Sunday, September 24, 2006

All the Pakistan that's fit to print

Every blog and its cat has been discussing the tale that Richard Armitage supposedly threatened to bomb Pakistan back into the stone age, but no-one seems to have mentioned a very obvious fact about this: Pakistan has an estimated 20-60 nuclear warheads deliverable by various means.

Now, you don't go round threatening to bomb nuclear powers. Ask North Korea. Not that Pakistan has a credible minimum deterrent capability against the continental US, but there are plenty of things they could have bombed. There's the madman option, of course: threaten to attack India or China and start a nuclear war. Call it the Perfect Anarchist's defence, as in the character in Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent who avoids arrest by perpetually going about wired as a suicide-bomber. But there are less crazy and more direct targets - Gulf oil infrastructure being exhibit A, Diego Garcia exhibit B, the US 5th Fleet exhibit C. And the dogs in the street know that a US air campaign against Pakistan would almost certainly have brought about that country's talibanisation - Musharraf was struggling then to keep the ISI under control, not to mention fellow generals from scheming with his old enemies and Baluch rebels.

So, either the story is nonsense, or there are some truly crazy bastards in charge. This possibility can no longer be ruled out, of course, but Armitage never struck me as a reckless goon. His handling of the India-Pakistan nuclear crisis a year later was solidly realist and realistic, and eventually crowned by success. Had he actually issued such a deranged threat, would he have got a fair hearing in Islamabad?

On the other hand, we now have the agreement between the Pakistani government and the Waziri tribes, under which the old, old arrangement by which central authority keeps out of the hills in exchange for help defending the border is restored, not to mention Major-General Shaukat Sultan's telling gaffe when he suggested that OBL himself might be left alone if he agreed to behave. Meanwhile, Musharraf countermarched and complained that the Afghans weren't doing enought to keep jihadis out of Pakistan. I wonder if there is a word for chutzpah in Urdu?

The reason for this is that he's faced with two irreconcilable positions - the combination of considerable popular support for the Taliban on the frontier and the persistent institutional links between the ISI and al-Qa'ida, coupled with the army's historical concern for state unity under upper-class Punjabi leadership, and the pressure from the US and India, not to mention the coup dread, and the economic need for outside capital to employ the growing population. He's trying to cover them by constant manoeuvring, which can be done for short periods of time. John Major's premiership was a long exercise in the same practice. But violence wasn't on the cards.

One has to wonder what might blow the gaff, and it would probably be something that forced Musharraf to play to both sides at once. On that note, we turn to the Mountain Runner's fascinating post about mercenary activity inside Pakistan. As he notes, Bush has said he would send troops into Pakistan if necessary (actually, they wouldn't be the first ones - a battalion of the 101st Airborne spent the winter of 2001-2002 guarding the airfield at Jacobabad, and the RAF moved into Karachi Airport during the same period). But there are reports of hired guns turning up there, and not just guarding truck convoys.

Rather, at least some of them are taking part in offensive operations, as the muscle for CIA case officers. Now, the possible consequences should be clear enough. Depending on what happens, this could hit any combination of jihad, Pakistani nationalism, Baluch/Wazir regionalism, local self-interest, tribal honour and respect and quite easily put the Pakistani government in a position where it is obliged to kick out the Americans for the Islamist side and also attack Wazir independence.

Just to add spice to it, the main supply route for the NATO forces in southwest Afghanistan is on the line Kandahar-Quetta-Karachi. We could end up in a situation where we are doing our damndest to persuade the Baluchs to shoot at jihadis and the Pakistani army whilst the jihadis and the Pakistani army are trying to make them shoot at us!

Update, 13/09/07: The quote from Maj-Gen Shaukat Sultan has been discredited, as one of the stories faked by Alexis Debat.

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