In the last couple of days there has been an interesting discussion here on another thread on the subject of nuclear proliferation and the dangers of 'accidental' nuclear war. Mention was made of the situation respecting Pakistan and India, and Neil Richardson invited me to comment.
There is no doubt that the nuclear situation in South Asia is quite unstable and dangerous. Both India and Pakistan have sizable nuclear arsenals, which are being continuously augmented. The two countries have an ongoing history of animosity and have fought four wars in the last six decades. A recent factor greatly increasing the danger is the appearance of jihadi and other terrorists who are believed by India to be under Pakistani control, even the indigenous ones.
In both countries the arcane doctrines of nuclear command and control, developed in the West (especially in the US), are studied and implemented by industrious staff officers, who have been advised by Western experts. Their commanders are suitably briefed though, like nuclear commanders everywhere, they probably view the elaborate theoretical constructs underlying these procedures with a somewhat cynical eye. As David Habakkuk pointed out in the earlier discussion, US military commanders shaped the nuclear decision process for their civilian masters so as to achieve what they believed was the more realistic solution. In Pakistan and India civilian control is largely nominal; the fingers on the nuclear triggers are those of their generals.
With its estimated 190 million population and its nuclear arsenal, Pakistan is an important country in its own right. However, its location makes it even more significant. Sitting next to Afghanistan, Iran and India, it plays a key role in the geopolitics of the region. It has been a major factor in the United States' two campaigns in Afghanistan, the first time playing a leading role in helping the Afghan mujahideen to expel the Soviet Union's occupying forces from their country, and, more recently, being blamed for the US's lack of success in defeating the Taliban insurgency.
Some recent developments, including some policy moves and changes, make it likely that the role that Pakistan has played in the region will change, as will the internal situation in the country. It is worth looking at these.
Pastor Nazir Alam smiles as he
talks to a journalist at the church
This Christmas, pastor Nazir Alam will stoke up a fire, lay a fresh cloth on the altar and welcome parishioners as they arrive at his church in Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal area known as an al-Qaeda haven.
"The lights are all up, and the choir boys are ready. The church is looking its best," said 60-year-old Alam, a former missionary who has celebrated his last ten Christmases there. "There's not much left to do but to pray and rejoice."
Outsiders might see little cause for joy. Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for minorities, says London-based watchdog Minority Rights Group International. Christians, Shiite Muslims and Ahmadis are victims of a rising tide of deadly attacks.
But Alam's church, and the homes of most of his 200 parishioners, are nestled inside a Pakistani army base in South Waziristan, a mountainous region that was a hotbed of militancy until a military offensive in 2009.
"When the US went into Kabul, things became bad for everyone. But we are safe here. The army protects us," says Shaan Masih, who helps clean the church and likes to play the drums and sing carols.
The recent protests in the Muslim world against the United States (including many violent ones) on account of an amateur film have once again raised the issue of the causes behind such strong reactions, and what can be done to avoid them. While such deliberations are doubtless occurring behind the closed doors of policy-making chambers, comment has also proliferated in the media and in think-tanks. The actions recommended range all the way from acting tough to being more sensitive to the sensibilities of other cultures. However, the first step in any sensible policy-making or intelligent debate and comment should be to understand the causes underlying the problem.
There are some 1.7 billion Muslims in the world. Their homelands stretch all the way from the Atlantic across Central and North Africa to the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and on to the Indonesian islands in the Pacific. They encompass many different races and nationalities, and speak many languages. But beneath this vast diversity they share certain common features that make them a single community, especially in their own view.
A recent post by Col Lang on the wife of President Mursi led to a spirited discussion on the hijab. Many weighty comments were advanced on its pros and cons (cons mostly, as I recall), and its personal and sociological significance. A recent news item ─ though about a sad event ─ highlights how irrelevant the wearing of the hijab is to the kind of person one is, and what one can do in life.
Lieutenant Commander Wafa Dabbagh, a doctor in Canada’s military, died recently of cancer at the age of 50. A Palestinian, who was born in Egypt and grew up in Kuwait, she came to Canada in 1990, and in 1996 applied to join the Canadian military. Well qualified (she had two degrees), the only problem was that she wore the hijab, the first such woman to apply. Swallowing hard, the military took her on ─ and never looked back.
