Last Wednesday's presidential address made clear that all U.S. troops "surged" into Afghanistan in 2009 will be withdrawn by next summer. Yet President Obama was equally clear about something else: Pakistan must crack down more forcefully on extremism within its borders.
"So long as I am President, the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us," Obama said on Wednesday. Translation: Pakistan needs to launch an offensive inside North Waziristan.
North Waziristan is a hotbed of militancy, a launching pad for attacks on American forces in Afghanistan -- and the only tribal area not to have experienced an intervention by the Pakistani Army. Taking aim at the North Waziristan sanctuary, Washington believes, would severely degrade the capacities of militants who target U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, where a large component of remaining American soldiers will focus their efforts.
A Pakistani operation in North Waziristan may well make the job of U.S. forces in Afghanistan easier. However, it would also be a strategic mistake, because it would imperil critical U.S. interests in Pakistan that far outweigh those in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani Army offers a range of reasons to explain its inaction in North Waziristan, from lack of capacity to public opinion. The chief reason, however, is strategic: It serves as a refuge for the Haqqani network and Afghan Taliban, which the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies regard as strategic assets and hence are careful not to alienate. Consequently, while the Pakistani Taliban and several other indigenous outfits have declared war on the Pakistani state, the Haqqani network and Afghan Taliban (which are fixated on attacking U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan) harbor no ill will toward it.
Little wonder, then, that the Pakistani Army prefers to stay out. Yet let's suspend our disbelief for a moment and imagine that the military changes course and carries out Washington's wishes. What would happen?
First, militants would not simply disappear. They would move elsewhere. Some may well be forced into Afghanistan, where U.S. firepower would be waiting for them. Many others, however, would pour into neighboring tribal areas, which have not been stabilized despite the best efforts of previous army operations. Consider that in the Mohmand tribal agency, more than 50 heavily armed militants recently attacked a security checkpoint, killing or wounding more than a dozen Pakistani paramilitary troops. The last thing Pakistan needs is a fresh inflow of the world's most vicious terrorists into tribal regions already crawling with extremist factions -- or, following in the footsteps of Mullah Omar (Quetta), Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (Karachi), and Osama Bin Laden (Abbottabad), into the country's urban areas.
Second, a North Waziristan operation would galvanize and unite Pakistan's immense array of militant organizations. The Pakistani Taliban and other anti-government groups in the tribal belt would join their besieged Haqqani network and Afghan Taliban brothers in taking up arms against Islamabad. Meanwhile, militant groups in Punjab Province -- which have dispatched scores of fighters to Afghanistan in recent years -- could react to an army offensive against their ideological kin by waging retaliatory attacks. Crucially, these would be launched from Punjab -- home to Pakistan's capital, military headquarters, and the majority of the 180-million-strong population. This all constitutes a formidable challenge for a Pakistani state that is either unable or unwilling to quell the less multifaceted anti-government insurgency it faces today.
In short, a North Waziristan operation would accelerate Pakistan's destabilization. Impoverished, radicalizing, nuclear-armed Pakistan would lurch closer to implosion -- a terrifying prospect in what Washington already describes as the world's most dangerous nation, and a scenario that would jeopardize a U.S. interest more crucial than any in Afghanistan: Pakistan's long-term stability.
If not North Waziristan, then what? Simple: Intensify countermilitancy efforts on the Afghanistan side of the Durand Line. In fact, recent developments suggest that militancy flares as much on that side of the porous border as on the Pakistani side. In the last few weeks alone, there have been several incidents of Afghanistan-based militants -- driven out of Pakistan by army operations several years back -- launching cross border attacks into Pakistan's tribal areas and into nearby Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. In one case, 200 militants entered the tribal area of Bajaur from the eastern Afghan province of Kunar, and fought Pakistani forces for several days.
Ultimately, America must accept a fact that superpowers are reluctant to concede: Its ability to shape strategic thinking in other countries is limited. The United States cannot compel Pakistan to eliminate militant organizations on its soil that, while a threat to America, are an asset for Pakistan. However, by withdrawing its demand that Pakistani tanks roll into North Waziristan, Washington would make a modest contribution toward keeping Pakistan's brushfires of extremism from erupting into a raging conflagration.
Michael Kugelman is the South Asia program associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.