Archive for the ‘Pakistan’ Category

The Efficacy of Drone Attacks

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Jane Perlesz and Pir Zubair Shah for the New York Times interviewed various residents of the tribal areas of North Waziristan in Pakistan about the effect of the accelerated drone attacks of the past year:

The strikes have cast a pall of fear over an area that was once a free zone for Al Qaeda and the Taliban, forcing militants to abandon satellite phones and large gatherings in favor of communicating by courier and moving stealthily in small groups, they said.

The drones, operated by the C.I.A., fly overhead sometimes four at a time, emitting a beelike hum virtually 24 hours a day, observing and tracking targets, then unleashing missiles on their quarry, they said.

The strikes have sharpened tensions between the local tribesmen and the militants, who have dumped bodies with signs accusing the victims of being American spies in Miram Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, they said…

In the first six weeks of this year, more than a dozen strikes killed up to 90 peoplesuspected of being militants, according to Pakistani and American accounts. There are now multiple strikes on some days, and in some weeks the strikes occur every other day, the people from North Waziristan said.

The strikes have become so ferocious, “It seems they really want to kill everyone, not just the leaders,” said the militant, who is a mid-ranking fighter associated with the insurgent network headed by Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani. By “everyone” he meant rank-and-file fighters, though civilians are being killed, too.

I think debates on the ethics of drone attacks are warranted. There is something very dangerous about the sterility of murder by remote control.

But in a war, dirty things must be done. If these drone attacks are effective in destabilizing Al Qaeda, then they’re almost certainly worth it.

Generation Green: Connecting the Pakistani Lawyers Movement to the Iranian Green Revolution

Monday, June 15th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]I’m struck by the similarities between the spirit of the Iranian election – and the subsequent protests – and the Lawyers Movement in Pakistan this March. In both cases, the government promised to honor certain principles and then went back on its word – in Iran, by holding an election; in Pakistan, as President Zardari promised to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to the Supreme Court.

Then both went back on their word – and the people, to their credit protested. They were cynical about the motives of these leaders – but they refused to react with world-weary cynicism. They knew hope – and in their hope, they gained strength.

The elite power brokers in both nations believed they could get away with whatever they wanted – apparently believing that elections and campaigns and laws were merely a cover for their power politics. But the people took these ideas seriously.

In Pakistan, President Zardari made a campaign promise to reinstate the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court known for his independence. Justice Chaudhry had been removed from his post when he appeared to be preparing to declare President Musharaff’s declaration of martial law illegal – and this act by Musharaff was considered the final straw by many in Pakistan frustrated by how the Rule of Law was constantly subverted by the elites in their power games, thus holding their entire nation back. So began the Lawyers Movement which fought to restore the Rule of Law, to remove Musharaff from power, and to reinstate the Chief Justice. After achieving some measure of the first two objectives, forcing Musharaff to resign and electing a new president, Zardari, having promised to uphold the Rule of Law and reinstate Chaudhry – the movement seemed to have won. But after months of stalling, it began to seem as if Zardari had no intention of restoring Chaudhry. Rallies continued – led by different groups across the country – building in intensity – and in a dramatic series of events, a key opposition leader broke out of house arrest to participate in a massive protest to force the reinstatement of Chaudhry. As a final show of determination, a series of rallies was supposed to culminate in a march to the Pakistani capital from all directions as the people took back their capital. In the midst of this chaos, the police and military for the first time in Pakistani history refused to control the demonstrators and stood aside. On the verge of this demonstration, Zardari gave in – reinstating the Chief Justice this March.

In Iran, the extemist mullahs panicked as the people rejected their hardline, isolationist views in favor of the offer of rapprochement with the West offered by Obama. Despite the fact that only candidates hand-picked by the Guardian Council were running – and that the reformers were led by a candidate described as an Iranian Michael Dukakis – and despite the fact that state organs and the Supreme Leader clearly favored Ahmadinejad – a grass roots movement took root on Twitter, on Facebook, in text messages, in blogs, in enormous rallies held by Mousavi in the weeks leading up to the election, and in shouts from the rooftops after the election when all other methods of communication had been cut off. And in all liklihood, according to polls by the Iranian government before the election, and leaked results after it, Mousavi won a resounding victory. And so far, the people have not backed down – as they continue to rally and agitate. After declaring the results of the election “divine,” the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene has begun to show signs of relenting as he has ordered an investigation into vote fraud. Couple this with the rash of resignations and unprecedented public protests by top Iranian leaders and clerics, and there is the potential for real change.

It seems hard not to connect these two demonstrations for political rights in Pakistan and Iran. And to note that leading them is the exact young generation of Muslims whom we were so afraid of after September 11. One of the recurring themes of Osama Bin Laden’s rhetoric – and one of the key sources of his legitimacy – is his outrage at the corrupt dictatorships ruling the Middle East – which makes these demonstrations of the people on the edges of the Middle East reminding their leaders that they cannot tread lightly over the consent of the governed all the more significant.

