February 18, 2009

On the Brink

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Much has been made of Iran’s nuclear program and the perceived threat it poses, but the general public is only slowly beginning to understand that danger posed by already nuclear-armed and occasional US ally, Pakistan. The danger is not posed by the Pakistani government, but instead originates in the prospect of state collapse. The prospect of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of terrorists is enough to send chills up any policymaker’s spine.
Pakistan’s recent political history has been defined by instability. From military coups to democratic governments to terrorism, institutions have been unable to strongly establish order throughout the country. The tribal areas have presented a particular challenge, resisting the power of the central government. During the Afghan-Soviet war, the tribal areas served as a base for the mujahedeen and served as an incubator for the Taliban. Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, sponsored the Taliban, and the Pakistani government remains divided, with different factions having contacts with insurgent groups in Kashmir and Afghanistan. More recently, the government has been unable to defeat the Taliban insurgency in the Swat region of the country, and have agreed instead to . Though admittedly Pakistan has never claimed to be a secular state it is troubling that the military has been unable to defeat the insurgents.
The strategic importance of Pakistan and the danger of its nuclear arsenal make Obama’s appointment of Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke to Pakistan and Afghanistan especially important. Holbrooke has his job cut out for him. The complexities of both countries make a stable outcome unlikely. For all of our sakes let’s hope we can find a way to, if nothing else, keep Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in responsible hands.