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In a Nuclear Minefield

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In 1947, a British lawyer with no experience in the region arrived in India to draw lines on a map. Within several weeks, Cyril Radcliffe had severed the future Pakistan from India, helping to create the conditions that have since resulted in three wars and the arming of both nations with nuclear weapons. People ask what America would do if Pakistan lost control of its nukes. Wrong question. Ask instead what India might do.

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That country has as many as 100 nuclear weapons and the missiles, as well as the airplanes, submarines and surface ships, to launch them. Pakistan also has around 100 nuclear weapons but lacks India's extensive delivery systems. Nonetheless, the two countries have what it takes to blow each other to kingdom come. They also have the reason. They hate each other.

The stakes in this part of the world are worth reciting because they are both terrifying and virtually unprecedented. Yet in Congress, the comparison is made to the Vietnam War. Rep. David Obey, the House Appropriations Committee chairman, has suggested that the war in Afghanistan and the effort to stabilize Pakistan have an open-ended and futile Vietnam quality to them. He wants to give the Obama administration one year to show progress -- or get out.

Others make the argument that we can only make matters worse. First "do no harm," counsels Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel and the author of the best-seller "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism." It is his view that the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan are beyond us, that America has neither the power nor the know-how to do much in this vast, complex region. The trick, he says, is merely to have a plan to secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons if and when the time comes.

If there is a Vietnam analogy, it may be this: Containment can be impossible. The war in Vietnam became the war in Cambodia and the war in Laos. In the end, it meant a bloodbath for the entire region. Cambodia simply went berserk, a horror that is still hard to comprehend. So, too, the unintended consequences of the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan has now been drawn into the fighting with the Taliban. The country is even less stable than it used to be. Once again, we hear that term "collateral damage." This means that the wrong people are being killed.

The challenge for President Obama is to explain to the American people why Afghanistan and potentially Pakistan are worth the lives of yet more Americans. So far, Obama has stuck pretty close to the message that he is determined to eliminate al-Qaeda -- and more power to him. But that is too little, too late. The Taliban has already spilled over the border. A bit of nation-building is what Pakistan needs. That will take time -- considerably more than the year Obey and others are willing to grant.

The relevant history here may not be Vietnam at all. It could be World War I. The assassination of a single man somehow set off a chain reaction in which millions were killed and, after a pause, it all resumed under a different name: World War II. (Books are still being written about the cause of World War I.) Now, though, the stakes are so much greater. The region is a nuclear neighborhood, a pharmacy for nuclear addicts with Pakistan choosing to add even more weapons instead of -- just an idea -- opening some schools. The region is roiled. The only constant is enmity.

The critics of Obama's policy for the region are not easily dismissed. Vietnam has its lessons; Iraq, too. What's more, they have their cumulative effect. A kind of national weariness has set in. Why us? Why is it that Americans are always asked to risk their lives? Where the hell is everyone else?

These are hard questions to answer. But an even harder question could someday come after a nuclear catastrophe when people demand to know why nothing much was done to head it off. The answer cannot be that our year was up.

To the Indians, last year's Mumbai terrorist attacks seemed ominously like the sort of sea-land operation only a government -- or a rogue element -- could pull off. They look at Pakistan, which in turn looks back at India across a line drawn long ago by an Englishman. He went home after a brief stay. It will take us much longer.

cohenr@washpost.com




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