And perhaps, Obama saw this before most – as he called in his Cairo speech for “a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals” that “government [should be] of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power.” Obama explained that legitimacy is gained “through consent, not coercion.”

It remains to be seen if the Iranian protests will be successful – though the fact that Ayatollah Khamenei has ordered an investigation into vote fraud is a slight sign to be hopeful. A stronger sign is what forced him to call for the investigation – as over this weekend in the streets of Tehran we saw a largely peaceful and determined insistence by the Iranian people on a government by consent, not coercion.

[Image from Andrew Sullivan’s blog.]

How Pakistan Is Like AIG

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]nex·us n.pl. nexus or -us·es.

  1. A means of connection; a link or tie: “this nexus between New York’s . . . real-estate investors and its . . . politicians” (Wall Street Journal).
  2. A connected series or group.
  3. The core or center: “The real nexus of the money culture [was] Wall Street” (Bill Barol).

[Latin, from past participle of nectere, to bind.]

This Sunday, America witnessed Pakistani President Zardari’s disgraceful performance on Meet the Press. He pandered; he obfuscated; he shirked any responsibility or blame; he turned briefly eloquent – and then outrageously self-righteous. It was clear that he is not one tenth the politician his wife was – and it seems not one tenth the leader. She may have been corrupt (as it seems was he) – but he appears to lack her communicative gifts or her aptitude for politics. On top of it, his management style seems be Bush-level incompetence. The most ridiculous point Zardari tried was to invoke AIG’s bailout as an argument to give more money to Pakistan.

David Gregory – to his credit – asks the tough question – the question that needs to be asked of Pakistan’s leader (especially given stories like this) although Gregory does manage to shift responsibility for the criticism of Zardari off to another reporter:

The question a lot of people ask is are you – is Pakistan really committed to that war?  In The New York Times Dexter Filkins, who, who’s reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan, writes this:  “Whose side is Pakistan really on?  …  Little in Pakistan is what it appears.  For years, the survival of Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders has depended on a double game:  assuring the United States that they were vigorously repressing Islamic militants–and in some cases actually doing so–while simultaneously tolerating and assisting the same militants.  From the anti-Soviet fighters of the 1980s and the Taliban of the 1990s to the homegrown militants of today, Pakistan’s leaders have been both public enemies and private friends.  When the game works, it reaps great rewards:  billions in aid to boost the Pakistani economy and military and Islamist proxies to extend the government’s reach into Afghanistan and India.”

Zardari’s responded:

[W]hat billions are you talking about?  Like I said, a billion dollar a year?  That’s not even – altogether, this aid package is not even one tenth of what you gave AIG.  So let’s face it; we need, in fact, much more help.

This isn’t the first time Zardari has found it prudent to invoke AIG to justify giving more billions to Pakistan – he apparently disconcerted lawmakers a few days earlier this week – as the New York Times reported:

[W]hen he asked for financial assistance, he likened it to the government’s bailout of the troubled insurance giant, American International Group.

While it is probably true that Zardari needs more funds – his pique at being asked to justify these funds is galling – especially when so much of it was apparently spent preparing Pakistan’s military to fight India instead of the Taliban. Though this analogy is politically stupid – it does bring up an interesting parallel.

AIG has been the nexus of the financial crisis in much the same way that Pakistan is the center of the threat of strategic terrorism. 

When synthetic CDOs were invented, they were structured in such a way as to create positions that were safer than AAA-rated debt. (An explanation of what this means here.) These positions were called super-senior. Yet the ever “cautious” bankers decided to hedge against even these supposedly risk-free positions – allowing them to free up more capital, so that for the purposes of regulation, it was treated as if they had not lent out any money at all. They decided to buy insurance, calling this insurance a credit default swap, hedging against the risk that even this super-safe investment would go bad. There was one big player in this, one firm that provided so much of this insurance which led to this boom in lending and enormous leveraged positions – AIG – who insured these super-safe debts with nary a plan to deal with defaults. After all – these debts were super-senior – there would only be defaults if historically unprecedented numbers of these mortgages went south. (Precedent only went back forty years or so with modern macroeconomic record-keeping.) AIG Financial – a small part of the AIG empire which spanned insurance across dozens of industries around the world – decided to leverage the entire company to insure these products – leading to enormous profits in the short-term – and systematic risk as soon as things went bad. If AIG had not been able to pay on its insurance to the big banks, things would likely have been worse.

Pakistan meanwhile is the land of Dick Cheney’s nightmares, where WMDs, nuclear weapons, terrorists, and a teetering state all exist. Pakistan combines all of the elements national security experts fear could have disasterous consequences if they come together. As Barton Gellman describes Pakistan’s importance in his excellent biography of Dick Cheney:

The nexus, if it was anywhere, was in Pakistan – a nuclear state whose national hero sold parts to the highest bidder, whose intelligence service backed the Taliban, and whose North-West Frontier Province became a refugre for al Qaeda.

