It is tricky dealing in absolutes when it comes to discussions of national security. Identifying one issue as the single greatest threat to the United States should not undermine the very real danger posed by others, whether it is China’s military ascendancy, cyber attacks from forces unknown, or even the sluggish state of the U.S. economy.
But if we are to look at the challenges to American safety over the next five years, the discussion should start with what happens in Pakistan. If Pakistan slides any further into violence, we could conceivably see a failed jihadist state, with no particular fondness for the U.S. and the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world.
To Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Pakistan, “such a development would pose […] the worst possible nightmare for the U.S. in the 21stcentury.” Pakistan already serves as a training ground and base of operations for thousands of militants who have demonstrated their ability to undermine U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as well as their willingness to attack Americans at home. Imagine Pakistan in an even greater state of chaos and the damage it could inflict on the U.S.
Pakistan is home to a slew of terrorist organizations including: Al-Qaeda, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohamed, and smaller groups, whose names and agendas change continuously, but whose leadership operates out of Pakistan.
Of course, there is little question that Al-Qaeda’s once formidable presence in Pakistan is now severely diminished, following the deaths of Osama bin Laden and the group’s second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman — who was killed by a drone strike. But a blow to Al-Qaeda’s core in Pakistan does not make the country any safer. As Riedel explained in a recent piece, the remaining leadership, headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, “will need to rely on Al-Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan to survive.” The group, Riedel says, has “put a great deal of effort into forging […] ties to groups like the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba to build a syndicate of terror groups in Pakistan that can provide aid and comfort for Al-Qaeda and serve as force multipliers for its operations.”
What we have, then, is a series of groups in Pakistan that have raised their lethal potential with Al-Qaeda’s help. These groups not only look to inflict harm on the people of Pakistan, but on Pakistan’s neighbors as well, including U.S. forces in Afghanistan. They have also demonstrated an ability to export terrorism beyond the borders of South Asia. Faisal Shazad, the would-be Times Square bomber, received training from the Pakistani Taliban.
To make matters worse, the continual struggle between the civilian and military leadership in Pakistan has further undermined the country’s stability and the region’s safety. Not only has Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari proven ineffective at curbing extremism and violence within the country’s borders, he has also failed to address Pakistan’s woeful economic outlook, which was exacerbated by the devastating floods in 2010. Meanwhile, the military continues its strange game of both fighting and supporting the country’s myriad extremist groups.
Plagued with weak, self-interested leadership, a scheming military, terrorism, and rampant poverty, Pakistan’s future seems bleak. And as long as U.S. troops remain in neighboring Afghanistan, which they are slated to do until at least 2014, the U.S. must keep a watchful eye on what happens in Pakistan. While it is by no means inevitable, it is possible that Pakistan could succumb to the jihadist menace it helped create.
There is hope, however, in the form of the 2013 elections, as obstacles to democracy in the 1973 constitution have largely been cleared. The elections might just be the watershed moment Pakistanis have longed for and desperately need. And while anti-American sentiment runs high and will be a contributing factor in the elections, the U.S. would be wise to fully support them.
In the meantime, the U.S. should remain vigilant. Drone attacks have become a key part of our security strategy and while they do nothing to bolster U.S. sentiment in Pakistan, they ought to continue. Along with this, the U.S. should engage Pakistan diplomatically. Supporting democratic elections in 2013 is a start, and encouraging increased behind-the-scenes talks for normalized relations between Islamabad and New Delhi should be next.
The road Pakistan takes over the next five years will have a direct impact on the security of the United States and hopefully the policies we promote. Let us hope for our sake, and for theirs, that the road leads us both to peace.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons