Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor of The Australian, highlights how dangerous the horrible-three have become, based in part on the Australian’s just released defense white paper. Note the absence of Iraq in the discussion.
IT is the perfect strategic storm. The deadly combination of irrational fervour, aggressive nationalism, the unimaginable destructive power of nuclear technology, growing Islamist extremism, continuing terrorist determination, an economically and militarily stretched US and a wide international milieu of festering anti-Americanism, which has not been solved by the election of Barack Obama, means the world is entering the most strategically dangerous period at least since the end of the Cold War, and perhaps for some decades before that.
Pakistan, Iran and North Korea are the three critical states, all likely to come to some sort of crisis in the next year or two.
During the past couple of weeks I have spoken to a great range of strategic analysts, policy-makers and opinion leaders, government and non-government, in Asia, the Middle East, North America and Australia.
There is considerable debate about how acute each looming crisis is.
But there is no serious debate that the trend lines on the key issues are generally negative and that seriously destructive dynamics are gaining momentum.
Taken altogether, the strategic environment is acutely dangerous and getting worse. The toxic mixture of irrational fervour, religious or ideological, and the destructive power of nuclear weapons and material makes the prospect of cataclysmic crisis much more immediate than it has been for a long, long time.
These trends are each disclosed, in relatively straightforward language, in the Rudd Government’s just published defence white paper, but no one has yet put them all together. Nonetheless, when aggregated, they form a remarkable official description of a gravely disturbing global situation.
On Pakistan, the most acute crisis of all just now, the white paper says: “Pakistan will remain a pivotally important state. Its prospects will continue to be of concern, given its possession of nuclear weapons, its centrality to success in Afghanistan and the havens for Islamist terrorist networks located in Pakistan and, however remote at present, the risk of a radical Islamist capture of the state.”
The risks of a radical Islamist capture of the state have risen greatly in recent weeks as the Pakistani Taliban poured into the Swat Valley, not very far from Islamabad.
The sight of the Pakistan Government virtually ceding the Swat Valley to the Taliban, and the Taliban marching ever closer to Islamabad and Pakistan’s arsenal of 75 to 100 nuclear weapons, galvanised the Obama administration into extraordinary urgency, evident in statements from Obama and Hillary Clinton that the situation in Pakistan constituted a mortal threat to US security.
Quite simply, the prospect of the Taliban in possession of nuclear weapons terrifies Washington and ought to terrify everybody else.
In response to Washington’s urging, the Pakistani military has hit back at the Taliban and driven them out of many newly occupied territories. But the Pakistani military has acted with much less sophistication and discrimination than the Americans have ever done. They have shelled and bombed whole villages. Perhaps a million people are displaced within Pakistan. The Pakistani military is designed for only one thing: fighting India. It is one of the most incompetent counter-insurgency forces in the world.
Most Western analysts do not believe Pakistan is in danger of imminent state collapse. But they all recognise that the extremists are getting stronger and the state is getting weaker. Obama, who this week met Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai in Washington, has given the impression that Washington has a plan to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the event of an emergency. This is almost certainly a bluff. Such an operation would be insanely complex.
Some Indian analysts believe Pakistan is already effectively a failed state. There are really several Pakistans: a civilian government that has lost public confidence and does not control its nation’s institutions or its territory; a military that is autonomous, unaccountable, divided and ineffective, and that continues to co-operate with the Afghan Taliban and terrorist groups attacking India; a civilian merchant class that is frustrated and hemmed in; and an active civil society that is denied any power.