Steve Chapman

The army, seeing the Taliban as a manageable nuisance, is reluctant to launch a fight to the death that could backfire. Military officers, says The Economist, "think it would be fruitless to pulverize the Taliban, and in the process kill many civilians, while Pakistan's civil institutions are too weak to fill the vacuum that would be created." That, of course, seems to be the option favored in Washington -- and the one that, under U.S. pressure, the Pakistani government is now pursuing.

But the country's military and civilian leaders have everything to lose if the extremists triumph, which is a great incentive for them to act wisely. And they probably have a better grasp of their country's political realities than the Obama administration does.

As Donald Rumsfeld might put it, Pakistan abounds not only with things we don't know but things we don't know we don't know. Given the uncertainty, we are probably better off deferring to the Islamabad government's judgment on confronting the insurgency.

The danger of nukes falling into the wrong hands, fortunately, is also less than commonly assumed. The bombs are kept disassembled, with the components stored in separate places to prevent unauthorized use. If the parts could be put together, you will be relieved to know, they probably still would not be usable.

Stephen Younger, former head of nuclear weapons research and development at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, notes in his recent book, "The Bomb: A New History," that because of technical safeguards (which Pakistan says it has installed), even weapons designers and technicians can't set off a device on their own. "Only a few people in the world have the knowledge to cause an unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon," he says.

The Obama administration has reason to be wary of what's going on in Pakistan. But as we learned from the Bush administration in Iraq, sometimes the biggest thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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