Friday, February 27, 2009

Pakistan: The Final F*ck-Up

There will be plenty more screw-ups in Pakistan, but the Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision banning Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz from elected office will probably be remembered as the biggee, the reckless piece of political gamesmanship by Asif Zardari that sent Pakistan’s current experiment in democracy sliding into the abyss.

Briefly put, the Pakistani government led by Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari, is unpopular because of its pro-U.S. policy vis a vis the insurgency and Zardari’s personal reputation for corruption and feckless Machiavellianism.

Sharif--who was Prime Minister until Musharraf removed him in 1999-- leads the other democratic party, the PML-N. He’s probably the most popular politician in Pakistan because of his conciliatory attitude toward the border militants, his distance from the United States, and an ostentatious regard for Islam. His political base is the economic and electoral powerhouse of Punjab, which—until yesterday—was run by his brother Shahbaz.

Zardari and Sharif have been jockeying for advantage but the handwriting was on the wall: come the next general election, Sharif’s PML-N would probably dominate and his party would gain the prime ministership.

So the Supreme Court, whose chief justice is close to Zardari, made its move on February 25 to bar the Sharif brothers from elected office for life because of criminal convictions related to the coup by Pervez Musharraf that removed Nawaz from office in 1999.

The strict legal merits of the convoluted case are open to debate, but any question as to whether this was a power grab by Zardari was dispelled when the central government suspended the Punjab provincial assembly—which had a PML-N plurality and would not have had much difficulty in selecting a successor to Shabaz from Sharif’s party to take over—and instituted “governor’s law” for two months. The governor is a central government appointee hailing from Zardari’s PPP party and Zardari now has two months for bribery and armtwisting to try and cobble together a new governing coalition that will exclude the PML-N from Punjab’s provincial government.

Sharif is now considering whether his popular support is broad and deep enough to bring down the government in a mass demonstration and sit-in already scheduled for March 16 to protest the composition of the judiciary (see this AP story for a rundown of why the judiciary issue is at the heart of Pakistan’s political struggles).

Alternately, Sharif can try to round up allies in parliament to bring down the government and force new elections.

However, the key question will be whether the army will do something first.

It’s now pretty obvious that the cease-fire with the Pakistan Taliban and agreement to allow the imposition of sharia law in the valley of Swat was part of Zardari’s effort to keep a lid on things in the border regions so he could concentrate on the threat of unrest in Punjab and Islamabad from Sharif’s supporters after the Supreme Court decision.

Of course, giving the Pakistani Taliban a free hand to prepare and participate in the massive offensive against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan scheduled for this spring under Mullah Omar’s direction is not exactly prudent, wise, or morally defensible.

It’s quite possible that Zardari will renege on the deal with the Taliban if and when he feels he has the Sharif situation under control and resume his designated role as America’s willing if not particularly able and honorable client.

However, if Zardari can’t quiet things in Punjab and resume military activities in the Pashtun areas and everything turns to ordure, the United States might decide that there’s no alternative to another round of military rule.

Asia Times’ Syed Saleem Shahzad lays it out:

The situation in Pakistan impacts heavily on Afghanistan. The Taliban-led insurgency relies to a large degree on its bases inside Pakistan and the latest ceasefires in the tribal areas will allow the Taliban uninterrupted preparations for its spring offensive.

The Taliban, therefore, want the political uncertainty to continue as the central government will continue to leave them in peace.

Washington, on the other hand, will view the political turmoil in horror and will possibly back the military to take some form of initiative, at the least in dealing with the militants.

In this regard, the visit by Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani to Washington on February 20 could turn out to be crucial as to date he has advocated neutrality in political matters. The US might have tried to convince him otherwise.

China is also never far from the thoughts of Pakistani politicians.

China doesn’t like Zardari because of his pro-American stance and his support for the U.S. strategy that would create an alliance of Afghan, Pakistani, and Indian democracies blocking China from South Asia.

Nevertheless, Zardari does his inimitable best to try and convince the public of his closeness to Beijing.

He has vowed to visit China every quarter and, indeed, just returned from China.

However, Zardari only toured the Three Gorges Dam and visited Wuhan. Significantly, he didn’t meet with any high Chinese officials. The excuse was that everybody in Beijing was tied up with Hillary Clinton.

In a Chinese context, Zardari visiting China when he couldn’t secure a meeting with his opposite number, PRC President Hu Jintao, or any other important central government official, was a major, self-inflicted loss of face that will further diminish him in the eyes of the Chinese.

I expect Zardari did not give the Chinese head’s up that he was going to move against Sharif, and the Chinese will remember that instead he used China for a photo op to show he was on board with Pakistan’s most important ally while he was scheming against Sharif.

Until now, the Chinese government hasn’t officially weighed in on the unfolding political drama and the media is just translating western press reports—another sign that Beijing was blindsided.

Zardari, whose personal popularity was at 19% before the crisis, might be able to use his control of central government institutions to wriggle his way out this jam.

But Pakistan elite opinion is appalled--The News turned over its editorial and op-ed pages to six scathing denunciations of Zardari--the number of his enemies has only increased, and it's difficult to escape the feeling his days are numbered.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Other Side of the COIN

Is America Taking on the Neo-Taliban and Missing the Point?

Why is Afghanistan at the nexus of a regional crisis that threatens the security of the United States and the very existence of Pakistan?

Because Afghanistan is awash with money, arms, and foreigners. The Obama administration should think twice before assuming that injecting more money, arms, and foreigners into Afghanistan is going to solve the problem.

When you’ve got a hammer, you look for a nail. The United States has money, military power, and considerable hands-on experience in applying them to counterinsurgencies.

So it’s not a surprise that the U.S. wants to apply these skills to the mess in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And, since counterinsurgency is a step up intellectually over the Bush administration’s simplistic invasion = liberation formula, it’s not surprising that the Obama administration is willing to consider that an intelligent, broad spectrum application of American military, ideological, financial, and intellectual power will enable us to gain the upper hand over the Taliban.

However, a case can be made that injecting more money and more arms, even with the noblest purpose and finest Ph.D.s, is part of the problem and not the solution.

First, an anecdote, then a bit of information, and finally some analysis.

The anecdote comes from Gary Schroen’s book First In (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005).

Schroen, as the title states, was the first CIA officer inserted into Afghanistan after 9/11 and tasked with establishing contact with the Northern Alliance. His book, which was intensively vetted by the CIA, offers a remarkably prosaic picture of the Afghan war.

Schroen and his team flew into northern Afghanistan with several cardboard boxes filled with millions of dollars in US greenbacks. For the duration of the book, Schroen is hunkered down in the Panjishir Valley, dispensing cash, writing long-winded memos to Langley, and mapping the GPS coordinates of Taliban positions for bombing raids that, at least while he’s there, never came. The big event: the arrival of 100 pounds of Starbucks coffee that allows Schroen to drink a decent brew while composing his cables.

Schroen’s book is enlivened by descriptions of actual combat experienced by others. In this passage, a C.I.A. operative, “Craig” is with a ragtag force of 60 Afghans organized by Hamid Karzai facing a Taliban position 600 yards away across a valley:

There was movement on the hilltop, and Craig could make out the figures of two, now three men dressed in black clothing…each holding an AK-47…Then the three men stepped forward and began to move down the slope toward them…The three men reached the level ground of the valley floor and, without breaking stride, picked up their pace until they were jogging…What were these three guys up to? They were moving effortlessly, running about three to four feet apart, maintaining a line...

Then, from down the line, one of the Afghans watching the three men steadily cross the open ground shouted, “Chechnya! Chechnya!” A wave of panic and fear, so intense that Craig could feel it physically, swept through the line of men on the hilltop.

