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O'Hanlon-Kagan and the Militarist Dead-End on Terrorism

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Michael O'Hanlon and Fred Kagan, who first advocated U.S. preparing military intervention in Pakistan last spring well before the current political crisis of the Musharraf regime, have now taken advantage of that crisis to get their ideas into a New York Times op-ed.

Their piece is the purest expression of the militarist approach to the worldwide problem of jihadism. They conjure up a scenario in which "splinter forces or radical Islamists took control of parts of the country containing crucial nuclear materials" and argue that, under those circumstances, "The task of retaking any such regions and reclaiming custody of any nuclear weapons would be a priority for our troops."

But how to do it? "Somehow," they suggest, "American forces would have to team with Pakistanis to secure critical sites and possibly to move the material to a safer place."

There is just one pesky little problem with that option that the authors fail to acknowledge: Pakistan has systematically refused Bush administration requests for information on where their nuclear weapons are located. The Pakistani military regime is not stupid enough to give the United States the information required to target its nuclear weapons.

That makes their favorite military option - actually the only one they don't essentially out as totally infeasible - completely irrelevant.

But O'Hanlon and Kagan don't stop there. They propose that the United States also make plans for a massive combat role in Pakistan against the jihadists now in control of the tribal provinces bordering Afghanistan. They refer to this option as "supporting the core of the Pakistani armed forces as they [seek] to hold the country together in the face of an ineffective government, seceding border regions and Al Qaeda and Taliban assassination attempts against the leadership."

And how many troops would be required for this mission? The authors won't go beyond saying that it would be "a sizable combat force -- not only from the United States, but ideally also other Western powers and moderate Muslim nations". In fact, Pakistan is six times larger than Iraq and the jihadist population - securely entrenched in base areas with local and regional governments that fully support them - is orders of magnitude greater than anything encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan. So any move toward military involvement in Pakistan would result in an open-ended commitment with no upper limit in sight.

And where would the troops come from? Perhaps O'Hanlon and Kagan have not heard that there might be problem on that front. The U.S. military has already far exceeded the limits of deployments of ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now spending its capital. That's why the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of CENTCOM, Admiral William Fallon are so adamantly opposed to military action against Iran.

Ignoring these practical problems, O'Hanlon and Kagan conclude by suggesting that we must gird ourselves for war in Pakistan, concluding that "volatility in places like Pakistan... is as much a threat to our basic security as Soviet tanks once were", and that "Pakistan may be the next big test."

It even clearer today than it was when they first argued this case that the United States cannot seriously contemplate military intervention in Pakistan. Indeed, given what we now know, their op-ed comes across as a parody of the right-wing militarist approach.

But by unwittingly underlining the irrelevance of military force to the crisis in Pakistan, this stunningly foolish O'Hanlon-Kagan piece should provoke a complete reevaluation of the more basic premise that military power can be and should be a central element in U.S. strategy for reducing the threat of terrorism. If there is no practical military option in a state with nuclear weapons in which the military government is extremely unstable and where the world's largest population of al-Qaeda -linked jihadists operate freely, how could it make sense to contemplate the use of military force anywhere else in the service of a "war against terrorism"? Why prepare to use military force against small groups of jihadists in a given country when this Pakistani safe haven for al Qaeda and millions of its followers is in full swing?

Indeed, why doesn't the clear reality that Pakistan offers no opportunity for using military power against the jihadists invalidate the whole notion of a "war" against terrorism?

The publication of this pathetically weak case for extending that war to Pakistan should be the signal for an assault on the vacuously militarist approach that has dominated the national discourse on dealing with terrorism since 9/11. It is time for a non-militarist alternative that is grounded in reality. (Hint: that alternative should begin with the aim of demonstrating to the Islamic world that the misguided policies of making war against Islamic populations is being quickly and definitely ended.)

And the first target for selling such an alternative should be the Democratic Party's leading presidential candidates, who have shown no indication that they understand that the conventional approach to the problem of jihadist terrorism is a dead end.