In Pakistan, There Are No Easy Answers

Refugees fleeing fighting in Pakistan. i i

hide captionBuner refugees look out of a truck as they flee fighting between Pakistan forces and the Taliban.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Refugees fleeing fighting in Pakistan.

Buner refugees look out of a truck as they flee fighting between Pakistan forces and the Taliban.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Navin Bapat

hide captionNavin Bapat is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He specializes in the study of the international implications of terrorism and insurgency.

Courtesy of Navin Bapat

When it comes to Pakistan, the U.S. is boxed in. Coming off of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to the region, it seems the strategy is to ramp up efforts to defeat the Taliban by increasing U.S. military and civilian presence in the region.

And it's a critical security issue, given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, its proximity to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the possibility of intervention from India and China.

But if we look at the incentives that this policy creates, it becomes clear that the Taliban will have more reason to continue their violence, and both Pakistan and Afghanistan have plenty of reasons to do nothing about it.

Just consider the Bush administration's previous dealings with Pakistan. In the aftermath of 9/11, Pervez Musharraf was trumpeted as a key ally to the United States. Yet, in the years that followed, numerous sources in the U.S. intelligence community claimed the Pakistani army and the ISI, the country's intelligence agency, refused to disarm the Taliban and, in some cases, provided direct support to the group.

The evidence raised serious doubt about Musharraf's credibility as an ally, but, from the Bush administration's standpoint, what was the alternative?

If Musharraf failed, the U.S. ran the risk that a more hostile regime would emerge, one that would likely increase support for the Taliban and have access to Pakistan's nuclear weapons. So, faced with that choice, the U.S. stayed the course and continued supporting Musharraf.

All of this created a perverse set of incentives: If Musharraf realized that he would continue to be showered with U.S. aid for having a Taliban problem, what incentive did he have to disarm the Taliban? This is not to say that Musharraf was necessarily a sponsor of the Taliban. However, unwittingly perhaps, the U.S. was giving him an incentive to emphasize the Taliban's strength and demand U.S. aid to combat it.

In the short term, the strategy proved incredibly beneficial to Pakistan. It helped relieve state debt by roughly a billion dollars and brought in approximately $10 billion in economic and military aid.

In the long term, however, studies of insurgency demonstrate that like cancer cells, militant groups can grow more resistant to collapse over time. Today, as the increasing brazenness of their attacks proves, the Taliban may be in a position to significantly challenge both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Asif Ali Zardari, who took over as president in September, faces the same incentives, but he's in a more difficult position. He has less credibility than Musharraf had initially, and he doesn't have Musharraf's ties to the ISI and the army, making them more difficult to control.

So we're at a stalemate: The U.S. can do little except stay the course and continue to pour in aid and resources to keep the Taliban at bay. And although Pakistan faces a real threat to its government stability, it needs this threat to get U.S. help.

It sets up a difficult conundrum, which the Taliban exploit to grow increasingly powerful, and it raises an important question for U.S. foreign policy: If the Obama administration is willing to sacrifice lives and treasure to keep the Taliban at bay, but the Taliban has already become self-sustaining and resistant to collapse, is it preferable to continue this strategy, or allow the chips to fall and risk losing control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal?

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