afghanistan, but if that falters over the next year to year-and-a-half, “I might come around to Josh’s position” of a limited counterterrorism force.

John Hanrahan is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for The Washington Post, The Washington Star, UPI, and other news organizations.

NOTE:This is a cross post from Nieman Watchdog.Com

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  • S U Turkman  On July 9, 2011 at 2:06 am

    Well, if Pakistanis called Taliban take over southern Afghanistan, we have plenty of Drones to keep making their lives miserable. At least Pakistan then would not be complaining since we would not be bombing inside Pakistan.
    Pakistan Army could not defeat Northern Alliance during its 5 year rule 1996-2001 though neither USA nor India was helping them. If India and USA provide them Weapons, they would be even bombing Islamabad.
    Why not, we should also supply Northern Alliance with Drones to make Pakistan Army’s life real easy.

  • Inam Khan  On July 9, 2011 at 7:53 am

    The US government is running out of excuses to continue occupation of Afghanistan so it is inventing new ones to keep its forces in Afghanistan to protect Pakistani Nuclear arsenal;a lousy figmentation of their idiotic pseudo professors………………………………….Inam Khan

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