At her memorial service, which was attended by the Chief of Defence Staff and many other senior officers, people spoke about and remembered her many fine qualities and the impact she had on the people who came to know her. No one mentioned the hijab having anything to do with the kind of person she was or what she achieved.
Wafa was fortunate that she came to Canada, a country and society where, by and large, the way you look or what you wear does not determine your worth, nor limit what you can do. It does not matter much if you wear the hijab or (as famously stated by one of Toronto’s ‘finest’) “dress like a slut”.
Dare one say: perhaps Canada, too, was lucky to have Wafa Dabbagh, hijab and all!
-- FB Ali
Uri Avnery, the former Irgun terrorist who is now Israel’s foremost ‘peacenik’ (founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement), has on his website today (23 June) an article on some basic realities underlying the situation in the region that is worth reading. Of special note are the views he expresses in the piece on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Below are some extracts on this subject:
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, is an old established party which has earned much respect with its steadfastness in the face of recurrent persecution, torture, mass arrests and occasional executions. Its leaders are untainted by the prevalent corruption, and admired for their commitment to social work.
The West is haunted by medieval ideas about the horrible Saracens. The Muslim Brotherhood inspires terror. It is conceived as a fearsome, murderous, secret sect, out to destroy Israel and the West. Of course, practically no one has taken the trouble to study the history of this movement in Egypt and elsewhere. Actually, it could not be further removed from this parody.
The Brotherhood has always been a moderate party, though they almost always had a more extreme wing........The Brotherhood is first and foremost an Arab and Egyptian party, deeply embedded in Egyptian history. Though they would probably deny it, I would say – judging from their history – that they are more Arab and more Egyptian than fundamentalist. They certainly have never been fanatical.
During their 84 years, they have seen many ups and downs. But mostly, their outstanding quality has been pragmatism, coupled with adherence to the principles of their religion. It is this pragmatism that also characterizes their behavior during the last year and a half, which – so its seems – caused quite a number of voters who are not particularly religious to prefer them to the secular candidate who is tainted by his connection with the corrupt and repressive former regime.
This also determines their attitude towards Israel. Palestine is constantly on their mind – but that is true of all Egyptians.........Throughout the heated election campaigns – four in a year – the Brotherhood has not demanded the abrogation of the peace agreement with Israel. Their attitude seems to be as pragmatic as ever.
For some time now attention has been focussed on Israel’s (and its lobbyists’) attempts to involve the US in a war with Iran. With this issue put on the back burner for a while, it is perhaps time to turn back to the war the US is actually fighting ─ its longest ever ─ in Afghanistan. I would suggest that there is no better way of doing that than reading a brilliant article by Ann Jones that has just been published.
Ann Jones is a journalist and author who writes mostly about women’s and children’s issues. In that behalf she has travelled extensively in Afghanistan, and developed a remarkable understanding of the country and its people. From that perspective she has taken a penetrating look at the current state of the US enterprise in that country, and the direction in which it is heading.
What she sees is a looming train wreck. A wreck caused not by the Taliban insurgency, but by the fatal flaw underlying the US plan to conclude the war (Plan A she calls it, highlighting the fact that there is no Plan B!). A plan that betrays a remarkable lack of understanding of the country and people where the US has been fighting for over 10 years.
I would highly recommend Ann Jones’s article. She has got it exactly right!