[The Chechens] were reported to be fanatical, fierce fighters, well trained and experts with their weapons. After one particularly tough engagement…a number of the dead…had been found to have been killed by a single shot to the head. This was incredible to the Afghans, none of whom actually aimed their weapons but rather trusted Allah to guide their bullets. They thought that such accurate fire had to be the work of the Chechens.

Craig turned in wonder to look up and down the line of Afghans. He could see panic setting in. Sixty men, all armed, frightened by three men running toward them. He grabbed Sergeant Haidar and shouted, “Tell the men to shoot. Shoot!”

[The Karzai troops] began to fire long bursts, guns bucking skyward against the prolonged-recoil, panic firing. After a few seconds the firing reached a peak, and Craig watched in amazement as the three men continued to jog forward through the hail of lead slamming the earth around them. ..The three men did not alter their pace or break formation but jogged on…

[The Karzai troops exhaust their 30-round magazines, reload, and empty their magazines again.]

But again the three fighters ran on untouched.

There were now nearing the base of the hill, and as silence fell along the line of men at the top of the hill they could hear the three men shouting, “Allahu Akbar!” over and over as they ran on. It was too much for the Afghans…As if on signal, the entire group of sixty men turned and began to run from their positions.

[T]he three Chechens…were now casually going through the items left by the fleeing Afghans…Craig watched the three men, who now were shouting what had to be obscenities at them. One of the men stood spread-legged and grabbed his crotch with both hands, making hip movements to emphasize his statement. Another turned and pointed his butt at them, shaking it, then turned and pointed toward them, laughing.

Craig and his CIA mate could have killed the three men as they worked their way up the hill, sho’ nuff. But in order not to further humiliate the Karzai troops, Craig calls down an airstrike from a circling B-52 instead. The three Chechens are disintegrated by a 2000-pound bomb just as one of them is giving Craig the finger. Everybody gives a big cheer.

The item of information comes from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007 :

First, opium cultivation in Afghanistan is no longer associated with poverty – quite the opposite. Hilmand, Kandahar and three other opium-producing provinces in the south are the richest and most fertile, in the past the breadbasket of the nation and a main source of earnings. They have now opted for illicit opium on an unprecedented scale (5,744tons), while the much poorer northern region is abandoning the poppy crops.

Second, opium cultivation in Afghanistan is now closely linked to insurgency.
The Taliban today control vast swathes of land in Hilmand, Kandahar and along the
Pakistani border. By preventing national authorities and international agencies from
working, insurgents have allowed greed and corruption to turn orchards, wheat and
vegetable fields into poppy fields.

Third, the Taliban are again using opium to suit their interests. Between 1996
and 2000, in Taliban-controlled areas 15,000 tons of opium were produced and
exported – the regime’s sole source of foreign exchange at that time. In July 2000,
the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, argued that opium was against Islam and banned its cultivation (but not its export). In recent months, the Taliban have reversed their position once again and started to extract from the drug economy resources for arms, logistics and militia pay. [emphasis added]

The UN press release, entitled Opium Amounts to Half of Afghanistan’s GDP in 2007, drives the point home:

In its final Afghan Opium Survey for 2007 issued today, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that opium is now equivalent to more than half (53%) of the country's licit GDP. … the total export value of opiates produced in and trafficked from Afghanistan in 2007 is about $4 billion, a 29 per cent increase over 2006.

Approximately one quarter of this amount ($1 billion) is earned by opium farmers. District officials take a percentage through a tax on crops (known as "ushr"). Insurgents and warlords control the business of producing and distributing the drugs. The rest is made by drug traffickers.

In 2008, opium production dropped because of a combination of bad weather and good policies in government-controlled provinces. However, the Taliban, traffickers, and corrupt officials still extracted $70 to $80 million in taxes on farmers’ output and over $200 million in processing and trafficking revenues from the opium industry.

And a new problem emerged:

Opium poppy eradication has become more risky
Eradication activities in 2008 were severely affected by resistance from insurgents. Since most of the poppy cultivation remains confined to the south and south-west region dominated by strong insurgency, eradication operations may in the future become even more challenging.

Security incidents associated with eradication activities in Hilmand, Kandahar, Hirat, Nimroz, Kapisa, Kabul and Nangarhar provinces included shooting and mine explosions resulting in the death of at least 78 people, most of whom were policemen. This is an increase of about 75% if compared to the 19 deaths in 2007. The major incidents were in Nanarhar and Nimroz provinces.

One of the most serious incidents happened in Khogyani district of Nangarhar, where 20 policemen were killed together with Fazal Ahmad, a MCN/UNODC surveyor whose job was to collect the data that feed into this report. Other incidents happened in Khashrod district of Nimroz, where 29 people died along with the district police chief. Both attacks were carried out by suicide bombers. The Poppy Eradication Force (PEF) faced a large number of rocket attacks while carrying out eradication in Hilmand province.

The nature of the attacks changed between 2007 and 2008. In 2007, police deaths were the result of violence by farmers whereas deaths in 2008 were the result of insurgent actions, including suicide attacks. [emph. added]

Now, the analysis.

Left to its own devices, Afghanistan is not a threat to the safety of the world.

Even with the support of the ISI, the Taliban was little more than an obnoxious gang of bumpkin theocrats unable to project its power beyond the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.

In 1997, when the Taliban tried to stake its claim as ruler of all Afghanistan by conquering the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, bad things happened, as Steve Coll writes in Ghost Wars [New York: Penguin Press, 2004]:

Mazar became a Taliban death trap. Within days…the city’s Uzbek and Shia populations revolted against their Pashtun occupiers. They massacred three hundred Taliban soldiers. They took another thousand prisoner and sent the militia reeling back down the Salang Highway…

What allowed the Taliban to slip the ISI leash and become a dominant factor inside Afghanistan was its alliance with al Qaeda, an alliance that turned into an intensely symbiotic relationship after 9/11.

Al-Qaeda fighters provided the hard core for the Taliban army, as Schroen’s account illustrates, turning the Taliban into a superior fighting force instead of just another warring faction.

Al-Qaeda also extended the Taliban’s reach through assassination and terror squads. Most famously, al Qaeda operatives assassinated Ahmad Shah Masood, the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, on the eve of 9/11.

Illicit drugs, the mother’s milk of successful modern insurgencies, are keeping the Taliban-al Qaeda axis alive, and giving it the capacity to entrench itself in Afghanistan and Pakistan, even as it became the target of an intensive military and intelligence effort.

Foreign fighters and local opium have extended the reach of the Taliban and turned it into a regional threat.

There’s one other factor.

Paradoxically, the United States forced the Taliban to become the Taliban on steroids, or the neo-Taliban, as it’s sometimes called.

Confronted with an existential threat from the biggest, richest, and most experienced counterinsurgency force on the planet, the Taliban had to elevate its game far above the usual level of cruelty, greed, and venality that is in the skill set of every Central Asian warlord.

Nowadays, the Taliban isn’t just surviving.

It’s flourishing.

It’s pushing aside overmatched government security forces in its areas of operation.

Not only in Afghanistan, where it has a major presence in over half the country. Also in Pakistan, where the Pakistan Taliban dominates the tribal areas (FATA), is pushing into the settled region of the NWFP, and extending its reach by way of cells and terrorism into Pakistan’s heartland.

And it’s not flourishing because it represents jihadist, Islamist, Afghan, or Pashtun aspirations.

