The Pakistan Answer

Any serious candidate for president must understand a few major issues in foreign policy: China (trade; regional ambitions); Mexico (drugs; gangs; immigration); Iran (nukes; regional ambitions); and Pakistan (nukes; instability). I’ll use Pakistan as a test for the Republican candidates.

Lets stipulate a few things:

– It is not possible to articulate a nuanced policy for South Asia in the 30 second responses allowed by the presidential debate moderators (although Michelle Bachmann came close);

– We do not know what discussions are being held by our emissaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan – even in this Wikileaks era;

– Our primary national interest in the South Asia has moved on from defeating al Queda in Afghanistan (mission accomplished, to coin a phrase) to preventing radicals from gaining access to Pakistan’s nukes.

With that, I am looking for a presidential candidate whose extended answer would be about as follows:

1.  Pakistan is not monolithic. There are at least four internal groups to think about:

a. The elected political class. The current president has seen his wife and brother-in-law assassinated, and his father-in-law deposed and executed, perhaps with US support.  We should not blame President Zardari for the actions of those beyond his control, or for being a bit paranoid. Whatever cooperation there is must be provided discretely, as is evidenced by this week’s sacking of the ambassador to the US for seeking help against the military leaders.

b. The military. During the Cold War Pakistan was our partner in the Central Treaty Organization. Many leaders have attended schools in the United States. They are trained to use US equipment and rely on our spare parts. We provided $2.7 billion in military aid in 2010 and have leverage. The last military president, Pervez Musharraf, became problematic, but he was our friend for decades.

c. The intelligence community. This is where the double dealing abounds. They have pretty clear ties to attacks in India (Mumbai in 2008; Parliament in 2001), radicals in Kashmir, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is reasonable to assume that some elements supported bin Laden’s sanctuary. On the other hand, they have captured key al Queda leaders such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003 and, most recently,operations chief Younis al Mauritani.

d. The multiple radical, anti-Western fighting groups which operate on both sides of the Afghan border, have conducted the above-mentioned assassinations, and regularly conduct terrorist attacks against the Pakistani establishment as well as NATO and the Afghan government. Civilian and military leaders have more interest than we do in curtailing these groups.

2. The good news: managed properly, we can dodge this bullet.

a. India has been extremely patient in their response to Pakistani provocations. The threat of the United States shifting support from Pakistan to India provides great leverage, at least within the political and military classes.

b. Our military presence in Afghanistan gives us the capability to support the Pakistani military if the radical Pakistani groups threaten to overthrow the government or to capture the nuclear facilities. Word of such a plan caused a kerfuffle in 2009. Hopefully the Obama administration’s plans for Afghan withdrawal will focus on the Pakistani side of the border, and not just polling in advance of next November’s election.

c. The other major players in the area – Russia, China, Iran as well as India – are supportive of efforts to help the Pakistani political and military class retain control rather than having a bunch of nuclear crazies in their neighborhood.

So, among the Republican candidates who gets it?  Bachmann and Santorum for sure; Romney, Gingrich, and Huntsman probably; Perry, Cain, and Paul not so much.  For voters looking beyond the domestic economy to global risks, the foreign policy debates have shown a clear divide.


This week’s video is a pre-announcement by a surprise  third party candidate.