While not having as rosy a view of Obama as JT Cornpone does, I still think there is a good case to be made that the stance he is now adopting (as expressed in the interview and, presumably, the one he'll put to Netanyahu) is designed to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. What he is saying is: as soon as there is adequate proof that Iran is moving towards building a nuclear weapon the US will militarily intervene to stop it. This cuts out the ground from under Bibi's war rhetoric by implying: show me proof and the US will do what you are threatening to do. From this stance he can also adopt a much tougher line with Israel about not attempting a unilateral attack since this will cause the US many problems. This declaration guards his political flank, and reduces the scope for Republican (and AIPAC) attacks on this score. Obviously, he must be pretty confident that the evidence that the US intelligence community has means that he will not have to follow through on his threat. And that they will be immune to pressure and blandishments from the Ziocon lobby to change their findings. In effect, the issue of war and peace is now firmly in the hands of Clapper and his team. FB Ali
This concisely sums up the position Now we will see what happens on Monday at the White House. pl
Watching the United States stumble from one bad policy into another over the 10 years of the Afghan war, one went through a whole gamut of emotions ─ bemusement, puzzlement, anger, sorrow ─ but ending up with bewilderment overpowering the others. How could this great empire, with all the resources of knowledge, experience, intellect, research and analysis at its command, get it so consistently wrong? How could this “greatest democracy in the world” allow special interests to take over its policy-making to the grave detriment of the true interests of the country and its people?
Part of the answer was provided by Andrew Bacevich in a recent article. He wrote: "Strategy is a quintessential American Century word, ostensibly connoting knowingness and sophistication. Whether working in the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon, strategists promote the notion that they can anticipate the future and manage its course ...... Strategy is actually a fraud perpetrated by those who covet power and are intent on concealing from the plain folk the fact that the people in charge are flying blind”.
Another part of the answer comes from what happened to Bacevich. A former army officer, now a professor of history and international relations, he is one of the sanest people in America writing about current affairs. In recognition of that his writings were always welcome on the OpEd pages of the principal newspapers and in periodicals ─ until he started pointing out the folly in many of the policies being pursued by the US. He was then dropped like a brick. The only ‘experts’ who are now featured in both the MSM and scholarly journals are those who push the reigning narrative. Presumably, they are the only ones now read or heard in the corridors of power.
That is why it was such a pleasant surprise to come across an article that offered a remarkably clear-eyed view of the reality of the situation in Afghanistan today, and proposed a way out for the United States.
All of Pakistan has recently been watching with rapt attention the twists and turns of an unfolding scandal that the country’s febrile media has happily termed ‘Memogate’. The ruling party, in full defensive mode, watches apprehensively even as it bobs and weaves with every disclosure. The opposition parties gleefully plot and maneouvre to gain maximum advantage, while the generals nervously button and unbutton their holsters. The privileged upper class pauses in its living of the good life, and ordinary people forget their problems and miseries for a while, as the breathless TV anchors report each new development. Even the Pakistani Taliban declared a ceasefire, perhaps the better to follow the unfolding story without such distractions as setting off bombs or laying ambushes.
The present regime in Syria has been in power for over 40 years since its founding by Hafez al-Assad in 1970. His son Bashar succeeded him in 2000. However, it seems that the family’s reign is now nearing its end.
Many people and forces have been working to achieve this goal. A sizable portion of the Syrian people, disenchanted with the regime and enthused by the Arab Spring, began protest demonstrations against the government, but these were harshly repressed. This internal unrest encouraged foreign actors to move in seeking to advance their own agendas that, though differing in their ultimate goals, all required the end of the regime and the firm control that it exercised over the country.
On the recent thread about Anwar al-Awlaki’s killing, the question came up as to whether the US really is at war or not. This is an important issue, and its answer carries much wider significance beyond just the legality of killing Awlaki.
The short answer to the question, of course, is: it is war, because the US chooses to treat it as such. But it’s the dawn of a very different kind of war.
When George Bush declared his Great War on a nebulous noun (which most people understood to mean Islamists, though some construed it as Islam), he still waged it in the conventional manner. Pinning the blame for 9/11 on Afghanistan and Iraq, he invaded both countries. This was not much different from Austria-Hungary declaring war on and invading Serbia in 1914 because of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Serb nationalist.
The killing of bin Laden in a US Special Forces raid on a house in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad unleashed a torrent of stories about the event. The accounts by various US officials (given in bits and pieces immediately after the raid) gave little information on the details of the operation, and none on the ‘back story’. This left the field open to a lot of speculative accounts about how the raid took place and the events leading up to it. A rash of conspiracy theories also sprang up, many of which flatly denied bin Laden was even present in the house, while others put forward various versions of the Pakistani role in these events.
