Project on Defense Alternatives

Is Worry about Pakistani Nukes Serving to Keep the U.S. in Iraq?

by Charles Knight
Project on Defense Alternatives Commentary
July 2007

The bloody assault by Pakistani troops on the Islamic militants occupying the Red Mosque in Islamabad just might mark the beginning of the end of the Musharraf regime and the beginning of a period of radical destabilization for Pakistan -- a prospect that causes great consternation in the West where commentators remind us that Pakistan is nuclear-armed and that bin Laden has remained at large in its northern autonomous regions.

Some Americans may feel reassured to know that national defense experts have already been imagining the scenario of the US military intervening in Pakistan to prevent nukes from getting into the hands of al Qaeda -- scary scenes of terrorists stealing away with a few devices in the chaos that engulfs the country after Musharraf is ousted. Two such experts are Frederick Kagan, leading neo-con and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Michael O'Hanlon of Brookings and a likely under-secretary of Defense in the next Democratic administration. The Stanley Foundation has brought together a series of paired experts to "bridge the divide" between left and right in Washington and reestablish a stable bipartisan center. Kagan and O'Hanlon have coauthored "The Case for Larger Ground Forces", published by the Stanley Foundation, April 2007. In this paper they recommend increasing the size of America's land forces (Army and Marine Corps) by 100,000. Their proposal is, of course, very similar to the current official plan to increase these services by 92,000.

The paper discusses a number of threats and scenarios which might "require" the deployment of tens and hundreds of thousands of US troops abroad. The most demanding of these scenarios is the radical Islamic Pakistan scenario; a scenario so fanciful and extraordinary that I have quoted that section in its entirety below. I comment briefly on it afterwards.

Of all the military scenarios that would undoubtedly involve the vital interests of the United States, short of a direct threat to its territory, a collapsed Pakistan ranks very high on the list. The combination of Islamic extremists and nuclear weapons in that country is extremely worrisome. Were parts of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal ever to fall into the wrong hands, Al Qaeda could conceivably gain access to a nuclear device with terrifying possible results. Another quite worrisome South Asia scenario could involve another Indo-Pakistani crisis leading to war between the two nuclear armed states over Kashmir. The Pakistani collapse scenario appears unlikely, given that country's relatively pro-Western and secular officer corps. But the intelligence services -- which created the Taliban and also have condoned, if not abetted, Islamic extremists in Kashmir -- are more of a wild card. In addition, the country as a whole is sufficiently infiltrated by fundamentalist groups -- as the attempted assassinations against President Mubarak (sic) make clear -- that this terrifying scenario of civil chaos must be taken seriously. Were this to occur, it is unclear what the United States and like-minded countries would or should do. It is very unlikely that "surgical strikes" could be conducted to destroy the nuclear weapons before extremists could make a grab at them. It is doubtful that the United States would know their location and at least as doubtful that any Pakistani government would countenance such a move, even under duress. If a surgical strike, a series of surgical strikes, or commando-style raids were not possible, the only option might be to try to restore order before the weapons could be taken by extremists and transferred to terrorists. The United States and other outside powers might, for example, come to the aid of the Pakistani government, at its request, to help restore order.
Alternatively, they might try to help protect Pakistan's borders (a nearly impossible task), making it hard to sneak nuclear weapons out of the country, while providing only technical support to the Pakistani armed forces as they tried to put down the insurrection. One thing is certain: given the enormous stakes, the United States would have to do anything it could to prevent nuclear weapons from getting into the wrong hands.
Should stabilization efforts be required, the scale of the undertaking could be breathtaking. Pakistan is a very large country. Its population is more than 150 million, or six times that of Iraq. Its land area is roughly twice that of Iraq; its perimeter is about 50 percent longer in total. Stabilizing a country of this size could easily require several times as many troops as the Iraq mission -- a figure of up to one million is easy to imagine.
Of course, any international force would have local help. Presumably some fraction of Pakistan's security forces would remain intact, able, and willing to help defend the country. Pakistan's military numbers 550,000 Army troops; 70,000 uniformed personnel in the Air Force and Navy; another 510,000 reservists; and almost 300,000 gendarmes and Interior Ministry troops. But if some substantial fraction of the military broke off from the main body, say a quarter to a third, and was assisted by extremist militias, the international community might need to deploy 100,000 to 200,000 troops to ensure a quick restoration of order. Given the need for rapid response, the United States' share of this total would probably be over half -- or as many as 50,000 to 100,000 ground forces -- although this is almost the best of all the worst-case scenarios.
Since no US government could simply decide to restrict its exposure in Pakistan if the international community proved unwilling or unable to provide numerous forces, or if the Pakistani collapse were deeper than outlined here, the United States might be compelled to produce significantly more forces to fend off the prospect of a nuclear Al Qaeda.

