Saudi nuclear option?

Afghanistan expects U.S. aid to flow without interruption for six more years following the final U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of 2014 – three years hence. By itself, the U.S.-trained and U.S.-fielded Afghan army will require $5 billion to $7 billion a year in U.S. support to field an army of 350,000 in a country the size of France. Nothing is less certain.

With major defense cuts now in the works, the Pentagon will have insufficient funds to maintain current force levels in the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. It certainly won’t have the wherewithal to fight a two-front war as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Defense budget supplementals throughout the first decade of the 21st century doubled the real costs of defense in a two-war configuration. Taxpayers didn’t feel any pain as the real cost of $1.5 trillion ($1 trillion for Iraq, $500 billion for Afghanistan, and counting) was simply added to the national debt. Thus, de facto war-tax supplementals were never an issue.

Two or three trillion dollars worth of urgent infrastructure work in the United States was postponed to fight these wars. Meanwhile, Western Europe; the Persian Gulf countries, from Kuwait to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman; and China forged ahead of the United States with infrastructure modernization.

Families of the killed and wounded are the principal victims on both sides of the two conflicts. The U.S. taxpayer will be paying for paralyzed and handicapped (mentally and physically) war veterans through the end of the 21st century.

At this week’s Bonn international conference on the future of Afghanistan, boycotted by key player Pakistan to protest the NATO raid that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai said his country would need roughly $10 billion a year from 2015 through 2020, or a little less than half the country’s annual gross national product.

This year, Afghanistan received $15.7 billion from the United States and other NATO donors, or 90 percent of its public spending. After 10 years of NATO and other allied intervention, the country still ranks among the most corrupt in the world.

By the time the United States pulls out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the army now being trained by U.S. and other NATO personnel will number 352,000. Without yearly infusions of Western aid, the Afghan army would become easy pickings for Taliban recruitment.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Bonn conference, «the entire region has a stake in Afghanistan’s future and much to lose if the country again becomes a source of terrorism and instability.»

Henry Kissinger said last week that only the big players in the Afghan neighborhood could act as the guardians of a peaceful settlement.

Iran attended the conference and pledged to support an Afghan-led reconciliation process, provided all foreign bases were closed down by the end of 2014, when U.S. troops are scheduled to leave. In addition to Iran, Mr. Kissinger says that to guarantee an international settlement, China, Russia, India and, of course, Pakistan should also be included.

U.S. officials and think tank scholars recently back from Pakistan say the country is deeply divided between hatred and contempt for America. Pro-American sentiment does not exist in any quarter of Pakistani public opinion.

The latest U.S. intelligence shows that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is closer to 200 weapons than the 60 commonly accepted.

There is also deepening concern about the direction Saudi Arabia is taking, as it is increasingly skeptical of U.S. power and the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence and a former ambassador to the United States, says Saudi Arabia cannot stand still if Iran develops a nuclear capability.

On Dec. 6, Prince Turki signaled a new Saudi nuclear option: «If our efforts, and the efforts of the world community, fail to convince Israel to shed its weapons of mass destruction and to prevent Iran from obtaining similar weapons, we must, as a duty to our country and people, look into all options we are given, including obtaining these weapons ourselves.»

It is not inconceivable that Pakistan would sell one or several nuclear warheads to Saudi Arabia. This was first discussed in 2006 when Saudi King Abdullah and an entourage of some 200 in two Boeing 747s flew into Islamabad for 24 hours.

If a Saudi nuclear option should materialize, Turkey would not and could not stand still for non-nuclear status.

High diplomacy and a deft diplomatic touch are urgently required before U.S.-Pakistan relations spin out of control. Democratic and Republican congressmen and GOP presidential candidates have been piling on the outrage as it becomes increasingly evident that 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed by a U.S. helicopter attack after erroneous coordinates had been transmitted from the Pakistani side.

Pakistani commentators are reminding their readers and viewers that when President George W. Bush, immediately after Sept. 11, had demanded unconditional Pakistani cooperation, including open air space and the use of its territory as a staging base for an offensive against Afghanistan to root out al Qaeda, he had threatened to attack Pakistan if it didn’t comply.

Then-President Pervez Musharraf said then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had threatened by phone to «bomb Pakistan back to the stone age.»

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail in Islamabad. Pakistan is still a key player in any Afghan war denouement.

By Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor-at-large of The Washington Times and United Press International.

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