Opinion Shaping and the Pakistan Threat

I’ve been taking my time to fully digest the wildly fluctuating press reports coming out of Pakistan and Washington over the past few weeks. But I tend towards a bit of skepticism towards both. There seems to be a lot of “not seeing the forest for the trees” on both sides. In Pakistan, that means an almost casual, business-as-usual approach to a residual problem that totally misses the increasingly urgent cues coming from the Obama administration. In Washington, that means a heightened alarmism that is better adapted to shaping American opinion than it is to addressing what amounts to a residual problem.

Residual problem, because I do not believe that the Taliban pose an “existential threat” to the Pakistani state. It’s not even certain they’re capable of destabilizing the civilian government enough to provoke a military coup. And I don’t for a second believe they pose a threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Without those linchpins, it’s impossible to see the Taliban as a mortal threat to the U.S.

The danger here is how similar the rhetoric about Pakistan is beginning to resemble the rhetoric in the run up to the Iraq War: a potentially mortal threat to the U.S. that the government in question is unwilling to address, while the region and world look on helplessly. Because even assuming, for the sake of argument, that I’m wrong on all of the above counts,the strategy currently being offered to address the threat is woefullyinadequate.

When it comes to questions of war, American opinion is like a supertanker: once it gets started in one direction, it takes an awful lot of time and energy to reverse course. It increasingly appears that we’re in the second phase of an opinion-shaping effort whose only outcome, short of Pakistan acting in ways that betray its core interests, is an escalation of American military involvement in the region.

This might just be the fatal flaw of President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan exit strategy. Regionalizing the solution, while attractive on paper, means squaring increasingly divergent interests. That, in turn, requires deploying increasingly heavy-handed political pressure. The rest is Clausewitz.

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