The Taliban is flourishing because it is so well-armed, well-funded, well-trained that it attracts the allegiance of commanders and compels the obedience of the local civilian population, and because it’s engaged in the fight of its life against the U.S., NATO, Afghanistan, and Pakistan at the same time and has learned to exploit its resources to the nth degree

In other words, it’s doing well because it’s biggest, meanest, most paranoid, and scariest guy on the block.

It’s also hooked on opium revenues and dependent on a cadre of professional foreign and domestic fighters to intimidate governments and ordinary citizens.

Think of the Taliban like the Mafia of Sicily and Naples, which are perhaps its closest analogues.

It can’t coexist with pluralistic pro-Western governments, even in the unlikely event that the West agrees to allow the Taliban to participate in coalition rule in Kabul. A bulked-up organization that possesses more money and power than the central government is an unacceptable threat to public safety.

At the same time, the Taliban can’t downsize and become the “good” Taliban because it can’t risk giving up the protection that it gains from drug running and maintaining an extra-legal cadre of assassins and terrorists.

In a head-to-head match-up with the Taliban, which side has the money, weapons, ruthlessness, and desperation to project power into Afghan homes, mosques, and government institutions?

The good news is that the United States and NATO have more money. The bad news is, in an impoverished, tribal society, having a lot of money doesn’t do a lot of good. If the Taliban is able to extract $100+ million from the opium trade, it doesn’t need a lot of foreign sources of revenue like repurposed zakat (Islamic tithes) or contributions from rich armchair jihadists in Saudi Arabia.

The good news is that the United States and NATO have more weapons. The bad news is, there’s more than enough weapons in Afghanistan for everyone.

The bad news is, the Taliban is fighting for its life with every weapon at its disposal. The other bad news is, U.S. and NATO are fighting for…well, a modern Afghan democracy is off the table, so basically we’re fighting the Taliban because they’re fighting us.

The bottom line is that the U.S. is facing an extremely ruthless and capable group with the trappings of a criminal organization that uses money, violence, and intimidation to operate among a dispersed population in a rugged region where the borders leak like sieves and law enforcement is virtually non-existent.

It’s not an environment conducive to the conventional counter-insurgency doctrine of using military and economic measures to secure an ever-growing zone of loyal and grateful citizens.

In its current configuration, the Taliban has enough money, reach, and motivation to challenge the security measures of the U.S., NATO, and the Kabul government throughout contested Pashtun areas.

Perhaps the Taliban should be considered an organized crime problem instead of a counterinsurgency problem.

Leave aside the counterinsurgency tropes about winning the hearts and minds of the people by providing them with security because a) we probably have the hearts and minds of many of the unfortunates living under Taliban rule already b) we can’t provide the sustained security that turns hearts-and-mind affection into active resistance to the Taliban and c) the Taliban is self-sufficient in money, arms, and supplies thanks to its position at the nexus of the cross-border trades in drugs, contraband, and necessities and doesn’t need the support of the people in the way of a traditional guerilla force.

Instead of turning a blind eye toward local opium trafficking by anti-Taliban governors and warlords in the hope that extending the official reach of the Afghan government into those areas will yield security gains, the main security effort should be devoted to denying to the Taliban the fruits of the opium industry—not only the revenue, but the illicit cross-border financial channels and the avalanche of contraband across hundreds of unofficial border crossings it engenders.

Buy it, burn it, eradicate it…do whatever it takes to crimp the financial self-sufficiency of the Taliban.

The U.N. has made the point concerning opium with desperate urgency:

"Since drugs are funding the insurgency, NATO has a self-interest in supporting Afghan forces in destroying drug labs, markets and convoys. Destroy the drug trade and you cut off the Taliban's main funding source", said the UN's drug chief [Antonio Maria Cost].

Drug metastases have spread throughout Afghanistan, providing capital for investments, foreign exchange for expensive imports, revenue to underpaid officials as well as funding for weddings, burials and pilgrimages. Corruption has facilitated the general profiteering. The government’s benign tolerance of corruption is undermining the future: no country has ever built prosperity on crime. [emphasis added]

NATO to help taking on opium labs, markets and traffickers. The opium economy of Afghanistan can be bankrupted by blocking the two-way flow of (i) imported chemicals, and (ii) exported drugs. In both instances several thousand tons of materials are being moved across the southern border and nobody seems to take notice.

Since drug trafficking and insurgency live off of each other, the foreign military forces operating in Afghanistan have a vested interest in supporting counter-narcotics operations: destroying heroin labs, closing opium markets, seizing opium convoys and bringing traffickers to justice. This will generate a double benefit. First, the destruction of the drug trade will win popular support (only 1 out of 10 Afghan farming families cultivate opium, earning a disproportionately large share of the national income). Second, lower opium demand by traders will reduce its price and make alternative economic activity more attractive.

It’s a lot easier to destroy opium than the Taliban. Opium doesn’t run away.

But it still isn’t easy.

Contra the U.N.’s optimistic assertion that destroying the opium trade will win hearts and minds, the opposite will probably be true in the first stage.

Opium is the backbone of whatever prosperity there is in southern Afghanistan today, and not just for a minority of farmers. Virtually all of the funds in the halawa system of traditional finance in Kandahar and the other major cities in the Taliban area are opium-derived. The graft that fattens the local officials comes from opium. Opium pays for weddings, cars, and tractors and injects money into the economy. If the opium boom goes bust, there are going to be a lot of poorer and pissed-off people.

A second point is that an opium war will take years not months. According to the U.N., Afghanistan is over-producing opium at such a furious rate that it is exceeding annual global demand by several thousand tons. That opium—actually, the heroin it was refined into--is sitting somewhere against that rainy day when the West finally decides to get serious about the Afghan opium industry.

In fact, in 2008 the U.N. hypothesized that the Taliban might be anticipating a campaign against its opium revenue base, holding back heroin stocks from the market and ready to engage in sophisticated price manipulation to undercut the eradication campaign:

A wild card in the hands of insurgents. If the Taliban are holding major drug stockpiles, they may welcome lower opium cultivation. The resulting price increase would revalue their stocks and improve war financing. Indeed, news picked up by UNODC surveyors in a number of eastern and southern provinces confirm that the Taliban are taking a passive stance at this time of opium planting, as against past efforts to promote it. If opium prices are allowed to increase because of a moratorium on cultivation supported by the Taliban, the resulting market manipulation would spell disaster in the north-east of Afghanistan where so many provinces have abandoned opium cultivation voluntarily, enticed by expectation of development assistance and good revenues from wheat. If wheat/opium terms of trade change again in favour of the latter, this would spell trouble for Afghan counter-narcotic policy.

The second point is much more counter-intuitive and calls into question America’s self-appointed mission as hammer of Islamic terrorism and the savior of Afghanistan.

More is less.

The threat posed by U.S. and NATO forces is a key element in Taliban unity and effectiveness. Not everybody wants to fight the Great Satan, but those who do fight smarter and harder. The alien presence also sucks in foreign jihadis, increases Taliban reliance on hardened fighters like the ones who routed the Karzai forces in Schroen’s account, and emphasizes the necessity of maintaining and deepening the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship.

Surging more U.S. troops will cause greater Taliban casualties; but an expansion of military operations will probably increase violence and civilian casualties, and will feed general weariness and disillusionment with the U.S. intervention.

U.S. gains may also be unable to remove the well-founded concern that the U.S. is not in it for the long haul and can’t guarantee that transitory security gains achieved under its aegis can be made permanent or even sustained.

My recipe for success:

The Taliban has entrenched itself in the rugged terrain of eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan to resist counterinsurgency campaigns originating out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its program of terror, intimidation, and propaganda has succeeded in cowing and deterring Afghan and Pakistan forces. Instead of taking the Taliban on head-on where it’s strongest, in the mountain bastion it has prepared so well in anticipation of this battle, fight a war for the relatively open and agrarian opium-growing areas in the southwest.

