"The Al Qaeda centre of gravity is not Afghanistan. It is Pakistan. A loss of Afghanistan is a win for the Taliban and the Al Qaeda in Pakistan with potential serious consequences for Pakistan," General (rtd) Jack Keane, former Vice Chief of Staff of the US Army said on Wednesday in his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing on Afghanistan.
Noting that it is not about how many Al Qaeda fighters are in Afghanistan, but how the Al Qaeda network enables, trains and supports the Taliban, Keane said the two cannot be separated.
"We cannot conveniently separate the two. If we lose in Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda will be right behind the Taliban as they take over. Make no mistake. Pakistan is a far more consequential country strategically, mostly because of nuclear weapons but also because of the size and influence of the country," he said.
Therefore, he argued, it is appropriate to link the stability of both these countries together as US strategic goals and national interests.
"One of our major challenges with the political and military leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan is their scepticism surrounding the United States' commitment to their country's stability and our resolve to stay the course. Given our track record in both countries, these doubts are well founded, which clearly affect their attitudes and behaviour," Keane said.
Noting that Pakistan is a country in which the US has vital national security interests at stake, Stephen Briddle, a senior fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, said, "It's where Al Qaeda's located now; it has a real live, honest-to-goodness usable nuclear arsenal; and it's a country that's currently waging an insurgency against a variety of terrorist and insurgent groups active already within its own borders."
"Should Pakistan collapse and risk the security of its nuclear arsenal, American security would be directly at threat," he said.
In an apparent reference to India, he said, "I would like to be able to persuade the Pakistanis to shift their threat assessment from India to internal problems and transform their military from a conventional force to deal with a hostile state to a counter-insurgency force that could assist in defeating their internal insurgence."
The United States has very limited ability to do any of these things directly, in large part because it is so unpopular within Pakistan, he said.
"In a situation in which our ability to deal directly with the threat that matters to us so much is so limited, arguably, the appropriate way forward is to invoke the Hippocratic oath and at least 'do not harm."
"Don't make a situation that we have very little ability to fix directly any harder to deal with than it is already," he said.
"Where Afghanistan is unique is its geographic proximity to a threatened unstable country that has a nuclear arsenal and where Al Qaeda is already operating, and it seems to me that whereas there are many potential bases for Al Qaeda to operate in, a Pakistan that collapsed and that as a result lost control of its nuclear arsenal is a unique threat to us geographically."
"That's a problem that's very, very different from Yemen, that's very, very different from Somalia," he said in response to a question.