Peter Zeihan, writing at Strategic Forcasting (www.stratfor.com), a subscription service provider of information and analysis relevant to geopolitics, security and public policy, thinks Pakistan’s recent increasing internal conflicts could make Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier the key theater of US military operations.
Back in 2005, the United States believed it had credible intelligence about a planned meeting of the core al Qaeda leadership in northwestern Pakistan. A strike force of several hundred to several thousand was assembled in order to punch through the Pakistani tribes hiding and shielding bin Laden and his allies, but the strike was ultimately abandoned because then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld felt the operation could not be kept quiet. It is one thing when Pakistanis think there are a few Americans running over the border to do something tactical. It is quite another when Pakistanis know that several thousand Americans with heavy air support are surging across to do something strategic. The U.S. might have been able to take out its target, but probably not without losing a critical ally.
Details of this attack plan were leaked July 8 to The New York Times. For us at Stratfor, news of the plans was nothing new. It made perfect sense that this plan, and likely dozens of others like it, were at various times in the works stretching back as far as 2003 (and we have noted such on numerous occasions). What caught our attention was the timing of The New York Times article. The United States has been eyeing northwestern Pakistan for years. Why draw attention to that fact now?
The United States’ core fear in 2005 was that the Pakistani government would destabilize. Well, in 2007, the Pakistani government is horrendously unstable. On July 10, Islamabad launched a multi-hour raid replete with Branch Davidian overtones against the Red Mosque complex and a gathering of radical (some would say mentally unhinged) Islamists challenging the government’s writ. Be worried when the government of an Islamic republic feels it must take such action. Be doubly worried when the government taking the action already seems to be in its death throes.
Previous efforts by Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to strengthen his political grip on the country by firing the chief justice rebounded on him so severely that he cannot even depend upon his oldest allies. Various political, military and cultural power centers are sniping at the president, making their own independent and often contradictory demands. There are also hints that Musharraf’s faculties are beginning to crack. The government — as well as the president — is now teetering on the edge of oblivion, facing an unsavory menu of crushing compromise with one force or another to stay in power in name, and risking the turbulent waters of emergency rule over an increasingly hostile population.
If the threat of a government fall was the only thing holding Washington back in 2005, and now that the fall is imminent through no action of the United States, what does Washington have to gain from restraining itself any further?
This is more than a rhetorical question. The relative inactivity of al Qaeda these past six years, as well as the political situation in Pakistan, has imposed a shaky equilibrium on the issue. Al Qaeda’s security protocols curtail al Qaeda’s threat level, and that has allowed the United States to shelve the issue for another day. Meanwhile, the instability of Musharraf’s government limits the United States’ ability to pressure Islamabad over the issue of al Qaeda. Consequently, al Qaeda has been more or less hiding in plain sight.
Alter any aspect of this scenario — in this case, drastically increase the tottering of the Musharraf government — and the “stability” of the other pieces immediately breaks and the United States is forced to surge assets into Pakistan.
Washington has to assume that an al Qaeda anywhere but Pakistan is an al Qaeda that will act with less conservatism. By the American logic, al Qaeda assets in Saudi Arabia, long drilled that security is paramount, would naturally doubt that a telegram from bin Laden ordering a new attack is genuine — but they would certainly believe bin Laden himself should he show up at their door. By al Qaeda’s logic, Musharraf’s fall would force al Qaeda to relocate from Pakistan because the group would have to assume that the Americans would be coming.
Which means the odd stasis in the war on terror these past six years could be about to loosen up, and a front that has proven oddly cold might be about to catch fire.