John Bolton calls attention to one aspect of Joe Biden’s decision to choose defeat in Afghanistan — the implications for Pakistan. Bolton argues that “the Taliban’s takeover next door immediately poses the sharply higher risk that Pakistani extremists will increase their already sizable influence in Islamabad, threatening at some point to seize full control.”
By the way, Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
According to Bolton, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, is “the real government” of Pakistan “on national security issues.” And ISI “has long been a hotbed of radicalism, which has spread throughout the military, to higher and higher ranks.”
When the U.S. overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan, “ISI provided sanctuaries, arms and supplies inside Pakistan, although Islamabad routinely denied it.” Now, “the Taliban can return the sanctuary favor to Pakistani Taliban — the Pakistani counterpart of the Afghan Taliban — and other radicals.”
Pakistan has long held an ambiguous position in the war against Islamist terrorism. It both combats and supports terrorists. As Bolton puts it, “Pakistan is the only government consisting simultaneously of arsonists and firefighters.” (I’m not sure it’s the only one.)
The Taliban’s improved situation due to our pullout might well shift the balance in favor of the “arsonists.” If the pendulum swings too far in that direction, Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile might (1) come under control of pro-terrorist forces or (2) at least be made available to terrorist groups to detonate anywhere in the world.
The U.S. needs to be vigilant when it comes to these possibilities. But, as Bolton says, our departure from Afghanistan means we will find it much more difficult to know what’s really going on in Pakistan.
Biden’s withdrawal also raises the question of whether, as long as he’s president, the U.S. will take a developing Pakistani threat seriously enough to do anything about it. Bolton is pessimistic on this score, and with good reason:
In George Packer’s recent biography of diplomat Richard Holbrooke, he quotes from Holbrooke’s notes taken during an Obama administration Situation Room meeting on Afghanistan. “Among his notes were private interjections,” Packer writes. “Vice President Joe Biden said that every one of Pakistan’s interests was also America’s interest: ‘HUH?’”
Biden’s assertion was wrong when made and would be dangerously wrong today; Holbrooke was correct, and eloquent in his brevity. Let’s hope Biden has changed his mind.
Let’s hope that Biden has a passably functioning mind to change.