What it comes down to is that both are too big – and too connected – to fail. Both have had billions of American dollars pumped into them to prop them up. Both have prompted outrage as they have seemed to use this money to benefit themselves and not for the purposes it was intended. Both are controlled by leaders whose hands were far from clean in creating the current crisis. Neither the leadership of Pakistan nor the leadership of AIG have taken responsibility for the crisis that occurred oin their watch – in their realm of control – blaming America and the world at large for their problems instead.  Perhaps because of this, the leadership of both seem to believe that they deserve to be rewarded for their efforts rather than held accountable for their significant failures. Yet even so, the costs of the failure of either is likely catastrophic.

Maybe this is the point Zardari was trying to make – his way of taunting us with the fact that he knows we cannot allow him to fail – just like AIG.

[Image by cogito ergo imago licensed under Creative Commons.]

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Must-Reads of the Week

Friday, May 8th, 2009

1. Inhuman. Andrew Sullivan, who has been one of the most insightful commenators on torture, discusses the term “inhuman”:

It’s odd, isn’t it, that we use this word to describe abuse and torture of prisoners. The reason it’s odd is that I’m not sure any animals torture. Yes, they can kill and maim and inflict dreadful suffering in the process of killing, eating or fighting. But the act of intentionally exploiting suffering, of lingering over some other being’s pain – using it as a means to an end – is not an animal instinct, unless I’m mistaken.

And so torture is in fact extremely human; it represents in many ways humankind’s unique capacity for cruelty.

2. 30 Rock. Jonah Weiner discusses 30 Rock’s odd conservative streak at Slate. The explanations he posits for this conservatism are perhaps beside the point, but interesting nonetheless:

Of course, 30 Rock was conceived during the reign of George W. Bush, which might help explain its ideological complexity. The show has been consistently critical of Bush, but perhaps 30 Rock began as a way to explore—and mine for gallows humor—the crisis of identity many liberals began to feel in his second term, when the Karl Rove playbook had seemingly replaced the laws of physics, when the “reality-based community” (including Liz Lemon’s Upper West Side) felt like an island populated by the marginal, flip-flopping, arugula-munching few.

3. Animal Spirits. Chrystia Freeland writes for the Financial Times that the Obama team seems to have accepted the premise of a recent book by behavioral economists about economic crises:

Judging by the upbeat economic message we have been hearing from the White House, the Treasury and even the Federal Reserve over the past six weeks, that is a shrewd guess. The authors argue that “we will never really understand important economic events unless we confront the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature”. Our “ideas and feelings” about the economy are not purely a rational reaction to data and experience; they themselves are an important driver of economic growth – and decline.

4. A Taliban Strategist Speaks. To The New York Times. Perhaps the most interesting article I have read about the Taliban’s plans in the Af-Pak region – though I have to wonder why this man would be speaking to a Western newspaper about the Taliban’s strategy. That said, you can judge the article for yourself. I pass it on as it seemed plausible to me:

One Pakistani logistics tactician for the Taliban, a 28-year-old from the country’s tribal areas, in interviews with The New York Times, described a Taliban strategy that relied on free movement over the border and in and around Pakistan, ready recruitment of Pakistani men and sustained cooperation of sympathetic Afghan villagers.

His account provided a keyhole view of the opponent the Americans and their NATO allies are up against, as well as the workings and ambitions of the Taliban as they prepared to meet the influx of American troops.

It also illustrated how the Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella group of many brands of jihadist fighters backed by Al Qaeda, are spearheading wars on both sides of the border in what for them is a seamless conflict.

5. Fool’s Gold. This one is actually a must-listen podcast of a talk given at the London School of Economics. Gillian Tett is a journalist for the Financial Times who recently wrote a book about the financial crisis and what led to it from her view as someone with a background in anthropology reporting who was reporting on derivratives before it was an exciting beat.

Bonus: Polar Insanity. Tim Wu writes in Slate about the perplexing desire of so many people – including himself –  to make the expensive trips to the polar regions:

Every so often, an iceberg floats by that is grander and more beautiful than any cathedral, though it lacks any history or even a name. What’s almost as shocking as its appearance is its anonymity: beauty untainted by fame. Most of these perfect objects will never be seen by human eyes. They float around and slowly melt by themselves, unappreciated and utterly indifferent to that fact.

Unnamed, plentiful beauty feels unearthly and almost decadent, like Sinbad the Sailor’s cave. It is alien to the typical human experience of finding everything we really desire to be scarce, expensive, or behind some temple curtain. It has always struck me that no one bothers to build museums in places of extreme natural beauty, and in Antarctica the effect is magnified. If an iceberg the size of Manhattan showed up outside town one day, why would you bother going to an art exhibit?

Pakistan: The Edge of the Abyss

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Today, as the President Zardari of Pakistan is scheduled to meet with Obama, the news about Pakistan is growing worse and worse.

A nation with nuclear weapons seems on the brink of collapse. Yet it often seems as if the country’s leadership is still more focused on the threat from its historic rival, India. As the New York Times editorial board explained last week:

If the Indian Army advanced within 60 miles of Islamabad, you can bet Pakistan’s army would be fully mobilized and defending the country in pitched battles. 

The Pakistani Taliban is now within that distance – 60 miles – of the capital. It’s advance has not been halted and it continues to destabilize and then take over large portions of Pakistan. You can see the strong position the Taliban is in by reading the story published just a few days ago by Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah also in the Times telling the story of a Taliban strategist who gave them an inside look at the Taliban’s regional strategy – which focuses in a large part on exploiting the border between Afganistan and Pakistan over which the Taliban move without qualms, but which U.S. forces generally respect. The Pakistani army and intelligence agencies are both said to be sympathetic to the Taliban and islamist extremism in general – and U.S. strategists believe their goal is to wait out America’s interest in the region and then use these Taliban forces to exert control over Afghanistan and to destabilize India, which they still consider the main threat to their national security. This is why – despite the billions of dollars in funding given to the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies since September 11 for the purpose of aiding them in their war against the Taliban – their forces they have arrayed against the Taliban are ill-equipped and too few in number – as they have used most of these funds to build up their military for a more conventional war against India. David Sanger, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations some weeks ago told a story he described as telling you “everything you need to know about the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.” It is a story, essentially, of a leadership that is friendly with the Taliban – even as they tell the Americans they are doing everything they can to stop them. 

President Zardari meanwhile tried to assure American lawmakers – who he met with yesterday – that the money they were sending to Pakistan was being used wisely by likening it “to the government’s bailout of the troubled insurance giant, American International Group” according to the Times. 

The fall of Pakistan to the Taliban is perhaps the worst case scenario national security experts can imagine. The Taliban is allied with Al Qaeda – who have planned to use weapons of mass destruction against America. Pakistan has nuclear weapons in numerous locations throughout the country – and is already responsible for more nuclear proliferation than any other nation on earth. It is, what Dick Cheney might call, the nexus of America’s worst fears. And worse yet, none of America’s policies in the region seemed to have had the desired effect – former President Musharraf seemed unable to truly take on the Taliban and terrorist elements, despite his being motivated their attempts to kill him – and America, by continuing to support Musharraf in the face of his desperate bids to hold onto power, alienated many Pakistanis and was finally removed from office due to the pressure from both America and groups organizing for a civil society; Benazir Bhutto, martyred running for office, said all the right things and seemed to recognize that the fundamental enemy of Pakistan was no longer India – but the religious extremists within it’s own borders; but she never had an opportunity to lead Pakistan again; her widower, the current President Zardari has followed too much in the path of Musharraf and had likewise angered many Pakistanis by using his power to undermine political rivals  (leading to massive destabilizing protests until he backed down due to pressure from America and groups organizing for civil society) – while at the same time, despite fine words, he has been unable to make progress in combating the Taliban. Instead, he signed a deal with them to allow the Taliban to impose their extremist religion on a large region of the country. Despite the glaringly self-interested actions of Pakistani leaders – and the fact that even today with the Taliban encroaching upon the capital, it is not clear that the government is yet committed to rooting out these insurgents or terrorists – America has been forced time and again to double down in our support of Pakistan’s leaders. What other choice do we have? Pakistan is too important to allow it to fail – and it has nuclear weapons. 

Which is why we can longer accept the constant refrain from Pakistan’s leaders that “Everything’s fine; please send helicopters.” Pakistan is “ground zero in many of the worst-case scenario exercises gamed out by national security officials [and seems] on the verge of spiraling out of control.” General Petreaus is apparently saying privately that “the next two weeks are critical [in] determining whether the Pakistani government will survive.” David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert advising the Obama administration, expressed a related point:  “We have to face the fact that if Pakistan collapses it will dwarf anything we have seen so far in whatever we’re calling the war on terror now.” 

This is where we are – at the edge of an abyss. And it seems there is nothing for us to do but to trust that our government is properly trusting the ineffectual (or perhaps conflicted) Pakistani leadership to control the situation.

Or is that all we can do? Wendy Chamberlin, a former ambassador to Pakistan suggested another idea: “We have to make clear that our relationship is with the people of Pakistan and not with [any] one man…” I don’t this is what she meant – but it seems to me that the best way to make this clear is for Americans to begin communicating with Pakistanis. And I don’t just mean the government.

