Pakistan: A Much-Needed Exercise in Covert Nation-building?

Just a few days after Osama bin Laden was killed, CIA director Leon Panetta was interviewed by TIME about the raid.  Mr. Panetta was quite clear when speaking about the Pakistani government’s foreknowledge of the raid, stating “it was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission.  They might alert the targets.” (Calabresi) This statement gives serious insight into the evolving US narrative about Pakistan.  Considering the terrorist-infested country is a nuclear power, how long should the US continue to permit it to exercise autonomous control of its nuclear resources, when it cannot even trust the nation with its intelligence concerning Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts?

The answer: not long, which is why one shouldn’t be surprised if the US  begins to do what it can to effect regime change within Pakistan.

In general, Pakistan’s willingness to cooperate with the United States in securing its borders has been touted as something critical to stopping the flow of terrorists from one country to another.  “We have chased bad guys into their network, and [the Pakistanis] have hammered them, and vice versa,” said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, almost two weeks before Osama bin Laden was killed. (Garamone)

You heard it right.  Even though the highest ranking member of the US military considers Pakistan a critical ally in sharing information about terrorist networks, the head of the CIA says Pakistan is a country which cannot be trusted with information about one terror suspect residing within its borders.  This is not an argument over whether or not the US should have taken out Osama bin Laden—clearly, the right decision was made by the US.  Instead, it illustrates the foreign policy theatrics of the US in dealing with Pakistan.

In much the same way that oil-dependence forces us to do business with Saudi Arabia, which produced nearly all of the 9/11 hijackers, the US has been forced to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s fundamental nature due to its reliance on Pakistan’s cooperation in monitoring Taliban and al-Qaeda members who flooded across the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, post-9/11.

With Osama bin Laden’s death, that reliance on Pakistan’s assistance will quickly diminish, as Osama bin Laden’s death represents a convenient opportunity for President Obama to end combat in Afghanistan; it is a mission which has come to be notoriously ill-defined.  President Obama originally campaigned on the platform of closing shop at Guantanamo Bay, and ending the Iraq War—neither of which are campaign promises he managed to keep thus far.  The 2012 presidential election is now quickly approaching, and the announcement the end of the Afghanistan mission would definitely be a support-rallying checkmark for the Democratic base.

Pakistan’s Nuclear Urgency

However, setting domestic political implications aside, let’s return to Pakistan, because the immediate political benefit to the president is not the important point.  What is important is the diminished necessity of Pakistan in the wake of ending the war in Afghanistan.  In light of the fact that terrorists of all stripes are now operating within Pakistan, the center of gravity in the War on Terror is the nuclear country in which all those terrorists now reside.  Securing Pakistan’s nuclear materials will become the prime focus of US national security.  Clearly, the Pakistani government and the ISI cannot be trusted.

The United States finds itself in a position where it must achieve a thorough makeover of the Pakistani government, if it wants to maximize its ability to control the flow of nuclear material.  This will not be accomplished through a highly visible US-led ground war, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Instead, the task will most likely be accomplished through a combination of NATO members (possibly Great Britain), pro-democracy opposition groups within Pakistan (backed by the United States, of course) and/or drone-warfare.  With respect to a democratic uprising, the Arab Spring environment—manifesting in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere—creates a suitable backdrop against which domestic discord will appear to be less anomalous than under other circumstances.  Within this pro-democracy “noise”, major changes will take place in terms of Pakistan’s control of its nuclear capacity.  In the case where US ground troops were to be involved, President Obama would not allow this to unfold until a 2012 victory.  However, the groundwork is beginning to be laid now for broader operations in Pakistan.  Slowly but surely, the narrative will begin to change as the Obama administration begins to publicly question the Pakistan’s security and control of its long-known nuclear capabilities.  Following this, Americans will begin to become much more familiarized with the terrorist groups operating within Pakistan.

One might be inclined to ask, why go after Pakistan now?  Why not North Korea, Iran, or any of the other well-known threats?  In North Korea, the US is dealing with a dictatorship armed with nuclear weapons, which is quite dangerous.  In Iran, the potential threat facing America is a nuclear-armed Iran who will threaten Israel’s existence, as well as general stability within the region (obviously quite dangerous).  In Pakistan, however, there is a potent mix of nuclear weapons, terrorist groups who are known to work within the government, and a perpetual regional conflict with another nuclear country—India.  In other words, the probability of regional apocalypse and the acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorists is exponentially higher. Newsweek describes this perfect storm in a 2007 article:

Although Pakistan has traditionally denied allegations of poor nuclear security, a 2007 Newsweek article referred to the circumstances in Pakistan as being a “witch’s brew that includes political instability, a burgeoning Islamic insurgency, a demoralized army and an intensely anti-America population.” (Allison) .


In terms of terrorist groups who pose the most significant threat when it comes to acquiring nuclear materials from Pakistan, the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (often abbreviated LeT) represents one of the most dangerous threats.  The group is on the US State Department’s list of “Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations”, and is behind the 2008 Mumbai assault in India (Bajoria) .  Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani US citizen convicted of attempting to blow up an SUV in Times Square in May of 2010, is known to have trained at one of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s bases in Pakistan (Waraich) .  This should be extremely disconcerting to Americans who believe al-Qaeda to be the main terrorist threat to United States.  Traditionally, LeT is one of the groups associated with state-sponsored attacks on India, regarding the Kashmir region.  The fact that one of its terrorist products is aiming his site on the United States is a sign that the group is expanding its reach, possibly in retaliation for the contribution of the US in trying to rid Pakistan of its terrorist problem.

