Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan’

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.

Afpak & Iran

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

I’ve highlighted a bunch of different articles in the past week about the upcoming challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan with Iran as a potential complicating factor. Here’s my attempt to cram all of these highlights into one post…

Jodi Kantor in the New York Times on Richard Holbrooke and Afpak:

For now, Holbrooke is both raising expectations and lowering them. He is talking about Afpak – Washington shorthand for his assignment – as his last and toughest mission. But along with the rest of Obama’s foreign-policy staff, he is also trying to redefine success in the region, shifting away from former President George W. Bush’s grand, transformative goals and toward something more achievable. 

Fareed Zakaria has some ideas on what at least one of these less exalted goals should be:

In May 2006 a unit of American soldiers in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan valley were engulfed in a ferocious fire fight with the Taliban. Only after six hours, and supporting airstrikes, could they extricate themselves from the valley. But what was most revealing about the battle was the fact that many local farmers spontaneously joined in, rushing home to get their weapons. Asked later why they’d done so, the villagers claimed they didn’t support the Taliban’s ideological agenda, nor were they particularly hostile toward the Americans. But this battle was the most momentous thing that had happened in their valley for years. If as virile young men they had stood by and just watched, they would have been dishonored in their communities. And, of course, if they were going to fight, they could not fight alongside the foreigners.

In describing this battle, the Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen coins a term, “accidental guerilla,” to describe the villagers. They had no grand transnational agenda, no dreams of global jihad. If anything, those young men were defending their local ways and customs from encroachment from outside. But a global terrorist group—with local ties—can find ways to turn these villagers into allies of a kind. And foreign forces, if they are not very careful, can easily turn them into enemies.

Reduced to its simplest level, the goal of American policy in Afghanistan should be to stop creating accidental guerrillas. It should make those villagers see U.S. forces as acting in their interests. That would mark a fundamental turnaround.

Another major problems is – as Tom Ricks quotes Abu Muquwama to explain – that:

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

At the same time, Pakistan seems to be dragging it’s feet with regards to destroying the forces it considered – until recently – it’s proxies in it’s struggle with India for regional power, the Taliban. This creates a nagging feeling of suspicion among Pakistan’s allies, as Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti explained in the New York Times:

In recent years, there have been some significant successes in the hunt for Taliban leaders. Pakistani operatives tracked Mullah Dadullah, a senior aide to Mullah Omar, as he crossed the Afghan border in May 2007, and he was later killed by American and Afghan troops.

Yet most of the arrests in Pakistan have coincided with visits by senior American officials.

The arrest of Mullah Obeidullah, the former Taliban defense minister, in Quetta in February 2007 coincided with the visit of Vice President Dick Cheney to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is unclear whether Mullah Obeidullah is still in Pakistani custody or was secretly released as part of a prisoner exchange to free Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who was kidnapped last February and released three months later.

Schmitt and Mazzetti clearly convey the suspicion among top American officials that Pakistan’s wars against its terrorists are mainly a public relations effort to pacify America. Pakistan’s reluctance to fully accept America as an ally (believing we will again retreat from the region after we are done with Afghanistan one way or another, as we did after the Soviet Union was defeated there) is not our only challenge in the region. Parag Khanna of Foreign Policy describes how Afpak is also the center of maneuvering by other nations:

China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are also becoming increasingly important – not as neighbors of the chaos, like Pakistan, but meddlers in it. The United States is already failing to grasp not only the details of other powers’ maneuverings in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the extent to which these dealings could eclipse even the most brilliant U.S. shuttle diplomacy by Holbrooke.

He describes how China has become Afghanistan’s largest investor, how Saudi Arabia continues to funnel enormous amounts of money to fund religious extremism in the region, including Wahabbi mosques, and how Iran is taking steps to provide energy for what they anticipate will be shortages in Afpak and India. Khanna – seeing this pipelines and other relations between Iran, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as inevitable as all partners stand to benefit – suggests America get out in front and support the pipeline. Better to build it ourselves than having it built without us.

Building roads and controlling their usage has for centuries been the foundation of spreading Silk Road influence, as well as the key to success in the 19th-century Great Game. Today’s struggle for control follows similar rules.

This Great Game – a term historically used to describe the strategic competition for influence in the region, especially when it involves great intrigues and turnabouts –  would seem to require us to neutralize or flip Iran into an ally. Roger Cohen of the New York Times makes the case:

Iran’s political constellation includes those who have given past support to terrorist organizations. But axis-of-evil myopia has led U.S. policy makers to underestimate the social, psychological and political forces for pragmatism, compromise and stability. Iran has not waged a war of aggression for a very long time.

Tehran shares many American interests, including a democratic Iraq, because that will be a Shiite-governed Iraq, and a unified Iraq stable enough to ensure access to holy cities like Najaf.

It opposes Taliban redux in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda’s Sunni fanaticism. Its democracy is flawed but by Middle East standards vibrant. Both words in its self-description — Islamic Republic — count.

These Enemies of Civilization

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Asif Ali Zardari on the terrorists of Mumbai:

The terrorists who killed my wife are connected by ideology to these enemies of civilization.

That’s the perfect use of a martyred wife as a political attack from a defensive position. But the fact that Zardari felt the need to make this point – in an op-ed for The New York Times no less – demonstrates the tenuousness of the India-Pakistan relationship, and the degree to which pressure by America is responsible for the current lack of open hostilities.

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