Remember the Obama campaign – which encouraged tens of thousands of volunteers to call or email or knock on the doors of millions of citizens – in a grass-roots effort to change the nation? We should start that. Here. Today. Go on Facebook. Find someone from Pakistan. Send them a pen-pal letter and ask them what’s going on – so each of us can do our part to figure out what is going on in what we are being told is a very dangerous situation. Be humble; be curious; be respectful. But reach out. It seems kind of silly, but what other choice do we have?

Homo Blogicus, Pup, Pakistan, Torture, Marijuana, and the Revenge of Geography

Friday, May 1st, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]I’m going to start creating a list of best reads for the week every Friday – picking between 5 and 10 articles or blog posts that are well worth reading in their entirety.

  1. Christopher Buckley writes a very personal essay for the New York Times, adapted from his soon to be published memoir, about growing up as the son of the famous Mr. and Mrs. William F. Buckley (“Pup” and “Mum”). Truly moving, surprising, honest and earnest. An excerpt:

    I’d brought with me a pocket copy of the book of Ecclesiastes. A line in “Moby-Dick” lodged in my mind long ago: “The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.” I grabbed it off my bookshelf on the way here, figuring that a little fine-hammered steel would probably be a good thing to have on this trip. I’m no longer a believer, but I haven’t quite reached the point of reading aloud from Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” at deathbeds of loved ones.

    Soon after, a doctor came in to remove the respirator. It was quiet and peaceful in the room, just pings and blips from the monitor. I stroked her hair and said, the words coming out of nowhere, surprising me, “I forgive you.”

    It sounded, even at the time, like a terribly presumptuous statement. But it needed to be said. She would never have asked for forgiveness herself, even in extremis. She was far too proud. Only once or twice, when she had been truly awful, did she apologize. Generally, she was defiant — almost magnificently so — when her demons slipped their leash. My wise wife, Lucy, has a rule: don’t go to bed angry. Now, watching Mum go to bed for the last time, I didn’t want any anger left between us, so out came the unrehearsed words.

  2. Stephen Walt, blogging for FP, asks Three Questions About Pakistan. He quotes David Kilcullen explaining:

    We have to face the fact that if Pakistan collapses it will dwarf anything we have seen so far in whatever we’re calling the war on terror now.

    He cites a Timur Kuran and Suisanne Lohmann for providing a construct for understanding why such collapses as Pakistan’s possible one are hard to predict:

    [R]evolutionary upheavals (and state collapse) are hard to predict because individual political preferences are a form of private information and the citizenry’s willingness to abandon the government and/or join the rebels depends a lot on their subjective estimate of the costs and risks of each choice. If enough people become convinced the rebels will win, they will stop supporting the government and may even switch sides, thereby create a self-reinforcing snowball of revolutionary momentum. Similar dynamics may determine whether the armed forces hang together or gradually disintegrate. As we saw in Iran in 1979 or in Eastern Europe in 1989, seemingly impregnable authoritarian governments sometimes come unglued quite quickly. At other times, however, apparently fragile regimes manage to stagger on for decades, because key institutions hold and the revolutionary bandwagon never gains sufficient momentum.

  3. Evgeny Morozov, also blogging for FP, suggests that “promoting democracy via the internet is often not a good idea.”

    I simply refuse to believe in the universality of this new human type of Homo Blogicus – the cosmopolitan and forward-looking blogger that regularly looks at us from the cover pages of the New York Times or the Guardian. The proliferation of online nationalism, the growing use of cyber-attacks to silence down opponents, the overall polarization of internet discussions predicted by Cass Sunstein et al, make me extremely suspicious of any talk about the emergence of some new archetype of an inherently democratic and cosmopolitan internet user.

    As much as I’d like to believe that internet decreases homophily and pushes us to discover and respect new and different viewpoints, I am yet to see any tangible evidence that this is actually happening – and particularly in the context of authoritarian states, where media and public spheres are set up in ways that are fundamentally different from those of democracies.

  4. Julian Sanchez blogs reflectively about “our special horror over torture” – especially as related to aerial bombing. He concludes:

    Civilian life affords us the luxury of a good deal of deontology—better to let ten guilty men go free, and so on. In wartime, there’s almost overwhelming pressure to shift to consequentialist thinking… and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have leaders who remember to factor the other side’s population into the calculus. And so we might think of the horror at torture as serving a kind of second-order function, quite apart from its intrinsic badness relative to other acts of war. It’s the marker we drop to say that even now, when the end is self-preservation, not all means are permitted. It’s the boundary we treat as uncrossable not because we’re certain it traces the faultline between right and wrong, but because it’s our own defining border; because if we survived by erasing it, whatever survived would be a stranger in the mirror. Which, in his own way, is what Shep Smith was getting at. Probably Khalid Sheik Mohammed deserves to be waterboarded and worse. We do not deserve to become the country that does it to him.

