If you want Americans to pay attention to Pakistan -- not an easy thing to do -- your best bet is to conjure up images of Armageddon. The Obama administration, being put out with the Islamabad government, has decided understatement is no virtue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently pronounced Pakistan nothing less than "a mortal threat" because it is "abdicating to the Taliban."
If you've heard the scare story, you probably haven't slept in days. The country's Taliban has forced the imposition of Islamic law in one area, under a truce reached with the national government, and its forces recently advanced to just 60 miles from the capital. That raises the specter of Muslim radicals seizing power, getting their hands on the country's nuclear weapons and handing them off to al-Qaida.
From there, it's presumably just a matter of time before Manhattan goes up in a mushroom cloud. Given that scenario, it's no surprise to find Time magazine reporting that "if Pakistan collapses, the U.S. military is primed to enter the country and secure as many of those weapons as it can."
But if there is any way to induce the Pakistani military to give its nukes over to extremist cells, a U.S. military invasion is probably it. We run the risk of getting carried away by scenarios that are terrifying but also highly unlikely. In the process, American policymakers are making the questionable assumption that they know better than a democratically elected Islamabad government how to ensure its survival.
The threat from the Taliban has a tendency to shrink upon close examination. The group is a small one of modest military capacity. Says the British magazine The Economist, "there is no chance" of the Taliban seizing the capital: "If, unthinkably, the disparate warlords who make up the Pakistani Taliban were to mass together for a frontal attack, Pakistan's army, which is 620,000-strong and well-drilled for conventional warfare, could crush them."
In addition, radical Islam has scant support among Pakistanis, the vast majority of whom vote for mainstream political parties. Expanding the Taliban's base in a country with a rising economy and long experience with democracy would be much harder than seizing power in Afghanistan -- a primitive, war-ravaged society with a history of ungovernability.
Our beef with the Pakistani government is that it shows little appetite for eradicating the militants. But that preference is not necessarily blind or cowardly.
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.