Recently, two accounts have been published that claim to be based on information from sources ‘in the know’ or ones who actually participated in the planning (though perhaps not the execution) of the raid. The first was a detailed account by Nicholas Schmidle in The New Yorker, based on interviews with and information provided by senior White House staff and some of the planners of the raid. This was obviously the “official” version, what the US administration would like people to believe. The second is a post on her blog by RJ Hillhouse, in which she quotes her intelligence sources on certain aspects of the raid, especially the events leading up to it.
By studying these two accounts, separating the grain from the chaff, and judiciously filling in some of the blanks, it is possible to come up with what is likely to be fairly close to the real story.
The endgame continues to unfold in Afghanistan, as it has now for over a year. Writing in May last year, I had discussed the goals and objectives that the various players in the Afghan conflict (and the factions within each of them) wanted to achieve in this endgame. In this past year these goals haven’t changed, but the methods that the players are adopting of trying to achieve them have changed with the changing situation. This is an appropriate occasion to review how the endgame is being played now.
In May last year President Obama had sided with the war faction (led by Secretary Gates and the generals), and allowed them to pursue their strategy of sufficiently weakening the Taliban to permit the US to safely hand over the country to a friendly Afghan government and its army (backed by US airpower and SF). He had ruled against the ‘minimalist’ faction, led by VP Biden, that wanted an expeditious US pullout on the best terms that could be negotiated with the Taliban. Now, Obama has adopted the Biden goal as the ultimate aim, though, in typical fashion, he has compromised by letting the generals take one last kick at the can. However, he has given them firm deadlines for drawing down US forces in Afghanistan, and has clearly signalled that, for the US, the Afghan war is now finally over.
“The relationship, in truth, has never been about trust. It was and is a strategic alliance founded on complementary interests: Pakistan's desire for military assistance and its fear of becoming a pariah state, and the U.S.'s need for regional support in the Afghanistan war. While Pakistan and the U.S. share similar long-term goals — economic partnership, stability in the region — their short-term needs rarely intersect. That is why the question of whose side Pakistan is on is so galling to most Pakistanis and so infuriating to most Americans. "Pakistan is on Pakistan's side," says Tariq Azim, an opposition Senator and Deputy Information Minister under Musharraf”. ‒ TIME
Since the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, there has been a lot of heated rhetoric, bordering on the hysterical, in the media of both countries (some of that has even seeped into comments on this site). TIME is not known for in-depth analysis, but its May 23 cover story (Why we’re stuck with Pakistan) is a detailed and insightful discussion of the issue. Well worth a read (at the link below) for anyone who wishes to understand the background and recent history of the relationship, and the tensions and strains that currently bedevil it .
The media’s preoccupation with the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan, followed by the protracted nuclear crisis, had hardly subsided when the Arab Spring burst into bloom with its tense standoffs, between the old order and the new, erupting into violence, and actual war in Libya, with the West as a participant. All this drove the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan off the news, except for a brief flurry of reporting following Pastor Terry Jones’s incendiary exploits. (Personally, I don’t think there is anything to the story that the Quetta shura has made the reverend an honorary Taliban in recognition of his services to the cause).
However, the war in those distant lands has been grinding on in its usual fashion ‒ IEDs and suicide bombers killing soldiers and civilians (though there was the odd case of two US soldiers being killed by a US drone), coalition air strikes and SF night raids killing insurgents and civilians, the Pakistan army’s operations in its tribal areas continuing unendingly, young Taliban suiciders blowing up Pakistanis. The political and strategic games between the main players in the war have also been continuing, though it appears that they are now starting to take a significant new turn.
It started with a bang (quite a few bangs, actually), but ended with a whimper. On Wednesday afternoon the sessions court convened inside Kot Lakhpat jail, with the accused present, as well as the families of the victims. Their lawyers weren’t there because, when they arrived at the jail earlier that day, they were escorted to another room and placed under armed guard. Also not there was the young widow of one of the victims who, overcome with grief and the futility of hoping for justice, had taken her own life. (Of course, as devotees of le Carré will recognise, Raymond Davis himself was also a victim).