Stop contending with the Taliban for control of populations in Taliban-dominated areas.. Instead of fighting for territory, fight to deny the Taliban access to opium resources and obstruct its major source of funding.

Throw the main NATO resources into the opium war with the full understanding that it will a) hurt the economy and b) alienate a lot of people. But rely on the fact that more people understand and accept the immorality of opium than accept the U.S. intervention or acknowledge the merit of an extensive and violent counterinsurgency campaign that yields a lot of civilian casualties. Bank on the expectation that there are only a limited number of people willing to die to protect the opium industry.

Reduce the Taliban’s opium revenue to and try to force it to operate more like a true guerilla force sustaining itself off the local population, instead of riding a wave of general, if relative, prosperity.

My prediction: people will be pissed off at the U.S., NATO, and Karzai. But, as the Taliban tries to squeeze money out of a depressed economy to maintain a force of bigoted theocrats and foreign fighters, people will get pissed off at the Taliban, too. And local fighters and commanders will drift away from the Taliban.

Then, as the Taliban faces competition for scarce resources and is deprived of the unifying factor of an direct and immediate existential threat, perhaps it will be further weakened by internal divisions, Taliban allies of convenience will defect and, at last, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or somebody like him will finally take the fight to the Taliban/al-Qaeda core.

Who is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar?

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is the only major insurgent commander in the field in Afghanistan who is independent of the Taliban and not beholden to al Qaeda.

He is an experienced and brutal son of a bitch with a rich history.

Hekmatyar was the mujahideen commander who received the bulk of U.S. and Saudi funding--$600 million or so—during the anti-Soviet jihad. He was the preferred client of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service until he was unable to establish a stable regime in Kabul after the Soviets withdrew and Islamabad made the disastrous decision to back the Taliban instead. He adheres to a modernizing strain of Islamic fundamentalism along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood that is far removed from the obscurantist indoctrination the Taliban leadership received in the Deobandi madrassas of western Pakistan.

After the Taliban took over most of Afghanistan in the 1990s, Hekmatyar fled to Iran, was expelled and had his bank accounts confiscated by Tehran, and survived a CIA assassination attempt using a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone. He returned to Afghanistan and somehow (insert suspicion of ISI funding here) managed to draw commanders and troops away from the Taliban and re-establish a fighting force in eastern Pakistan.

Despite the fact that he is credited with one of the bloodiest anti-ISAF actions of the Afghan war—an ambush that claimed the lives of 10 French soldiers last year—Hekmatyar is being cultivated by every anti-Taliban force to an extent that is almost ludicrous.

The Karzai government has consistently wooed Hekmatyar with offers of a role in the Kabul government. A rump faction of Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami party was allowed to contest Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections in 2005 after it made an unconvincing formal break with its founder—it won 34 seats. When Saudi Arabia invited the Taliban and the Karzai regime for peace talks in Riyadh in July 2008, Hekmatyar’s representative was included as separate, third party. At the end of 2008, Hekmatyar’s son-in-law was transferred to Afghan custody (Pakistan had arrested him at American insistence), where he was released, ushered into the Presidential Palace for discussions with Karzai, and given a hero’s welcome in Kabul.

Then Pakistan released Hekmatyar’s brother from custody in January of this year.

China, which provided the lion’s share of Hekmatyar’s arms as the CIA-funded quartermaster of the anti-Soviet war, recently invited Hekmatyar’s designated link to the ISI and Pakistan government, the Pakistan Islamic political party, Jamaat-i-Islami, to Beijing for talks.

Beyond Hekmatyar’s traditional fan club of Karzai, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and China, the United States is aware of his potential as an anti-Taliban asset.

In a November 2008 article entitled Afghan Rebel Positioned for Key Role, the Washington Post provided an insight into U.S. thinking:

[W]ith casualties among foreign forces at record highs, and domestic and international confidence in Karzai's government at an all-time low, U.S. and Afghan officials may have little choice but to grant Hekmatyar a choice seat at the bargaining table.

Top U.S. military officials have indicated in recent weeks a willingness to cut deals with rebel commanders like Hekmatyar to take insurgents off the battlefield.

However, Hekmatyar has made it clear that he will never enter the field as part of any U.S. or NATO anti-insurgency force.

He has reiterated this stance too many times for there to be any ambiguity about it. As an example, the Jamestown Foundation quotes Hekmatyar on the issue:

"We want all foreign forces to leave immediately without any condition. This is the demand of the entire Afghan nation.”

Doubtless Hekmatyar distances himself from the United States in order to maintain his credibility as an Afghan fighter.

But maybe he also understands that, even if he enjoys the covert backing of the ISI, he will have little chance against a Taliban united and energized by the U.S.-led counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan and swollen by opium profits.

In the end, Hekmatyar, who was notorious for killing more Afghani rivals than Soviet invaders during the jihad, might have the magic formula for cutting the Taliban down to size that the West is looking for.

In 2002, Time Magazine quoted him as saying:

"We prefer involvement in internal war rather than occupation by foreigners and foreign troops".

Hekmatyar would probably enjoy his "internal war" even more if he got effective backing from the ISI (and profits from his own drug business; Hekmatyar pioneered the refining of heroin inside Afghanistan, instead of just taxing opium) while the Taliban’s opium revenues withered.

A bitter, ugly, underfunded, and depleting civil war devoid of theological, religious, ethnic, or international implications, between two diminished and destructive gangsters unable to project their power beyond the Pashtun heartland.

Maybe this is the best we can hope for in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the time being.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Is the Taliban Trying to Talk to China?

It seems the story of Wei Longxiao and Zhang Guo, two Chinese telecom engineers kidnapped by the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat valley on August 29 of last year, has everything (account courtesy of the Pakistan Tribune).


It was on October 17, 2008 that the two young Chinese engineers made their move to escape from Taliban’s custody. They reportedly sneaked out of the house where they were held during the night and ran for their life.


Long Xiao We, 26-year-old and heavily-built, slipped during the escape and broke his leg. The mountainous terrain and the darkness made it difficult for them to find their way to safety. It is said Zhang Guo lost his colleague on the way after the latter’s fall and after a futile search decided to go it alone. The desperate engineer wanted to seek protection in some house in Chinglalai and the nearby Dagai village as he feared that the militants would soon learn about their escape and track them down. The Taliban managed to find Long Xiao We and made him hostage again ….


[T]he unusual barking of dogs alarmed their security guards and prompted them to come out of the house of one of his cousins. They found the Chinese engineer shivering from cold outside the Hujra, or male guesthouse, and unable to speak a word of Pashto or Urdu, the two languages that the guards understood. Zhang Guo could barely speak English, the language the guards didn’t understand. Finding it difficult during the night to lodge him in the locked house or Hujra, the guards took him instead to a cattleshed and asked him to sleep there. They found an old blanket for him to protect himself from the cold.

In the morning, the guards contacted Liaqat in Dagai village and told him about the stranger, who they believed was deaf and dumb. After seeing Zhang Guo, he knew this was one of the Chinese engineers who had been kidnapped by the Taliban. Liaqat reportedly consulted his cousins in Swat and Peshawar and sought their advice how to handle the situation. He was advised to deliver the engineer to the Army checkpost at Vennai, located about 1.5 kms from Dagai.

