Pakistan’s Plan B deficiency

What is happening today in Pakistan takes me back to the time when the Iranian revolution was brewing, when I was the desk officer for Iran on the National Security Council.

The ultimate reason for the U.S. policy failure then was the fact that the U.S. had placed enormous trust and responsibility in the shah of Iran.

He -- and not the country or people of Iran -- was seen as the linchpin of U.S. strategy in the Persian Gulf. Everything relied on him. There was no Plan B.

As a consequence, the endlessly mulled-over U.S. response to Iranian instability was that we had no choice except to support the shah.

This was fortified by the belief (or wishful thinking) that the shah would pull himself together and deal with the growing crisis before it was too late. By the time it became inescapably obvious that that was not going to happen, the situation was too far gone for anything to stop it.

This is a gross simplification, of course. But in retrospect, this was the essence of the problem. We had placed all of our eggs in the shah’s basket; we had no visible alternative. So policy tended to settle on “more of the same” and fear of “rocking the boat” in a way that would undercut the shah, combined with much wringing of hands and wishful thinking.

Those policies were so unsuccessful that they gave rise to endless conspiracy theories among the Iranian elite (many of whom fled the country in hopes that someone else would defend their interests) in which the Carter administration was determined to replace the shah with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Absurd as that appeared to those of us on the inside, it was an all-too-human attempt to square what the Iranians regarded as an omnipotent United States with a policy of neglect and error.

All of this comes to mind as I watch the situation in Pakistan.

I am no expert on that country, but I see the U.S. locked in much the same kind of policy vise that bedeviled us in Iran.

We have bet the farm on one man -- in this case, Pervez Musharraf -- and we have no fallback position.

Pakistan is far more dangerous than Iran was. If it should be taken over by Sunnis of a radical Islamist/Talibanesque persuasion, the dangers are not that hard to imagine.

Pakistan is a nuclear state. I suppose that a radical Sunni takeover would be seen as an imminent threat by nuclear India. I know it would be seen that way in Iran, and Iran might well be persuaded to abandon its present slow-motion nuclear development, drop out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and go for a bomb in the shortest time possible. That would set off other ripples of proliferation and possibly military reaction.

Pakistan is already a training center for international terrorism. That would only increase. Certainly a radical Islamist Pakistan would give Al Qaeda and the Taliban an enormous boost in their operations in Afghanistan and beyond. Pakistan would constitute the kind of imminent terrorist/nuclear threat that we falsely ascribed to Saddam Hussein.

One of the obstacles to confronting the Iranian revolution at an early stage -- regardless of whether that would have had any significant effect -- was that no one had any good ideas to offer about what might be done. I certainly have no magic plan to offer about Pakistan.

Still, avoiding the issue or sweeping it under the rug in hopes that it will get better on its own is worse even than honestly admitting that we have no solution to the problem.

The worst does not always happen, but in this region we do not have to look very far to find cases where it has.

Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University, served on the National Security Council under presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan and was the principal White House aide on Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis.