The Primate Diaries

The Domino Theory Returns, in Afghanistan

In the 1960s military strategists promoted the “domino theory” as a rationale for why the United States needed to intervene in what later turned out to be a Vietnamese civil war. The logic was that, as communist influence extended from Russian and China, every country that fell before the “Reds” would perpetuate yet another country going the same direction. However, as Secretary of Defense at the time, Robert McNamara, stated in his mea culpa documentary, The Fog of War, their logic was based on an erroneous foundation:

We saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War, not what they saw it as: a civil war. We were wrong.

Now that bloated corpse known as the domino theory is being dressed up once more in its Sunday best and presented before military planners as a living, breathing strategy for the 21st century. In the current edition of Foreign Policy Robert Hadick addresses this return of the living dead:

Why is the United States fighting a war in Afghanistan? According to the Obama administration’s strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the goal of the campaign is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens.” But according to Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a new member of the Defense Policy Board, the more important reason to is to prevent the Taliban from taking over Pakistan. Does this 21st century version of the domino theory make any more sense than its 1960s incarnation?

Writing in The American Interest, Biddle asserts that if the Taliban once again controlled Afghanistan, as it did in the 90s, they would use the state’s resources to destabilize the government of Pakistan thereby risking the collapse of the world’s only predominately Muslim nuclear power.

Analysts have made much of the threat that Pakistani Taliban base camps pose to the stability of the government in Kabul, but the danger works both ways: Instability in Afghanistan also poses a serious threat to the secular civilian government in Pakistan.

However, as Haddick points out, this is to forget that the Taliban was in control of Afghanistan very recently. Rather than resulting in a threat to its secular neighbor, it may have actually distracted the more radical Pushtun populations in the west with events in Afghanistan rather than their home country:

From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban controlled virtually all of Afghanistan and did so with the support of the Pakistani government. During this time, Pakistan suffered its usual episodes of political infighting, high-level corruption, and another military coup. But even with an aggressive theocracy right next door, the takeover of Islamabad by Islamic radicals was never a threat.

Contrary to Biddle’s assertion, it seems equally reasonable to argue that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan provided a relief valve of sorts for Islamist pressure that might have otherwise formed inside Pakistan during the 1990s.

What Haddick doesn’t point out however is the lack of a genuine threat that the Taliban actually poses to Pakistan. Fortunately Juan Cole breaks it down:

The Pakistani Taliban amount to a few thousand fighters who lack tanks, armored vehicles, and an air force.

The Pakistani military is the world’s sixth largest, with 550,000 active duty troops and is well equipped and well-trained. It in the past has acquitted itself well against India, a country ten times Pakistan’s size population-wise. It is the backbone of the country, and has excellent command and control, never having suffered an internal mutiny of any significance. . . All the talk about the Pakistani government falling within 6 months, or of a Taliban takeover, flies in the face of everything we know about the character of Pakistani politics and institutions during the past two years.

My guess is that the alarmism is also being promoted from within Pakistan by Pervez Musharraf, who wants to make another military coup; and by civilian politicians in Islamabad, who want to extract more money from the US to fight the Taliban that they are secretly also bribing to attack Afghanistan.

Forty years ago the domino theory entangled the United States in a bloody conflict for a decade resulting in millions of lives lost and billions of dollars wasted. By trotting this outdated notion back onto the field for a victory lap, military strategists are laying the groundwork for a similar failure.


  1. #1 Rob Jase
    July 27, 2009

    Some people never learn.

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