Although the United States has offered assistance to Pakistan in its fight against Islamic militants, there is a question of just how serious Pakistan’s ISI really is about ridding itself of terrorists.  “Pakistan has long used its support of militant groups as a foreign policy tool, so ending that will take time,” says Seth Jones, a political scientist who works for the non-profit RAND Corporation and specializes in Pakistan-born terrorism (RAND Corporation Press Release) .  Although Pakistan is known to have shifted its policy towards terrorist groups after 9/11, “Pakistan has not  yet made a systematic break with militant groups” (Jones and Fair) .

Some have gone as far as suggesting that “LeT is essentially a covert arm of the Pakistani military,” and that the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence service) “has helped them with training, money, and weapons for at least 15 years” (Palmer) .  Lest one think this is simply hyperbole, in late 2010, the CIA was forced to withdraw its station chief from Pakistan, due to death threats.  A congressional aide said “It is highly unlikely that the CIA’s main agent in Pakistan “would have been identified by name without at least tacit approval from ISI” (Hosenball) .

Author Adrian Levy, in his book Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons , describes in detail how complicit the Pakistani government was in facilitating the training of LeT members, particularly during Perez Musharraf’s tenure as a general:

Then Musharraf won support from the Markaz Dawa Al Irshad (MDI), the Center for Preaching and Guidance.  Three university graduates from Pakistan, who had been in awe of Osama bin Laden, had founded it in 1987 and built a university campus thirty miles north of Lahore in which to indoctrinate teenagers in the way of the Deobandis, with bin Laden contributing $1 million.  The MDI had already formed a military wing known as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), formed in 1990 in Kunar province, Afghanistan, with the goal of restoring Islamic rule to the whole of South Asia, Russia, and even China.  Under Musharraf’s plan, all MDI’s graduates were to be handed over to the LeT and trained for Kashmir and whatever other duties he had in mind. (Levy and Scott-Clark 240-241)

Newsweek described the nature of Pakistan as a tourist destination for all manner of terrorists:

Pakistan’s leaders have failed to come to grips with what is lurking in their country.  To be fair, the Pakistani military has acted forcefully over the past 18 months in both Swat and South Waziristan, and in other tribal areas, to confront and smash militant networks.  But it hasn’t done enough.  The militants are agile and deeply rooted after enjoying years of free rein…They come to receive inspiration, to train, to study, to plot, and to attack.  These jihadists may be diverse, disunited, and pursuing their own agendas, but there is a common denominator: destabilizing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India—and scheming against the West. (Moreau)


For US officials and policymakers, the bottom line is this:  the Afghanistan mission was warranted because the Taliban harbored al-Qaeda and provided a base for attacking the US on 9/11.  What should the US approach be towards a nuclear state like Pakistan, especially considering its ambiguous support of terrorist organizations?  As devastating as 9/11 was, imagine the blow to the US if Osama bin Laden’s Afghanistan had possessed nuclear resources.

Killing Osama bin Laden was absolutely the right decision on the part of Obama.  However, the next major target in the war on terror needs to be Pakistan.  Regardless of whether or not ulterior political calculations play a role in the plan, the critical thing to do now in the fight against Islamic terrorism is to neutralize Pakistan’s ability to provide nuclear materials to terrorists–deliberately or not.


Allison, Graham. “What About the Nukes?” 28 December 2007. Newsweek. <http://www.newsweek.com/2007/12/27/what-about-the-nukes.html>.

Bajoria, Jayshree. “Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure).” 14 January 2010. Council on Foreign Relations. <http://www.cfr.org/pakistan/lashkar-e-taiba-army-pure-aka-lashkar-e-tayyiba-lashkar-e-toiba-lashkar–taiba/p17882>.

Calabresi, Massimo. “CIA Chief: Pakistan Would Have Jeopardized Operation.” 3 May 2011. TIME Swampland. <http://swampland.time.com/2011/05/03/cia-chief-breaks-silence-u-s-ruled-out-involving-pakistan-in-bin-laden-raid-early-on/>.

Garamone, Jim. “Mullen Cites Pakistani Cooperation in Afghanistan.” 19 April 2011. US Department of Defense. <http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=63606>.

Hosenball, Mark. “CIA pulls station chief out of Pakistan.” 17 December 2010. Reuters (UK). <http://uk.reuters.com/article/2010/12/17/uk-pakistan-cia-idUKTRE6BG52P20101217>.

Jones, Seth G and Christine C. Fair. “Counterinsurgency in Pakistan.” 21 June 2010. RAND Corporation. <http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2010/RAND_MG982.pdf>.

Levy, Adrian and Catherine Scott-Clark. Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade Nuclear Weapons. New York: Walker & Company, 2007.

Moreau, Ron. “More Dangerous Than Ever: Why the Pakistan threat is rising.” 4 September 2010. Newsweek. <http://www.newsweek.com/2010/09/04/pakistan-is-the-world-s-most-dangerous-country.html>.

Palmer, Brian. “Lashkar-e-What? Tehrik-i-Who?” 12 April 2011. Slate. <http://www.slate.com/id/2291047/>.

RAND Corporation Press Release. “Failed Strategy to Halt Pakistan-Based Militant Groups Has Helped Lead to Rising Number of US Terror Plots.” 21 June 2010. RAND Corporation. <http://www.rand.org/news/press/2010/06/21.html>.

Waraich, Omar. “The Radical Lure of Pakistan’s Jihad Tourism.” 6 May 2010. Time. <http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1987455,00.html>.