According to one of his cousins, Liaqat was aware of the seriousness of the situation and he, therefore, tried to arrange a traditional, all enveloping Burqa for the Chinese engineer to wear while transporting him to the military checkpoint. Efforts to lay hands on the shuttlecock-type Burqa failed and Liaqat had little other choice than to seat Zhang Guo in the back seat of his car and drive him to the Vennai security forces’ post. He was able to return home safely but this was the beginning of his troubles.

A touch of humor, in Cellular News’ earnest attempt to connect the dots between cell phones, jiggy ringtones, Islamic fundamentalism, and terror.

The Taliban in Pakistan's tribal areas have often attacked mobile phone retailers for selling ringtones and other unapproved media. Earlier this year, a spokesman for the same Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan group [that kidnapped Wei and Zhang], Maulana Faqir Mohammed said that they would not allow commuters to play music in their cars or use musical ringtones on mobile phones.

And horror:

It wasn’t known until now that one Liaqat Ali Khan, son of Nadir Khan, a landlord from Dagai village in Matta Tehsil in upper Swat valley, was murdered by the local Taliban for helping Chinese telecommunication engineer, Zhang Guo, to reach the Pakistan Army’s roadside security post at Vennai. Members of his family, requesting anonymity due to a risk to their lives, told our sources that Taliban fighters chased Liaqat while he was driving his car near his village on November 20 last year and shot him dead.

Liaqat’s family, his cousins and other close relatives had to abandon their homes and move out of Swat after the incident. They still live in fear of the Swati Taliban and are unable to lead normal lives even in places far away from their native Swat.

One thing the story doesn’t have, apparently, is play in the Chinese press.

Subsequent to an announcement by the engineers’ employer, Chinese communications giant ZTE, a statement by China’s foreign ministry that they were hoping for the prompt release of the two men, and an initial flurry of reports in the press (including a highly informative backgrounder on the security travails of Chinese workers in Pakistan and other hot spots by Li Zhongfa, Deng Yuan, and Hu Xuefa in the International Herald), China’s media has been remarkably silent, even about Zhang’s dramatic escape and the plight of the injured Wei Longxiao.

This is almost certainly a tactical move, relating to China’s strategy in dealing with the kidnappings and reflecting its desire not to complicate negotiations or encourage copycats.

When three Chinese employees of a rickshaw factory were killed in NWFP by knife-wielding fundamentalists in 2007, on the other hand, the bloody deed got extended play in the Chinese media and on the websites of Chinese embassies around the world—because the PRC wanted to publicly pressure the Pakistan government to do something.

The media shutdown may also may have something to do with a new and unwelcome reality in Pakistan: the reliably pro-Chinese central government's faltering control in the NWFP and FATA, the Taliban's efforts to convince China that it needs a new partner in western Pakistan, and China's preliminary efforts to secure more desirable options dealing with the Taliban.

China and Pakistan have quite a history when it comes to the safety of Chinese nationals.

The seminal event in recent Pakistani history was the government assault on the extremist Lal Masjid mosque in the heart of Islamabad in August July 2007, after a protracted siege, by 15,000 troops personally loyal to President Musharraf.

It resulted in 100 confirmed and a rumored 1000 deaths, served notice that the Pakistan government viewed the fundamentalist Islamic groups as a threat that could no longer be accommodated and had to be confronted militarily, and set the stage for the zero-sum struggle that is now going on between the Pakistani Taliban and President Zardari’s government.

It is a little-known fact, except to readers of China Matters, that the siege was in response to the mosque’s kidnapping of 7 Chinese from a massage parlor it deemed guilty of immoral activities…and the assault was ordered because extremists in the NWFP killed three Chinese, apparently in retaliation for the siege, and China’s president Hu Jintao demanded action.

China is especially sensitive to these cases because of the nature of its foreign diplomatic and economic policy. It deals with regions in Africa and South Asia that are unstable, with regimes that are often unpopular and facing a variety of domestic and foreign challenges to their rule, and as a result its diplomats, engineers, and workers are in harm’s way.

There’s a lot of people and money involved. There are almost 5,000,000 Chinese working overseas, and China contracted $33 billion worth of foreign projects in 2007. There are 7000 Chinese working in Pakistan on 170 projects, including 1000 in the insurgency hot spot of NWFP. The two engineers were subcontractors to ZTE, a.k.a. Zhong Xing, a major telecommunications engineering company itself under contract to China Mobile to install 3500 cellphone towers in western Pakistan in an eight month crash program.

The Chinese government lacks the hard power projection capability to defend or rescue its interests by itself, so Beijing relies on the local strong man to take care of business promptly and efficiently, and not give the impression that Chinese can be treated as a convenient ATM machine for bad guys looking for money, leverage, or other concessions.

In an interesting comment on the contrast between U.S.-Pakistan and Sino-Pakistan relations, an exasperated Prime Minister Gilani reportedly chided the militants [translated from the Chinese]:

“You are always going on about the America being your enemy. So why did you kidnap our Chinese friends?”

An answer was provided in an op-ed in The News in February 2009 by its Peshawar editor, Rahimullah Yusufzai:

The kidnappers of the Chinese engineers are known and the place where they are being held isn't a great secret. The Swat chapter of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is holding the two and parts of the valley in its control would be the most likely place where the hapless Chinese engineers are kept. The TTP in Swat appears keen to use them as bargaining chips to secure release of their men presently in government custody and, if possible, obtain other concessions from the authorities. This issue could be resolved in a give-and-take manner and though the government would lose face and look weak in accepting the kidnappers' demands, it would not be the first time that such a deal is clinched. Weak state apparatus and inefficient governments would always land Pakistan in trouble and this is what you get when the armed forces, police and other institutions are unable to enforce the government's writ in parts of the country.

In return for the two engineers, the Taliban was apparently demanding the release of 136 prisoners and ransom.

Perhaps hamstrung by its difficult counterinsurgency campaign, the Pakistan government's response was apparently neither particular prompt or effective.

Shortly after the kidnapping, The News reported:

The government has not launched any serious efforts to secure the release of the foreigners though 20 days have passed. Except one telephonic contact by the deputy inspector general of police, Malakand, with the Taliban spokesman in Swat, Muslim Khan, the authorities have not made any serious effort to recover the engineers. In a talk with The News a few days back, the hostages said they were in good health but were tense being in the captivity of the militants. The government's claim of using backdoor channels for securing the release of the captives was contradicted by the militants and they also refused to accept influence of any personality.

When Zhang Guo escaped, a Taliban spokesman rebutted the rumor, undoubtedly spread by the terminally opportunistic Zardari government, that Zhang’s escape—which occurred coincidentally while President Zardari was on his first visit to Beijing-- was actually a negotiated release. The Taliban talking head also expressed his exasperation at hostages who have the poor taste and judgment to attempt escapes:

There were also rumours that one Chinese engineer was ‘allowed’; to flee under a secret agreement between the government and the Taliban militants but the insurgents strongly denied these reports. “It is untrue that he has been released under any deal,” Muslim Khan insisted.

He claimed the engineer had not been recovered but instead escaped from the Taliban’s captivity. He said that the military had no role in the whole episode and didn’t recover him as it was claimed. “If it could recover them, it could have done it much earlier,” he argued and hastened to add that the two should have avoided risking their lives by making an attempt to flee.

The murder of the brave and good Liaqat Ali Khan, who rescued Zhang, may have been meant in part to put a bloody punctuation point on the assertion that the engineer’s escape was not part of any deal that the Zardari government could take credit for.

The Pakistani government’s efforts to handle the situation may also have been complicated by U.S. abhorrence of a high profile concession to the Taliban.

Hamid Mir of The News reported on February 11:

Some diplomatic sources have revealed that initially Pakistan was ready to release some arrested Taliban fighters in exchange for the abducted Polish and Chinese engineers but the US authorities raised objections and a deal could not be finalised.

