President Obama’s strategy towards terrorism is understandably Pakistan-centric. Any honest assessment of terrorist and nuclear threats to the United States finds an intersection in Pakistan. But the US may be at risk, once again, of agreeing to take on a problem that is neither bound in objective nor time.
Ensuring that Pakistan has the capacity and desire to secure its nuclear arsenal and territorial integrity from militants, particularly terrorists, is certainly in the US’s best interest. But what does a secure Pakistan look like from the US perspective? How long will US forces be involved in Pakistan? Politically, how long can US forces be involved in Pakistan? And most importantly, is Pakistan really going to be the last frontier in the fight against terrorism?
It’s not difficult to imagine a situation in August of 2011 where ISAF has largely subdued the al Qaeda and Taliban threat in Afghanistan. What is harder to imagine is a Pakistan whose security puts the US at ease. A war that started in Afghanistan may very well continue in Pakistan.
But it may not end in Pakistan. Terrorist activity in Yemen poses a similar problem to the US. It is politically untenable for the US to engage in overt action to any significant degree, leaving only military aid and training to support the local government and military. Somalia, too, poses a similar problem. The lack of tangible government in Somalia means that the US could potentially conduct military operations – an enticing prospect that has been realized at least once in the last year.
The relatively recent rise of terrorist safehavens in these areas means that if the US seeks to eradicate terrorism, it may very well do so without rest for the foreseeable future. These regions do not pose the same nuclear threat that Pakistan does, but they may one day pose the same terrorist threat that Afghanistan did.
At some point the question “what’s next?” has to give way to the question “where is the end?” What are the costs of playing an endless game of terrorist whack-a-mole?
In the early 1970’s Britain’s Home Secretary said that the IRA may “not be defeated, not completely eliminated, but have their violence reduced to an acceptable level.” Most Americans would be most comfortable knowing that the terrorist threat as we know it today had been categorically eliminated. But we must also recognize that the costs and practicality of doing so may be prohibitive. The question, then, is to decide when we will be satisfied and then communicate that frustrating reality with a nation.