The judge read out the indictment; then a representative of the victims’ families stood up and told him that they had accepted payment of compensation for the killings and, under the diyyat provisions of the law, had pardoned the killer. Having confirmed this, the judge ordered the prisoner released. In the hush that followed, as Davis walked towards the US Consul seated behind him he had tears trickling down his face, but the whimpering sound probably came from some of the womenfolk among the families. Within minutes Davis left in a convoy of diplomatic vehicles; within the hour he was on a plane bound for Bagram airbase in Kabul.
Raymond Davis’s murder trial has begun, while the US continues to press for his repatriation, though now much more circumspectly. Whatever the outcome of these proceedings, this affair has already had a significant impact on the US-Pakistan relationship, and may yet do so also on Pakistan’s internal situation.
I had concluded my previous thread on the subject by advancing the hypothesis (triggered by a couple of useful pointers from TTG and MTJY) that Davis was working for a JSOC Special Mission Unit whose task related to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. This hypothesis has acquired some legs if one considers the effects this event has had, and is having. All of them were set off when it caused the balance of power in the Pakistani establishment to tilt away from the US-friendly faction towards the Pakistan-friendly one (the bulk of this establishment is, of course, just self-friendly).
The saga rolls on, while (as they used to say in the old pulp novels) the plot thickens. Davis remains in prison awaiting trial. Relations between Pakistan and the US continue to be quite strained. And the circle of collateral damage widens.
The facts of the incident that sparked all this are now fairly clear. Davis, in a rental car, was driving around in Lahore in areas where foreigners scarcely ever venture, tailed by two ISI auxiliaries on a motorbike. After an hour or more of trying to shake them off, they both came abreast at a stoplight. He pulled out a gun and, firing through his windscreen, shot them both. Accounts differ as to whether they made any threatening gesture, but one was killed as he was trying to run away.
The backup van that Davis called for came roaring up the wrong way on a one-way street, ran over a cyclist, killing him, then turned around and roared off. Davis was arrested, and weapons, ammo and other paraphernalia were found in the car. On his cell phone were numbers that were later traced to phones in the tribal belt where the Taliban operate, while his camera had pictures of religious schools and military sites.
Barack Obama was elected as the apostle and agent of change. He hasn’t been able to bring about much change, but is now likely to get his fill dealing with it ‒ not in the US, but in the Muslim world. What has happened in Tunisia and Egypt is not some passing phenomenon. There is a wave of change surging through Muslim countries, and it is likely to ebb and flow for a long time. Obama (and his successor) are going to have their hands full coping with it. As will other powers. For this is the latest phase in the relationship between the Muslim world and the rest.
The spy games continue in “AfPak”, but this one ended in tragedy, and may yet have wider and serious repercussions.
The known facts are that a US national, Raymond Davis, driving a car with non-diplomatic plates in Lahore, while stopped at a red light pulled out a Glock 9mm pistol and, firing through the windshield, shot dead two people nearby on a motor cycle. He radioed the US consulate for back up, stepped out of the car and took pictures of the two dead young men with his camera. The backup van came tearing up the wrong side of the dual carriageway, hit a cyclist, killing him on the spot, turned around and sped away. Davis ran off on foot, mingling among the crowds on a side street, but was chased and captured by two traffic wardens.
In late December Col Lang posted here a piece of mine entitled Whistling past the graveyard.... This was a reference to the recently published overview of the Obama administration’s review of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even though this summary dealt in very general terms with what path the USA proposed to follow in the future, I commented that it gave little hope that this would be any more effective than past efforts in dealing with the real dangers and problems the US and the West faced in this area.
Since then, various reports appearing in the media, and some actions on the ground, enable one to make a more accurate assessment of what policies are likely to be pursued after this review. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise to see that the principal players appear to be planning to follow different paths that suit their own particular interests. Since none of their policies are likely to deal effectively with the risks and issues looming in the area, it is apparent that, even though the tunes they’re whistling are different, they are still tiptoeing by the graveyard, each hoping that they’ll be safely past before the ghouls and banshees come charging out.