There’s more, also via The News on November 24. The Taliban communicated with the media to report that Zhang Guo was doing OK. Kinda.

Long Xiao fell off a mountain during the abortive attempt to escape, which fractured his right leg. …Long Xiao is still with the militants. After more than a month, his leg has not healed fully and the militants’ doctor has been looking after him. However, militants’ sources said that they had no intention to harm the kidnapped Chinese.

The News further reported:

The sources said they had not reached any deal for the Chinese so far, though they had been holding negotiations for the release of the engineer. The talks were, according to the sources, being held between the central leadership of the TTP and the Chinese authorities. The sources denied any contact with the government despite the latter’s claim to be making hectic efforts to secure the release of Long.

Emphasis added. Emphasis added. Emphasis added.

Indeed, from the beginning the Taliban has made it clear they wanted to negotiate with Beijing. A few weeks after the kidnapping, The News reported:

"We are getting angry at the lack of interests of the governments of China and Pakistan and will close doors for negotiation, if they do not hold serious talks for solution to the issue," a top militant commander told The News.

I have a feeling that the Chinese government is not interested in getting involved in direct negotiations with the Taliban and would much prefer to see Pakistan, purportedly the sovereign ruler of NWFP with the troops, tanks, airplanes, and, one would like to think, considerable local leverage and capability, handling this matter.

But it’s clear that the government writ doesn’t run in significant swaths of NWFP and FATA and China has to deal think about dealing with the Taliban—but not encourage it to believe it can use Chinese nationals as bargaining chips.

And, as a result, it’s perhaps not too much a surprise that as of February 10, negotiations are stalled and Mr. Wei is still languishing in Taliban custody.

However, I think the Chinese are not sitting on their hands in their response to the Pakistan Taliban’s efforts to develop an independent foreign policy.

Consider this report from Xinhua on February 10:

Ismail Tiliwaldi, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, met Tuesday with Qazi Hussain Ahmed, president of Pakistan's Jamaat-I-Islami, an organization advocating the Islamic religion.

The two sides exchanged views on China-Pakistan relations and other issues of common concern.

The JII is a conservative, Islamicist party and a member of the fundamentalist MMU coalition. It is also a cadre organization, Leninist in inspiration, more focused on the directed seizure of political power than spontaneous social revolution, and, as such, perhaps a good fit for China if it is looking for an Islamic ally to help it deal with the Taliban and navigate Pakistan’s troubled political waters.

The JII, it should be said, is not particularly Taliban-friendly even though it is assiduously riding the anti-American wave in western Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, its closest affiliation is with the unsavory Gulbidin Hekmatyar, who received $600 million in aid from the CIA through JII mediation to fight the Soviets but, according to accounts, expended most of his time, energy, and cruelty in pursuit of his local rivals—including the Taliban (with whom he now appears to have an alliance of convenience, although Hamid Karzai is reportedly laboring assiduously to lure him into the Afghan government, perhaps even as Prime Minister!).

Ironically, I think it is virtually a given that, were the Taliban to return to power, it would face similar problems as NATO—insufficient forces to extend its authority reliably beyond its Pashtun base—and a new one: Hekmatyar’s bloody minded willingness to mix it up with the Taliban on behalf of whatever regional power—Pakistan, Iran, the U.S., or even China—that happens to be paying his bills that day. And, should the Taliban resume the hotseat in Kabul, I think Hekmatyar would find no shortage of paymasters, including Beijing.

And if the JII served as the conduit, it would simply be reprising the role it played during the anti-Soviet insurgency.

So the Chinese reach-out to the JII might be an effort to resolve the plight of its engineers—one which Pakistan’s central government is apparently unable to relieve—as an alternative or complement to negotiating directly with the Taliban.

It also might have a broader purpose—of looking to a possible future in which West-friendly governments in Kabul and Islamabad have lost the power to influence events in most of Afghanistan and Western Pakistan, and China needs a relatively moderate Islamic interlocutor to protect and advance its interests, perhaps provide links to proxies if the Taliban regains Kabul, and help keep the Taliban—and its millenarian ideology—bottled up in the Pashtun regions where it will not easily infect the restive Muslims of China’s West.

As for the unfortunate captive, Mr. Wei Longxiao, his case took on added urgency in the light of the fate of another hostage, a Polish engineer, Piotr Stanczak.

From The Australian, on February 7:

Piotr Stanczak was seized on September 28 by armed men who killed his two drivers and bodyguard in restive northwest Pakistan, where he was working for a Polish energy company.

"We have beheaded the Polish engineer after the government failed to meet our demands and we will not hand over his body,'' a Taliban spokesman said.

The murder claim came just hours after Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that no ransom would be paid.

Released video apparently showed Mr. Stanczak’s decapitation.

His death was perhaps meant in part as a warning to the Chinese not to treat the Taliban and its demands in an excessively cavalier or roundabout fashion.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Pakistan Isn’t a Sideshow…

It’s the Main Event

A Polish engineer is beheaded in Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban threaten attacks on Islamabad. In a desperate effort to turn around the struggle against Islamicist extremists, the Pakistani government considers permitting the imposition of sharia law in a key battleground.

Maybe it’s time to admit we don’t have an Afghanistan problem. We have a Pakistan problem, and Afghanistan is simply aggravating it.

Hamid Mir writes in Pakistan’s The News that the Taliban is threatening a major escalation of its violent campaign against the counterinsurgency operation that the Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps are mounting in the ethnic Pashtun North West Frontier Province and affiliated Federated and Tribal Areas at America’s behest:

ISLAMABAD: The local Taliban leadership has decided to send its fighters to Islamabad as a reaction to the operations in Darra Adamkhel and Swat Valley and in this regard chalkings on the walls of Islamabad are already appearing, forcing the Islamabad administration to whitewash these messages quickly.

Many religious scholars in Islamabad have also received messages from the Taliban that they have only two options, either to support the Taliban or leave the capital or they will be considered collaborators of the “pro-American Zardari government” which, they claim, is not different from the previous Musharraf regime.

Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, is in the sedentary and urbanized heartland of Punjab far from the Pashtun areas. The Taliban don’t attack Islamabad unless they believe they can make an immediate and effective political statement.

In this case, the statement would probably be that Pakistanis are dying and their country fragmenting for the sake of a Western agenda for Afghanistan that few inside Pakistan endorse.

There appears to be a major disconnect between U.S. and Pakistani strategies for dealing with the Taliban’s entrenched presence and its increasing reach into non-Pashtun areas.

Pending a review by the Obama administration, the U.S. considers the battles in west Pakistan an adjunct to the faltering Afghan adventure. As I argued elsewhere, this is a fatal misreading of the facts on the ground and ranks as a strategic blunder of historical portions.

It turns out the war against the Taliban is a counterinsurgency operation across the entire Pashtun ethnic area, on both sides of the Durand Line that arbitrarily splits the Pashtun homeland into Afghan and Pakistani jurisdictions, and in which the Taliban have discovered that their key bulwark against NATO and U.S. operations is, unsurprisingly, the Pakistan side.

U.S. attempts to deny the Pakistan havens to the Taliban have simply encouraged the Taliban to focus on the weakest element in the counter-insurgency equation, the Pakistan government, entrench themselves not only in the semi-autonomous FATA areas but also in key districts of the NWFP such as the Swat valley, and make it clear that the cost of any U.S. success against them and in Afghanistan will be borne by Pakistan.

In other words, Afghanistan is the sideshow and Pakistan is the main event.