  5. Jim Manzi is equally reflective in his piece written “Against Waterboarding” for the American Scene and published at the National Review’s Corner as well:

    What should a U.S. citizen, military or civilian, do if faced with a situation in which he or she is confident that a disaster will occur that can only be avoided by waterboarding a captured combatant? Do it, and then surrender to the authorities and plead guilty to the offense. It is then the duty of the society to punish the offender in accordance with the law. We would rightly respect the perpetrator while we punish him. Does this seem like an inhuman standard? Maybe, but then again, I don’t want anybody unprepared for enormous personal sacrifice waterboarding people in my name.

    But consider, not a theoretical scenario of repeated nuclear strikes on the United States, or a tactical “ticking time bomb” scenario, but the real situation we face as a nation. We have suffered several thousand casualties from 9/11 through today. Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year. A Republic demands courage — not foolhardy and unsustainable “principle at all costs,” but reasoned courage — from its citizens. The American response should be to find some other solution to this problem if the casualty rate is unacceptable. To demand that the government “keep us safe” by doing things out of our sight that we have refused to do in much more serious situations so that we can avoid such a risk is weak and pathetic. It is the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city. In the actual situation we face, to demand that our government waterboard detainees in dark cells is cowardice.

  6. Robert Kaplan writes about the “Revenge of Geography” for Foreign Policy. The summary of the article:

    People and ideas influence events, but geography largely determines them, now more than ever. To understand the coming struggles, it’s time to dust off the Victorian thinkers who knew the physical world best. A journalist who has covered the ends of the Earth offers a guide to the relief map—and a primer on the next phase of conflict.

  7. Time magazine has a piece written by Maia Szalavitz on drug decriminalization in Portugal which is also worth checking out. Excerpt:

    “Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

    Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

The Soft Underbelly of the Modern State

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]In other periods of history, opponents of a state would assassinate leaders to force changes in policy. The leader was invested with such power that removing him or her from his position would create an opportunity to change a government’s policies and overall posture towards the world. Today, although assassination is still a tool, the focus of opponents of the state – who are mainly identified as terrorists today – is to attack the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law – the primacy of laws over all individuals, including those in power, a principle which prevents authoritarianism, the arbitrary use of power, and anarchy – is perhaps the most valuable and vulnerable asset a state can have. Without it, there can be no democratic discourse or free elections and no free market. Yet the Rule of Law is especially vulnerable as it relies upon a wide range of institutions and conditions – all of are required to achieve the public trust needed: an independent judiciary; a professional police corps; a relative peace; the transparency of laws and law-making; the right of every individual to be given a fair hearing if they are being held by the state; a sense of basic justice within the society. A single rogue cop, a corrupt judge, or an unjust law undermines the Rule of Law – and if it is not well-established, can destroy it.

Reading about Mexico and Pakistan – the two major nations the U.S. Joint Forces Command listed as major nations that could suddenly collapse in the next year – one is confronted again and again with what each has in common: the Rule of Law is being deliberately subverted by major groups within these nations. If either nation is not able to maintain some semblance of the Rule fo Law within it’s borders, they will have effectively collapsed.

In Mexico, the Rule of Law has been undermined for years but is perhaps now finally reaching a tipping point. As Marc Lacey reported in the New York Times:

The cartels bring in billions of dollars more than the Mexican government spends to defeat them, and they spend their wealth to bolster their ranks with an untold number of politicians, judges, prison guards and police officers — so many police officers, in fact, that entire forces in cities across Mexico have been disbanded and rebuilt from scratch.

Steve Fainaru and William Booth reported in the Washington Post that:

The government is attempting to vet and retrain 450,000 officers, most at the state and municipal levels, employing lie detectors, drug tests, psychological profiling and financial reviews to weed out corruption and incompetence. Nearly half of the 56,000 officers vetted so far have failed.

Police corruption is clearly endemic in Mexico. It is for this reason that President Felipe Calderón has tasked the military with taking on the drug cartels – and it is also for this reason that many local police forces are now run by former military officers. But as the Lacey article makes clear, even the military is compromised – both from within by informants paid off by the cartels – and by the army-sized force of former soldiers that works for the cartels:

Although Mexico’s military is regarded as significantly less corrupt than the country’s police forces, defense officials estimate that 100,000 soldiers have quit to join the cartels over the past seven years.

As evidence that Mexico is even more compromised, Lacey reports that:

The reach of the drug kingpins has even the army fearful. Many soldiers cover their faces while on patrol to avoid being identified and singled out by the drug cartels. The army also recently began allowing soldiers to grow their hair longer, because military-style crew cuts were believed to be putting off-duty soldiers at risk.