The graveyard of empires, that is. The Obama administration’s recent review of the Afghan war amounts essentially to little more than that. The bizarre aim of the war, formulated by Obama in 2009, is repeated: dismantling al-Qaeda! This weirdness permeates the whole report. It mentions, almost in passing, the two main pre-requisites for success (eradicating insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan, and establishing half-decent governance in Afghanistan) and then, without coming to grips with them, hurries on to claim all-round “progress” in the war. While this published overview is obviously a (rather futile) PR exercise, there is no evidence that the full review was any more realistic.
The US has now been fighting this war for nine years, and is prepared to continue it for another four; it presently has some 100,000 US soldiers fighting there at an annual cost of some 100 billion dollars. All in order to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda? Al-Qaeda? In Afghanistan and Pakistan? The ridiculousness of this proposition compelled Joe Biden a few days later to publicly clarify that he, at least, knows that, whatever the danger from AQ, it doesn’t come from this region.
It was the dawn of 2010, and the ISI had a problem: Pakistan’s spy agency was losing control over some of its Taliban proteges. The previous year the British and some Europeans, wearying of the unending war, had prevailed upon the UN representative in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, to get peace negotiations started between the Karzai government and the Taliban. With the assistance of the Saudis, Eide arranged some meetings with a few former Taliban leaders and also involved some Afghan officials. These didn’t bother the ISI; what was getting them worried now were reports that the Taliban’s No. 2 man, and operational commander, Mullah Baradar, was involved in these talks.
It is rather remarkable that, ten years after having drawn Pakistan into its war in Afghanistan, the US is still not clear on the motivations that underlie Pakistan’s stance in this war, where they’re coming from, where they’re going. This doesn’t just apply to the self-styled ‘experts’ in Washington’s numerous think tanks; it also seems to apply, surprisingly, to administration policy makers.
Typifying this confusion is the US government’s invention of the AfPak term to describe the theatre in which the war is going on. A term that had to be hastily dropped by officials, at least for public use, after Pakistan made it clear that it wasn’t amused. However, the US still thinks of it as the AfPak war, in which Pakistan’s function is to backstop and bolster US operations in Afghanistan. The generals conducting that war find it convenient to ascribe their lack of success to Pakistan’s failure to deliver, and keep demanding that Washington do something about it.
The American dilemma in dealing with the world, and especially the Muslim world, is neatly captured in two recent blogposts. The American people, by and large, espouse values and beliefs that they rightly expect should earn them the goodwill and affection of other peoples. However, many of the policies and actions of their government, ostensibly in furtherance of those same aims, result in creating resentment and dislike abroad, shading into hate and rage at the margins, which sometimes lead to attacks on the US and its people. Or, they lead to wars in which US soldiers fight in other lands, kill and are killed, maim and are maimed.
Requiem for a lost country
The earth gods are not mocked lightly. They are slow to anger, but scorn them long enough, defy them long enough, and they will rise up and unleash their fury upon you. This is what they are now doing. This year their baleful gaze has focussed on hapless Pakistan. They could hardly have picked a better target: a country with limitless vulnerability, and no defences. Over-populated, under-resourced, practically bankrupt, no governance to speak of, with a corrupt, bloodsucking ruling class, smothered under the weight of men with guns, some wearing uniforms, others sporting beards.
But it is not this country that I mourn. It will survive, as will its hardy people. Like the lowly of the earth everywhere, survival is about the only skill that their forbears bequeathed to them. They will pick themselves up, bury their dead, and resume their threadbare lives ‒ till the next calamity strikes. For, with Nature up in arms, it will be the drought next year, or the year after, or another flood, or some pestilence. If, at some point, the country begins to totter, one set or other of the hollow men with the guns will take it over. No joy there, for all they think about is war, all they care about is “the enemy”. To them (even the well-intentioned ones) the country is just a base to be used to mount their campaigns.
The country I mourn is the Pakistan that was meant to be, that could have been. The Pakistan that its founder wanted, the country in that vision he held out to the millions who laboured and struggled and sacrificed to help him bring it into being.
A country founded on the ideals and values of Islam, in which all its citizens would be equal whatever their faith, with liberty, social justice and the rule of law. Many forces opposed it, but the bitterest enemies were the self-proclaimed guardians of religion, for they knew their narrow, ossified creeds would have no place to thrive in the country that he wanted to create. He beat them back, as he did all the others arrayed against his mission. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s spirit was indomitable, but the arduous struggle wore out his frail body, and he did not live long enough to shape the country that he had created.
