In today’s NYT, Fredrick Kagan and Michael O’Hanlon editorialize that:

We need to think — now — about our feasible military options in Pakistan, should it really come to that.

Insanity. Near total insanity on almost every level–except one.

Now, granted, they are only talking about a worst case scenario here:

The most likely possible dangers are these: a complete collapse of Pakistani government rule that allows an extreme Islamist movement to fill the vacuum; a total loss of federal control over outlying provinces, which splinter along ethnic and tribal lines; or a struggle within the Pakistani military in which the minority sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda try to establish Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Regardless, this is an absolutely insane proposition on nearly level.

1. Pakistan has Nuclear Weapons

2. Did I mention the Nuclear Weapons?

Pakistan is a nuclear state like no other. Capability wise, it lacks a global delivery system, instead relying mainly on aircraft to deliver a nuclear strike. From a US perspective, this is significantly less threatening, as any US air-defense system would have a strong chance to take out such a plane before it could launch on US forces. Pakistan does have short and medium range missiles (modeled on a North Korean model, obtained in exchange for nuclear technology…) but from public sources it remains unclear whether they have been able to outfit a nuclear warhead onto a missile. The uncertainty of this, however, would be a tremendous risk to US forces.

Intervening in a nuclear power is generally not a good idea.

3. Pakistan is huge, and the USA is highly unpopular there.

O’Hanlon and Kagan do admit that a full-scale invasion is off the table. Given Pakistan’s size, they note, it would take nearly 1 million troops to secure the country. Clearly not happening. The more likely scenario, they posit, is that the US intervenes to augment a rump Pakistani army against a radical Islamist movement.

I don’t see any scenario where this is a good idea. The premise for an intervention is:

a complete collapse of Pakistani government rule that allows an extreme Islamist movement to fill the vacuum; a total loss of federal control over outlying provinces, which splinter along ethnic and tribal lines; or a struggle within the Pakistani military in which the minority sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda try to establish Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism.

If this happens, I don’t see how any US intervention will do any good. At best, it would only delay the inevitable. Kagan and O’Hanlon posit that US (and allied) forces could join up with what’s left of the moderate Pakistani Army and hold the country’s center long enough for a new government to come into power and reassert order in the country.

There are two flaws in this argument. First, assistance by US forces is likely to make any rump Pakistani government less popular, ultimately doing more harm than good. As it is now, the US is highly unpopular in Pakistan (only about 15% of the population have a ‘favorable’ view of the US). US military action to support one element of the Pakistani state would a) end up killing some Pakistanis, making the US more unpopular and b) sap what little legitimacy the rump Pakistani state might have. No legitimacy, no authority, no government. Second, the idea that a new Pakistani government / military would somehow be able to impose order on the rest of the country seems like a heroic assumption. Musharraf, now in total control of the state and military apparatus can’t do this now. Why would a successor government, controlling only a rump military, be any more successful?

4. They assume that the US would have allies in this mission: Pro-American moderates within Pakistan and some sort of International Coalition. I don’t see this happening. Assuming that there are any significant Pro-American moderates in Pakistan now (and that, on its face, seems a very dubious assumption to make), wouldn’t they be the first targeted and taken out by the revolting forces? Or, more likely, sensing the political winds and rightly suspicious of a long term commitment by the USA (we won’t even give visas to Iraqis who risk their lives working for the USA in Baghdad), wouldn’t it be smart for these people to extract what price they can and switch sides? On the international coalition–again, this seems dubious. About the only nation I can think of who would be eager to send forces into Pakistan is India, and I really don’t think that would go well….

5. However, I do think that they have one good point where such a move makes sense: a mission to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. The only problem: Pakistan won’t tell us where they are, fearing just such a scenario. This option would necessarily require the cooperation of some segment of the Pakistani government to provide the necessary intel and entry. Arriving unannounced and uninvited, I can easily imagine the Pakistani security forces putting up a tremendous fight to protect their weapons. If, however, the US had some sort of invitation / cooperation from some element of the Pakistani government, and if the US saw an imminent threat to the security of these weapons, it would make sense to help protect them. The mission would require, at some point, the evacuation and relocation of the Pakistani weapons–once the opposition forces learned of their whereabouts, it seems highly likely that they would stop at no end–and I mean literally no end–to get them. So, where do you move them to? Best case for the US is, basically, the forced dis-armament of Pakistan, evacuating the weapons to a secure facility in the US (Kagan and O’Hanlon suggest New Mexico). But, as they note, that’s not going to happen–the more realistic scenario is to relocate them somewhere within Pakistan, a new secret, secure, and guarded location.

Again, I just don’t see the essential parts of this plan as likely, that some sort of moderate, nominally pro-US faction would invite US military forces to protect the Pakistani nuclear deterrent. These so-called moderates are still Pakistani nationalists, secular or not, and any such invitation would be an emasculation of Pakistani standing.

No, this option would more than likely require a US force to assume a hostile Pakistani force protecting the weapons, and another hostile Pakistani force seeking to take the weapons. Not exactly what you’d want to jump in the middle of, but the consequences of not doing so–a loose nuke in the hands of an Al Qaeda ally–are probably worth the risk. But, make no mistake, this would mean dropping a light, mobile force into the remote middle of Pakistan on a moments notice– no picnic whatsoever.

If it comes to that, we’re all in serious trouble.

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