Our view of Pakistan's role in the war in Afghanistan has undergone an ominous but necessary series of shifts. At the outset of the war, in October 2001, Pakistan correctly was seen as a necessary ally both politically and geographically as it was the primary conduit for our entry and lines of communication into Afghanistan.
Over the years, we came to understand that Pakistan's intelligence service was playing a double game helping us but also supporting the Taliban while Pakistan's northern area became a safe haven for both the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Thus, Pakistan came to be seen as part of the problem that the Obama administration reasonably has taken to calling the "AfPak" war. Gen. David Petraeus recently told a Senate committee that he sees Pakistan and Afghanistan as "a single theater."
Now another perception shift is starting to take hold: The increasing instability of Pakistan's government makes Pakistan more than Afghanistan the central challenge of our "AfPak" policy.
Last week, David Kilcullen, a former Australian army officer who was Gen. Petraeus' senior counterinsurgency strategist and is now a consultant to the Obama White House, said Pakistan could collapse within months.
"We have to face the fact that if Pakistan collapses, it will dwarf anything we have seen so far in whatever we're calling the war on terror now," he said.
Kilcullen said time is running out for international efforts to pull both countries back from the brink. "You just can't say that you're not going to worry about al-Qaida taking control of Pakistan and its nukes," he said. "The Kabul tail was wagging the dog." He described the war in Afghanistan as a campaign to defend a reconstruction program. "It's not really about al-Qaida," he continued. "Afghanistan doesn't worry me. Pakistan does." He said that maybe we can manage Afghanistan and Richard Holbrooke can cut an international deal, but there is also a chance that Washington will fail to stabilize Afghanistan, that Pakistan will collapse, and that al-Qaida will end up running what he called "Talibanistan."
"This is not acceptable. You can't have al-Qaida in control of Pakistan's missiles," he said. "It's too early to tell which way it will go. We'll start to know about July. That's the peak fighting season … and a month from the Afghan presidential election."
Gen. Petraeus himself recently said, "Extremists … pose a truly existential threat to (Pakistan)."
The radical Islamist threat to the already weak and unstable government in Pakistan has become acute because of the reconciliation of former adversaries Mullah Omar (the leader of the Taliban fighters who have left Afghanistan for their new stronghold in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province) and Baitullah Mehsud (the leader of the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan).
According to last week's Der Spiegel, which is a weekly German magazine: "In late February, flyers written in Urdu turned up in the Pakistani-Afghan border region announcing the formation of a new platform for jihad. The Shura Ittihad-ul Mujahideen (SIM), or Council of United Holy Warriors, declared that the alliance of all militants had been formed at the request of Mullah Omar and (Osama) bin Laden. 'There is a new quality to this,' says Imtiaz Gul in his office at the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. 'These groups are now the Pakistani face of al-Qaida.'"
The problem is that the united radical Islamists are expanding the combat zone inside Pakistan, threatening the state itself. But our drone attacks on the united Taliban (and al-Qaida) are driving the radicals deeper into Pakistan, including its major cities. Also, the attacks inevitably also kill Pakistani women and children (or are claimed by the radicals to have done so), which serves as a recruiting tool for new jihadists.
Thus, this is what Kilcullen was quoted as saying by Der Spiegel: "I am against the drone attacks. Even if we could kill half of the al-Qaida leaders, what does it help us if we cause an uprising by the population of Pakistan?"
Kilcullen's quote raises the strong inference that because the Obama administration has increased the George W. Bush administration's level of drone attacks into Pakistan and Gen. Petraeus' top counterinsurgency adviser publicly opposes the attacks, there must be a major policy fight going on within the administration.
Military strategy disputes are understandable. We have no good choices. Because of the overstretched condition of our military, we have too few troops available to deal with Pakistan, which itself has an active and reserve military of 1.4 million.
Yet Pakistan's military seems insufficient to deal with the radical Islamists. After the Taliban took over the Swat Valley in the middle of Pakistan, seized an emerald mine to help finance their war with America and Pakistan, and established Shariah law, the Pakistani government was so weak it accepted a cease-fire with Maulana Fazlullah, a local thug and terrorist.
With our own Army too small, our NATO allies unwilling to help, and Gen. Petraeus' senior counterinsurgency adviser worried that the Taliban and al-Qaida will be able to take over nuclear Pakistan, we are left with a policy of temporizing and crossing our fingers.