It is the loss of this country that remained just a dream that I mourn. This dream that is now dead. It survived the depredations of man, but with Nature now joining the assault, its time is finally gone. I mourn its passing as do many others: the dwindling numbers of those whose youth, like mine, was set ablaze by the promise of this vision, the others who came to it later but gave it their allegiance, all of us who kept the dream alive in our hearts and strove to bring it into being.
And, above all, the few, the happy few, who stepped unhesitatingly forward when the dream beckoned that it may need their lives to ensure its survival.
It is necessary for all of us to bear witness to this dream while we are still around. Since, as it has faded, there have crept out of the shadows many who would desecrate its memory: those who claim that creating this country was a mistake, and the many others who falsely claim that it was meant to be a theocratic state.
We owe it to this shining dream of long ago, the Pakistan that could have been, and to ourselves, to step forward and say:
It was not inevitable that things had to be what they are. It could have been different. Our lives are proof that the dream was real, that it could have come about, that it was a goal worth striving for.
The United States entered the Afghanistan tunnel in 2001 and, nine years later, is still stuck in there. In this conceptual tunnel, the generals always perceive the light of victory at its end, while the political leaders want to get out but are hemmed in by its walls. The tunnel also hides the war from the people, most of whom are hardly aware that it is going on, or where it is taking them.
Recently, considerable excitement accompanied the assumption of the Afghanistan command by the Wizard of COIN. The (entertainment) media lavished breathless praise upon the trinket-laden general, while the commentariat pontificated gravely on the prospect that he would repeat his Iraq success through his magic formula. Unfortunately, the only real wizardry possessed by the general (and his acolytes) is in promoting the legends surrounding him, such as his ‘invention’ of COIN, and how its application in Iraq secured victory there. The fact is, this ‘magic’ formula had nothing to do with the reduction of the insurgency in Iraq.
The players involved in the conflict in Afghanistan have all concluded that neither side can achieve a military victory and that it will end in some other way, probably through a negotiated solution. Since each of them has different goals, this end game is likely to be both confusing and complicated. What is likely to make it even more so is that within each of the parties involved there are factions and interests that have differing ideas on the desired end state and, therefore, the appropriate tactic to achieve it.
With so many players and sub-players, and so many competing agendas, it would be foolhardy to try and predict how this end game will play out (although it is possible to foresee the near-term moves and their probable fate, as well as some of the major forks likely to appear in the road ahead). The best approach is to look at the parties involved, their goals, and how they are likely to try and achieve them.
Hitting the brick wall in Afghanistan
The United States and its allies appear to be preparing for a significant U-turn in their Afghan policy. When President Obama enunciated his new policy in his West Point speech in November 2009, he announced a big increase in US and ISAF troops there. Their mission would be to turn the war around and hand it over to an Afghan government and army able to continue it in order to achieve full control of their country.
Within a couple of months this policy has hit the ‘brick wall’ of harsh reality, and all the rosy assumptions upon which it was based (many of them deliberately manufactured by the war party) lie in tatters.
The first reality-check was provided by the Afghan elections and their aftermath. They proved that there was no chance of a legitimate, reasonably effective Afghan government emerging to which a handover could take place in two years, as the policy envisaged. This realisation probably led to another, and harder, look at the wildly unrealistic assumptions relating to the setting up of a strong Afghan military able to take over security in the country from foreign troops at the same time. The election left the political strategy of the new policy in tatters.
The success of the new military strategy depended on Pakistan clearing out Taliban insurgents in its tribal areas and establishing control over them (the ‘anvil’ to McChrystal’s ‘hammer’). The Pakistanis have now made it clear (embarrassingly, quite publicly) that they are not prepared to extend their operations to the areas the US wanted them to occupy. (This was predicted in a pieceon this website, which went on to warn that, if the US sought to strong-arm Pakistan into taking such action, it would greatly increase the risk of the country being taken over by Islamic nationalists. The US has wisely decided not to try this hazardous tactic). With the Pakistan ‘anvil’ gone, and no viable Afghan army in sight, the rest of the military strategy is now seriously compromised.