There used to be a popular piece of strategic wisdom that said, "Never get involved in a land war in Asia." Good advice. and, of course, the U.S. is now deep into Afghanistan and Iraq. It seems once you throw off restraint and reject wisdom you might as well plunge deeper into dangerous territory; at least that seems to be the preference of the nascent Washington bipartisan center now trying to regain its footing after being tripped up in Iraq.

It is important to remember that any American military intervention has direct effect on the lives of millions of people who live in the region. It matters who dies as a result of flimsy scenario-building in Washington. Certainly Kagan and O'Hanlon haven't learned much from the adventure in Iraq which they both supported. Sadly there are some powerful forces in Washington who want their kind of thinking to be part of the "new center".

However, I don't think Kagan and O'Hanlon are all that serious about their Pakistan scenario. They greatly understate the troops needed to invade and "restore order" (read 'occupy') Pakistan. Pakistanis are not fond of Americans and they won't see Americans as liberators. They are likely to put up the same sort of fight that Iraqi Sunnis have against occupation. Hard evidence suggests that the pacification of Iraq would have required 500,000 troops (not the 150,000 that Rumsfeld insisted was sufficient.) Kagan and O'Hanlon point out that Pakistan is six times as large in population. So why do they say "a figure of up to one million is easy to imagine" when the Iraq experience indicates that up to three million would be needed in Pakistan? My guess is that they figured people would stop reading their argument for larger American ground forces if they included a scenario that requires three million Americans deployed to Pakistan. So instead they offer a Rumsfeldian fantasy.

It is my best guess that we won't see an Army/Marine Corps invasion of Iran or Pakistan or North Korea. If the "new center" in Washington was seriously considering interventions abroad that might require deploying up to 3 million troops, they would need to start providing basic training to a significant portion of Americans between the ages of 18 and 28 -- and that, of course, means conscription. If the Kagan/O'Hanlon Pakistani chaos scenario requires military preparation by the U.S., Washington needs to get serious about a major re-make of the Army. The U.S. would need a military structure much closer to the kind it had during World War II -- capable of mobilizing millions of soldiers to fight in and occupy territory overseas. Today the U.S. has a relatively small professional Army, fundamentally unsuited for this sort of mission.

The 100,000-person build-up of the Army and Marine Corps that Kagan and O'Hanlon support is grossly insufficient for the Pakistan scenario they have created in order to justify it. It is sufficient when added to current troops strengths to garrison 60,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely. From that fact I conclude that it is not for an imagined Pakistani chaos that the Army and Marine Corps are now in the process of growing by 92,000, but rather to make possible the routine extended deployment of 75,000 troops to the Persian Gulf including up to 60,000 in Iraq. That is what we should expect first and foremost from the 'new center'. And if we don't like that prospect (say 50,000 troops still in Iraq in 2020) we should make our objections known. And by the way, the current plan to increase Army and Marine Corps personnel by 92,000 is supported by most all the leading contenders for president. Makes one wonder what their intentions are regarding Iraq policy.

We must also argue for an end to the American strategy of offensive counter-proliferation wars. The first one in Iraq has been a disaster. We must not let Republicans or Democrats lead us into even grander disasters in Iran, Korea, or Pakistan.

Charles Knight, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, can be emailed at: cknight(at)

A version of this article was published Friday, July 13, 2007 by --

Citation: Charles Knight, Is Worry about Pakistani Nukes Serving to Keep the U.S. in Iraq? Project on Defense Alternatives Commentary. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, July 2007.

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