In my view, the Obama foreign policy team should be burning the midnight oil trying to figure out how to support Pakistan in its long term struggle to integrate the Pashtun areas into the national system, not only militarily but politically, ideologically, and culturally, in order to neutralize the Taliban challenge inside Pakistan, while simply holding the line in Afghanistan--and not the other way around.

Indeed, as the Pakistan government points out resentfully, in 2008 Pakistan suffered a death toll of 2000 from terrorist attacks—and still is subjected to incessant U.S. bullyragging concerning its lackadaisical counterinsurgency efforts against the Taliban.

Relations between Pakistan and the Afghan government are quite frosty—Pakistan’s arch enemy, India, has been welcomed into Afghanistan, raising fears of strategic encirclement--and it’s safe to say that few people in Pakistan’s army or general population are enthusiastic about dying for the sake of Hamid Karzai’s regime. And when the Taliban reacts to U.S. (or U.S. mandated) pressure in the tribal areas by attacks in Pakistan’s heartland, the result has historically been anger directed not only the terrorists, but the U.S. effort in Afghanistan that brings so much suffering but little apparent benefits to Pakistan beyond a corrupting financial subsidy.

The central government of Pakistan, both under Musharraf and Zardari, has been loathe to employ solely military measures against the Taliban, in order to avoid radicalizing the Pashtun population and bringing a battle in the marginal mountainous border areas into Pakistan’s populous heartland.

The United States, on the other hand, has insisted that Pakistan subordinate its own fears of instability and terrorism to the needs of the Afghan campaign. With the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, the United States has adopted a strategy that appears supremely counter-productive: pressuring Pakistan to achieve a military victory in the Pashtun areas—a goal that has eluded non-Pashtuns for centuries—on a timetable designed to forestall a military collapse in Afghanistan next spring.

The disconnect was strikingly illustrated in Mir’s story:

Some diplomatic sources have revealed that initially Pakistan was ready to release some arrested Taliban fighters in exchange for the abducted Polish and Chinese engineers but the US authorities raised objections and a deal could not be finalised.

The Pakistani authorities successfully negotiated the release of a kidnapped Pakistani diplomat Tariq Azizuddin in 2008 and the release of kidnapped Army personnel in 2007 by releasing some Taliban fighters. But this time the US pressure complicated the situation.

The Polish engineer was subsequently decapitated.

The most genuinely eye-popping revelation of Mir’s article concerns the stated willingness of the NWFP governor—and President Zardari—to permit the imposition of sharia law in the embattled Swat Valley:

[A top Army official stated,] “We are no more fighting the secular insurgents, we are fighting with the Taliban and they are demanding the enforcement of the Islamic law in Swat and all the local secular political leaders are supporting this demand under public pressure.”

Chief Minister of NWFP Ameer Haider Hoti, Governor Awais Ghani and the Army high command have strongly recommended to enforce the long pending Sharia regulations, which will be called the “Nifaz-e-Adal regulation”.

District Police Officer of Swat Dilawar Khan Bangash said the Taliban will have no justification to fight against the state after the enforcement of the Islamic law in Swat.

Swat, which was a princely state till July 28, 1969, had Qazi courts operating when the state was finally merged into Pakistan. Residents of Swat think that it was easy to get justice before 1969 through the Qazi courts but after the imposition of the English law, the poor people of Swat are not getting justice.

Taliban have exploited this delay in justice and also instigated the poor people to rise against the big landlords. The Awami National Party swept the valley of Swat in 2008 election with the slogan of peace and justice and now this party is ruling the NWFP in collaboration with the PPP.

Sources have claimed that the ANP leadership has convinced President Asif Ali Zardari to promulgate the Sharia regulations in Swat and the president will announce the promulgation in a few days.

Maulana Sufi Muhammad of the Tehrik-e-Nafaze Shariat Muhammadi has assured the ANP leadership that he will start a long march from Dir to Swat valley after the imposition of the Sharia law and he will appeal to his son-in-law Maulana Fazalullah and other Taliban leaders to surrender.

For the Western powers, attempting to democratize Afghanistan and turn it away from Islamic fundamentalism, there are few issues more hot-buttony than Pakistan acquiescing to the imposition of sharia law in a key battle zone.

So it’s possible that President Zardari is raising the threat of sharia law as a wake-up call to the United States and NATO that the largely military counter-insurgency effort in western Pakistan is not viable, and an alternate strategy—call it engagement, call it appeasement, in any case a protracted political, propaganda, and economic effort that de-emphasizes vain hopes of a quick military solution in time to save the Karzai regime—that gives a more central position to Pakistan’s needs and priorities, indeed its survival as a democratic state, and treats the exploitation of Pakistan havens by the Taliban primarily as one element of Pakistan’s thorny Pashtun issue.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Great Unwinding

One point that I haven’t seen made yet, that I think should be made, is that Iran, Russia, and China are probably overjoyed that President Obama is not going to pull the plug precipitously on Iraq and Afghanistan. Absent a continued American commitment to the doomed but dangerous democracy crusade and regime change in Iran, there’s nothing our competitors and enemies like to see more than American forces, focus, and political capital tied up in open-ended and unprofitable face-saving regime stabilization efforts in the dead ends of Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, when I see Iran and Russia graciously negotiating to assist in transit of NATO military supplies to Afghanistan, I see two things at work: first, thanks to the American supply travails in Pakistan (and the closing of the main U.S. airbase serving Afghanistan, Manas in Kyrgyzstan, apparently at the behest of the Russians), they see an opportunity to engineer engagement with the United States on favorable terms.

Second, they want to keep the supply lifelines open so the United States doesn’t have an excuse to leave.

Even though pulling the plug on Iraq and Afghanistan might, on balance, be better for the United States.

There is a certain logic to America’s predicament that is pleasant to ignore: that a nation that is overextended financially and militarily should not expect that, after the mandatory wrenching readjustment, it can return to the previously overextended state and continue to advance as if nothing had happened.

In economics, for instance, it is somewhat optimistic to expect that the United States will automatically bounce back to historical levels of GDP and growth after an asset binge funded not by productivity and domestic savings but by colossal amounts of debt advanced by international creditors.

In foreign affairs, it is also extremely optimistic to assume that a colossal and reckless projection of military power into the Middle East and Central Asia—not one, but two of the dreaded land wars in Asia at the same time--again funded by those obliging international creditors, that failed in its ultimate objective of toppling Iran and turning the region into a patchwork of grateful American clients and a bulwark against the nefarious Russkies, can be rationalized without creating a power vacuum that other powers, with compelling interests, useful proximity, and significant military, diplomatic, and economic advantages, will venture to exploit.

Of course, as Ronald Reagan famously stated, facts are stupid things, and implying American decline—or even diminished American expectations—is political suicide.

So I predict that President Obama will draw his inspiration from King Canut, not only denying the advance of the tide but claiming that it can be made to retreat.

Instead of letting America’s compromised banks collapse, let the GDP take a genuine hit, and start with a relatively clean slate—and turn an acknowledged recession into a recognized Depression e.g. ratcheting down the baseline for GDP--President Obama appears committed to chunk money into the financial system in an effort to rescue the loans made during the Bush-years binge and puff some more life into the asset bubble.

Overseas, there is little logic in spending a trillion dollars to turn Iraq into an impotent little brother of burgeoning regional power Iran, or spending hundreds of millions to turn miserable land-locked Afghanistan into a fragile American satrapy while—a point I have made ad nauseum—accepting as collateral damage the descent of Pakistan, a nation of 170 million, into crisis and insurrection.