Meanwhile, the governments of countries whose soldiers were doing some real fighting (Britain, Canada, and more recently, France) made it clear to Obama that it was not going to be politically feasible for their troops to stay on beyond 2011. All these developments opened up the likely prospect of another Vietnam quagmire, with the generals endlessly pursuing the chimera of victory in an unwinnable war, continuously asking for more time and resources (and threatening to blame him for the defeat if they didn’t get what they wanted).
Other reality checks came closer at home. Obama’s economic advisers probably told him that the war was not economically sustainable beyond next year. His political advisers must have told him that he didn’t have enough political capital left to support the continuation of an unpopular war. The Pentagon probably indicated that keeping up this level of operations in Afghanistan after 2011 would bust the US army. The State Department would have made clear that it wasn’t getting the volunteers it needed to staff the civilian ‘surge’.
Faced with all this harsh reality, it looks as though Obama asked Petraeus and McChrystal whether they could deliver what they’d promised in the next two years with the resources that they had asked for, which he had provided. Realising that there was no prospect of a blank cheque upon which they could draw in the future, and that the inevitable failure would result in their heads being handed to them on a platter, they appear to have backed off. The best available option then remaining was an indigenous political settlement including the Taliban and other insurgents (this course was advocatedas the only realistic solution possible on this website over an year ago, and several times since). This course has now apparently been accepted behind the scenes at the recent London conference, and has in turn led to this sudden change of tune by various generals (wily politicians have either kept their mouths shut, or created verbal smokescreens).
As reported in the New York Times recently, here is some of what they are saying:
Petraeus: "The concept of reconciliation, of talks between senior Afghan officials and senior Taliban or other insurgent leaders, perhaps involving some Pakistani officials as well, is another possibility."
McChrystal: " As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there’s been enough fighting......... I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future, and not the past," (when asked whether he would be content to see Taliban leaders in a future Afghan government).
To these blunt admissions they add various caveats regarding weakening the Taliban, and negotiating from a position of strength. These may be just about saving face, or they may be lingering remnants of past illusions. They do not change the basic reality, namely, that a decision has been made to negotiate the best possible deal with the Taliban and other insurgents, thereby allowing for a pullout of US and INSAF troops some time next year. The Pakistan military appears to have been asked to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table, and to lean on them to come to a settlement.
There is, of course, no guarantee that a deal will be struck. The primary condition of the insurgents for entering into negotiations is that foreign troops depart, though they will likely accept a firm (and limited) timetable for this to happen. If the US hedges on the issue, or seeks an extended draw down period, this could scuttle the talks before they even begin. Karzai’s allies from the former Northern Alliance would be opposed to a Taliban return to the corridors of power and they will attempt to abort the exercise (their realization that the US is pulling out will considerably limit the latter’s ability to influence them). Pakistan will influence the insurgents in the direction of its own security interests, and these may not conform to those of the US (or Hamid Karzai’s); they could conceivably even act as a spoiler. Above all, Karzai knows that, for the insurgents, a deal with him would be a temporary arrangement till they could get rid of him. If he thinks he’s not getting sufficient safeguards, he could sabotage the peace process.
But the greatest threat to the prospects of a negotiated settlement could come from ambitious generals with too many troops and no war to win. McChrystal seems to realise this (“You just really don’t make progress, politically, during fighting”) yet he talks about “shaping conditions”. Trying to do this through offensive operations (which other generals are already talking about) would be like sending in a bull to ‘shape’ your china shop before putting it on the market. The US cannot come anywhere near the ‘shaping’ the Russians attempted, but that didn’t save them from having to leave with their tail between their legs.
However events actually play out, it seems fairly certain that the United States will be out of Afghanistan in a couple of years. Sadly, even if a deal is finally struck, the war will still go on for many more months in blighted Afghanistan, and many more men, women and children will needlessly die. On the other hand, if no agreement is reached, the civil war there will go on and on, with neighbouring powers aiding their own proxies. And so even more people will die, or be maimed, or become wandering, hopeless refugees.
And the Great Game will go on.
© FB Ali (January 2010)
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