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Well, this isn't good.

Some quick review. Pakistan has a population of 175 million in round numbers. It has somewhere between a couple dozen and 120 nuclear weapons, probably in the low kiloton range. They have (not very accurate) missiles and a mixed bag of jets. Of course you can roll a nuke off the back of a C-130, so . . .

Pakistan has just a few problems. There's an ongoing eyeball-to-eyeball stare-down with India over Kashmir. (India and Pakistan have fought three wars.) And a spot of bother over the unmanageable tribal areas on the Afghan border, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are driving the bus. Plus there's the fact that there's no real civil society and the only competent institution is the army.

Great country. Great prospects.

There are two likely culprits in this assassination: Al Qaeda and the Musharraf government. Or some unholy melding of AQ and the Pakistani intelligence service. None of the answers is encouraging.

What does the United States do about this? Not much, most likely. The Pakistani military is the closest thing we have to a rational actor in Pakistan. So for the time being we do nothing to rattle their cage.

Beyond that we can call for a credible outside investigation of this assassination. Which might calm the waters. Or not. And we can make the point to the Pakistani military that there will be no stability until a credible civilian government is formed, and the tribal areas are brought forcibly under control.

But given that the Pakistani army has no interest in the former, and probably no capacity to effect the latter, none of that's going to mean much in the near-term. So, in the near term we hope that we aren't looking at a failing state. Hope, and pray, if that works for you. A miracle would be really helpful right about now.

Pakistan has long been the largest danger to which we paid the least attention. Iran may some day have nukes. Pakistan has them right now, today. Iran's neighborhood, bad as it is, is nowhere near as dangerous as Pakistan's little corner of the world. India won't tolerate a failed Pakistani state, and China won't tolerate a militant India. The United States, likewise, cannot tolerate the sort of disorder that might result in Pakistani nukes falling into terrorist hands, and the Chinese aren't going to much like us doing anything about it.

Almost a side note: it's a bad time to be Afghanistan. Or in charge of defending Afghanistan.

The blogs and the talking heads will no doubt begin to churn out some blame and some suggestions. None of it will amount to much. We are riding the tiger. Options are rather limited.

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  1. Blogger kreiz1 Says:

    No good options for us, but it comes as no big surprise. Realism coarses through your veins.

  2. Blogger Randy (Internet Ronin) Says:

    Nice piece, Michael. Bhutto was our "best hope" for the moment, but history shows that it does rarely pays long-term dividends to invest all our eggs in one basket (or one bastard). Quite a few of the more partisan commenters around the net are harping on her links to corruption. Oh, gee. Corruption in a third world country. Imagine that! Like it never happened before or that many of the charges weren't politically motivated. In her first term of office, land reform efforts so threatened various powerful and wealthy special interests that they manufactured many of the supposed instances of graft. Not to say that she was as clean as Bill & Hillary, but she wasn't in the Duvalier or Marcos classes either.

    WRT, our policy choices are limited and have been so for well over two decades, perhaps three. When we had more flexibility, we invariably made the worst possible choice. It is a tradition that continues, regardless of which one of our political parties is in power and whether or not the professionals in the State Department are leading or following.

  3. Blogger Randy (Internet Ronin) Says:

    I was thinking about this post again last night and just wanted to add that I'm not convinced that Pakistan has long been the largest danger to which we paid the least attention. if by "we" you mean the United States government and not the rest of us. It seems to me that the US government has kept close tabs on Pakistan for well over a decade. And I think the recent events underscore that close attention. They put a lot of effort and diplomatic/political capital into securing Bhutto's return. It does not strike me as something they dreamt up on Tuesday so she went back on Wednesday. I imagine that there was a long and sustained courting of Bhutto, and others.

    As for Musharraf, I think there is ample evidence of continuing close contact with him. True, he has not always done what we preferred (every nation acts in its own self-interest after all), but it seems to me that we (our government, not our press or armchair analysts like you and me) have rarely been taken by surprise by anything he has done. What has been obvious for some time is that our government has recognized that Musharraf is fast approaching his political "sell by" date (if not already exceeded it) and that we needed to look around for reliable allies once he departs. In this instance, Musharraf is not unique - it was John Howard's problem in Australia, Blair's in the UK (and Thatcher's before him), to name but a few examples. As you know, our average US President is usually past his own "sell-by" date long before the second administration ends. (The only recent exception to that rule of thumb that I can think of was George H.W. Bush's election to Ronald Reagan's third term.)

  4. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    Two responses. First that we, the people, have paid almost no attention to Pakistan as a potential threat. The average well-informed American would still list Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Russia, China, maybe even Cuba higher on the threat list. Pakistan worries me a lot more. Nukes and Al Qaeda in one country.

    As to our government I think we'd agree that we have few if any worthwhile options in Pakistan. I'm not sure paying attention to Pakistan is any more effective than ignoring it. Given what's just happened it makes you wonder if benign neglect might not have been preferable. There's plenty I'll blame on the Bushies, but I don't blame them for somehow failing to "fix" Pakistan. Jesus floating down from heaven couldn't fix Pakistan.