Sam Quinones writing for Foreign Policy described how thoroughly Mexico had changed in the past decade, recounting anecdotes about the flagrancy of the cartels’ violation of laws.  Mayor José Reyes Ferriz of Ciudad Juárez lives across the border in Texas because he is not safe in the town he was elected to govern. The cartels have brought Mexico almost to a breaking point because they have undermined the Rule of Law through large portions of the country. The law is obviously a barrier to their illegal activities. Fainaru and Booth reported a senior advisor to President Calderón explained the motivation behind the desire to use the military to attempt to combat the cartels:

The executions, the decapitations, the confrontations between the drug gangs. There was a perception in society of lawlessness, that there was no state.

This perception is enough to destroy a nation – which is why the Mexican government has taken such drastic measures to combat it. At the same time, the steps taken by President Calderón – using the military – have themselves undermined the Rule of Law. As Monte Alejandro Rubido, a senior public security official explained the tradeoff:

It can be traumatic to have the army in control of public security, but I am convinced that we don’t have a better alternative, even with all the risks that it implies.

It is good that Calderón realizes that there is a tradeoff. His judgment remains that this is the least worst option – and his goal is one that we in America must share – the restoration of the Rule of Law in our neighbor. 

Similarly, in Pakistan, the Rule of Law has been undermined by the central government – as former President Musharaff disbanded the Supreme Court, as President Zardari refused to restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry for a time and seemed to use the Court for partisan purposes – while at the same time, the Rule of Law is being directly attacked by the religious extremists who have now taken to attacking police academies.

The Rule of Law is a nation’s most valuable asset – and unfortunately it is also most vulnerable. It faces threats from government overreaction, from rogue forces within the government, from unjust laws, from corruption, and from extremists who violently oppose the state itself. Mexico and Pakistan are becoming destabilized because large groups are attacking the Rule of Law – and each government’s own reaction to these groups additionally undermines the Rule of Law.

The Primal Politics of Pakistan

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]The stories that have been coming out of Pakistan in the past few days have been extraordinary. It is politics being shaped by individuals at a basic and primal level, in a way only possible in an unstable nation. Just a few weeks ago, Simon Tisdall in the Guardian would write that:

Pakistan’s disintegration, if that is what is now being witnessed, is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, a riveting spectacle, and a clear and present danger to international security. But who in the world can stop it?

As President Zardari seemed to buffoonishly wield power – ham-handedly using the power of the government to sideline his opponents, resistant built up. First, he refused to honor a deal he made with his main opponent, Nawaz Sharif, to reinstate the chief justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry who had been dismissed by President Musharraf. This was especially significant as the civil society movement or the Lawyers Movement which was formed to protest this move of Musharaff’s was one of the primary factors forcing him to step down. Then – and I skip over a great deal here, Zardari closes down a television station for seemingly political reasons prompting, as The Daily Times reported:

Federal Information Minister Sherry Rehman resigned from her ministerial slot on Friday night to protest the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA)’s blocking of a private TV channel.

With Sharif and Sharif’s brother still agitating for change – specifically the reinstatement of Chaudhry – the current Supreme Court, which is seen to be in the pocket of Zardari, rules that neither Sharif nor his brother can hold any public office. Sharif and his N-League party begin to stage mass rallies to protest this decision – which then prompts Zardari to take even more drastic action. He places all of his political opponents under house arrest – for their own protection – and bans rallies. Over the weekend, Sharif breaks out of his house arrest to go to a large demonstration as Jane Perlez reports in the New York Times:

Sharif, who had planned to address the demonstration, left his house in a convoy of cars that broke through a ring of barriers, including barbed wire and parked buses that had been placed by the police.

When he arrived at the rally in Lahore, Sharif was aided by elements of the police sympathetic to him – and embraced by the crowd:

As his bulletproof four-wheel-drive vehicle entered the main thoroughfare of Lahore, it was showered with pink rose petals from the crowd, made up of lawyers, party workers and couples who came with their children to join what turned out to be a celebration of Mr. Sharif’s nerve.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik meanwhile urged all Pakistanis to refrain from joining the long march which was supposed to converge on the capital of Pakistan yesterday:

I urge all Pakistanis not to join the long march as we have credible information that enemies of Pakistan could take advantage of the situation.

Yet, despite this, people came out. They confronted the police and military who tried to break up the rallies – and the police and military turned back. According to Jane Perlez again:

The army did not stage a coup, but insisted that the government accept a compromise.

Perhaps it was this factor more than Sharif’s nerve or Zardari’s ham-handedness that prevented this from going down as power plays usually do in Pakistan – in bloody violence. Zardari agreed yesterday to meet the demands of the Lawyers Movement and Sharif – and to restore Chaudhry as Chief Justice. Sabrina Tavernise described the scene in Islamabad in the New York Times:

In the crowd, whose members included a radio announcer who was researching homosexuality and an illiterate mechanic who wore a flower pot on his head to stay cool and admitted to stealing monkeys to get by, one word was on everybody’s lips.

“Justice,” said Mr. Khan’s wife, Rubina Javed, smiling broadly. “We came for justice.”

The word was apt for the victory at hand: the restoration of the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, to his court. But others in a jubilant crowd celebrating on Mr. Chaudhry’s lawn on Monday were working from a broader interpretation…

“This movement has given an awareness to the common people in Pakistan of their rights,” said Shamoon Azhar, 26, a doctoral student at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, sitting on the lawn with a large group of his friends. “This is about awareness. It’s given people confidence. It’s shown people it can happen.”

Ashtar Ali, a corporate lawyer was quoted by Jane Perlez:

This is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the police and civil administration have defied orders by the government to control public demonstrations. The writ of the government has failed.

The big winner in all of this is – of course, Sharif, as a Pakistani columnist put it:

He understood the pulse of the country.

Yet at the same time, the basic story of the American relationship with Pakistan remains the same. Richard Holbrooke summed it up when asked whether Pakistan’s security forces were committed to rooting out terrorists:

I’ve rarely seen in my years in Washington an issue which is so hotly disputed internally by experts and intelligence officials.

Pakistan: The Nexus

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

Barton Gellman on page 229 of his book, The Angler:

By his own declared measurements of danger, Iraq should not have been the center of the spiderweb for Cheney. The nexus, if it was anywhere, was in Pakistan – a nuclear state whose national hero sold parts to the highest bidder, whose intelligence service backed the Taliban, and whose North-West Frontier Province became a refugre for al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia, too, had a lot more links to bin Laden than Iraq did. As Cheney saw it, there was nothing decisive to be done about those countries. Washington needed whatever help the Saudis and Pakistanis were willing to provide, and if either government fell, the successor was almost sure to be worse.

The Bush administration’s failure to deal with Pakistan may be it’s most profound misstep. Of course, the lack of appropriate information and pressure on the part of the CIA and the Clinton administration also contributed to the problem. Regardless, it is clear that when we refer to the fight against terrorism, the nexus of our concerns and our war is Pakistan. Christoper Hitchens wrote a column entitled, “Pakistan is the problem” back in September in which he discusses the role the ISI, Pakistan’s security service, plays in sponsoring terrorism against India and Afghanistan – about how the Taliban and al Qaeda were both financed, supported, and to some extent created by Pakistan to encourage their strategic depth – and how A. Q. Khan created a global bazaar in nuclear weaponry, seemingly with the consent and support of the Pakistani military:

[W]e were too incurious to take note of the fact that Pakistan’s chief nuclear operative, A.Q. Khan, had opened a private-enterprise “Nukes ‘R’ Us” market and was selling his apocalyptic wares to regimes as disparate as Libya and North Korea, sometimes using Pakistani air force planes to make the deliveries.

At the same time, Pakistan is – whether intentionally or not – furthering the chaos in Afghanistan. American national security types have expressed their frustration about this in various ways:

It’s tough to fight a war in Afghanistan when the opposing team decides to fight the war in Pakistan.

Alternately, David Sanger explains the boozy hypothetical question asked by one of his friends involved with Pakistan and national security:

How can you invade an ally?

The situation, as complicated and fraught as it already is, is growing more unstable. The New York Times editorial board sums it up:

Almost no one wants to say it out loud. But…Pakistan is edging ever closer to the abyss.

The Story That Tells You Everything You Need To Know About US-Pakistan Relations

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]

This excerpt is of David Sanger speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, discussing “Obama’s Foreign Policy Inbox.”

The nexus of all of our fears and worries about terrorism and Islamic extremism is in Pakistan today – as Barton Gellman explained in The Angler:

The nexus, if it was anywhere, was in Pakistan – a nuclear state whose national hero sold parts to the highest bidder, whose intelligence service backed the Taliban, and whose North-West Frontier Province became a refugre for al Qaeda.

WMD proliferation, al Qaeda, assorted other religious extremists – all these combine in the unstable nation of Pakistan which the New York Times explained is “edging ever closer to the abyss.” Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are not clearly on America’s side – perhaps hoping to outlast our interest in the region. Niall Ferguson reports that Pakistan’s stabilizing middle class has been hit hard by this financial crisis; the religious extremists have fought the central government almost to a standstill in the frontier regions of Pakistan – and a truce is now being negotiated. Pakistan’s civil society movement which drove General Musharaff from power is now rising up against the civilian government thanks to political shenanigans to marginalize opposition parties. Corruption seems endemic. The military and intelligence services seem to be implicated in some way in the recent Mumbai attacks – as well as numerous other terrorist incidents and A. Q. Khan’s  nuclear black market.

All of this helps explain why America likely has special ops troops stationed over the border in Afghanistan ready to secure it’s nuclear sites in the event the nation suffers “a rapid and sudden collapse” – which the Pentagon’s Joint Operating Environment determined was a not insignificant possibility

(more…)

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