But, beyond the genuine geopolitical costs of allowing Iran to assume a dominant role in Iraq affairs or acquiescing to the return of extremist rule to Afghanistan, it would be politically untenable for President Obama to acknowledge a limit to America’s resources or commitment to the regimes we set up in the Middle East and South Asia, or surrender the ability to influence events in those countries through the continued presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops, spooks, and contractors.

So expect the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan to linger, to the satisfaction of the Iranians, Russians, and Chinese, despite the high costs and meager benefits, and by forgoing the advantages that might be gained by concentrating America’s resources of military, diplomatic, and economic power elsewhere.

The fact that Western observers fail to consider that the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns are largely financial and strategic liabilities to the United States is, I think, a sign of panic and denial: the possibility that the Middle East and Central Asia are not currently fertile fields for U.S. policy and disengagement might be the best solution, at least in the near term, seems to strike at the heart of America’s shaky hyperpower self-esteem.

As to the long-term costs of disengagement, it has come to my attention we have already invaded Iraq twice in the last quarter century and, if we count our considerable financial, material, and logistical support for the anti-Soviet mujihadeen, yes, we’ve also fought two wars in Afghanistan during roughly the same period, so there would be no obstacle to us returning to the region and invading these long-suffering nations for a third time if we believed that our national interest demanded it.

To expand on this point, it appears that the United States has the ability to destabilize the region through the creation of isolated, pro-American bastion states, but lacks the reach to stabilize it—which might be a clue that it might be better for all involved if we either took our knitting elsewhere, or at least took a back seat to regional powers who, unlike us, have a genuine stake in the turning these battered countries into peaceful and functioning states that enjoy good relations with their neighbors and are integrated into the regional economic and security system.

If America has a strategy for Eurasia right now, it seems it is helplessly hoping that the current recession exacerbates the social and political weaknesses of China, Russia, and Iran they fall on their behinds—with dire consequences for hundreds of millions of people--and we, bloody, broke, but unbowed, get the last laugh.

But, as President Obama is perhaps realizing, hope is not a plan.

By focusing on the costs to American prestige and interests by disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems the think tankers are tacitly admitting that they cannot imagine regions in which our prestige and interests can be advanced more effectively.

Beyond the whole South Asian quadrant down through Indonesia, I can think of a couple places: Central and South America. Why, two hundred years after the Monroe Doctrine, our geopolitical take south of the border amounts to a handful of closet fascists and the rest of the continent is run by governments that dislike or hate us, has always been something of a mystery to me.

But that would take this blog even farther afield from China than it usually goes.

Friday, February 06, 2009

America: Riding Through Asia on that Hellbound Train

As America is preoccupied with the global economic crisis and the Obama transition, the State Department can worry that the world’s headlong transition to a post-Bush order has torn events from America’s control and we are unwilling passengers on a runaway train barreling through the Middle East and South Asia.

The security, diplomatic, and logistic infrastructure that supports the United States' adventure in Afghanistan appears to be crumbling, with Iran poised to compel a realignment of regional power away from America's traditional clients and proxies in the Middle East toward Iran as the price for allowing the Obama administration to extract itself from its deepening quagmire with a semblance of honor.

But first—badminton!

A moue of disappointment crossed the visage of the Obama administration’s foreign policy apparatus as the Iranian government declined to visa a U.S. team of badminton players, who had been invited (by Iran’s badminton federation) to compete in a tournament in Tehran marking the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

Acting State Department spokesman Robert Wood had this to say in his February 4 press briefing:

Apparently… the Iranian Consulate in Dubai did not provide – did not issue visas to the American team in time to participate in the tournament that I believe is scheduled February 5 through 8. The team is returning tonight. …My understanding from reports is that the U.S. Badminton Federation has been in touch with the Iranian Badminton Federation. And in fact, I think the Iranian Badminton Federation was – expressed their disappointment that the visas were not granted.

My understanding is that all of the paperwork and – was supplied in time. We had – they had everything that was required, but again, the visas were not issued. So this is a very unfortunate situation, and that’s where we are.

Meanwhile, the Iranian media also reported the rebuff, with the Iranian foreign ministry blaming technical issues for the non-issuance of the visas.

Via Fars:

The process for issuing visa for American nationals is a long-lasting one as that of the US for Iranian nationals and should go through certain stages, [Foreign Ministry spokesman] Qashqavi said.

The time needed for issuing visa did not make it possible for the team to take part in the international tournaments in Iran, the Iranian students news agency quoted him as saying.

Maybe some tit-for-tat here. AFP reported:

Ghashghavi [same guy; different spelling] recalled that members of an Iranian delegation did not receive US visa for the UN General Assembly in New York last year.

There are other ways to parse this issue, including divisions inside Iran’s leadership on how to respond to the Obama administration’s conciliatory overtures.

The Iranian government may also have wanted to send the message that it will unclench its fist of defiance only if the U.S. government, in addition to extending its open hand of friendship, also desists from kicking Iran in the behind with the steel-toed boot of sanctions, particularly on the matter of the Treasury Department’s continued efforts to blockade Iran and cut it off from the international banking system.

But the travails of the U.S. badminton team may be a harbinger of something bigger than jockeying for leverage between the world’s only superpower and a regional power interested in reaching an accommodation on the most favorable terms possible.

It may be an indication of Iran’s perception that the time may be ripe to for a fundamental realignment: to not only to compel the Washington to abandon its policy of confrontation with the Tehran, but also to gain legitimacy for Iran’s de facto position as a core regional power that is not a proxy or ally of the United States.

The Iranian government is in a very good position to demand concessions from the U.S. in return for granting the Great Satan’s badminton team the privilege of swatting the shuttlecock in Tehran.

It’s not just because of Iraq, where Iranian forbearance probably has a lot to do with the downswing of violence.

It has to do with the snowballing crisis in Afghanistan.

Perhaps one of the greatest foreign policy/military blunders in American history is now playing out in South Asia.

The United States’ strategic tunnel vision focused on Afghanistan, disregarded the need for an integrated approach to Pashtun militancy on both sides of the Durand Line, and ignored the political and military dangers inherent in displacing the Taliban from Kabul.

The U.S. adopted a policy of malign neglect towards Pakistan’s equivocal and incompetent efforts to suppress the flow of Taliban and al Qaeda elements into its western tribal areas until it was too late, and then actively sabotaged Pakistan’s increasingly desperate efforts to decouple from the Afghan battle and reach a separate accommodation with the militants. Instead, we pelted the tribal areas with drone-fired munitions and, using our diplomatic and financial leverage, pushed Pakistan’s army into ambitious counter-insurgency operations that it lacked the will and ability to execute.

As a result, much of Pakistan’s tribal belt and the North West Frontier Province have fallen under Taliban control. What’s more, the focus of the battle between NATO forces and the Taliban have shifted to western Pakistan—very favorable ground for the Taliban.

The Khyber Pass route—the key supply channel for the NATO force in Afghanistan, including 80% of its fuel—has been temporarily cut with the Taliban’s destruction of a key bridge. NATO trucks are torched as they sit in the NWFP’s capital, Peshawar, waiting to move into Afghanistan.

That’s not all.

The U.S. was almost completely blindsides as Kyrgyzstan—wooed by a promise of $330 million in aid, $2 billion in loans, and who knows what else from Moscow—announced that U.S. forces could no longer use the airbase at Manas.

AFP tells us:

The U.S. military base at Manas - used by coalition forces to support tens of thousands of troops in neighboring Afghanistan - is considered vital and U.S. reaction to the closure has been decidedly negative.

The Manas base, operated by about 1,000 troops including small French and Spanish contingents, was set up to support coalition forces fighting to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The closure of the base would strain U.S. supply lines at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama is preparing to nearly double the 36,000-strong force in the country.

So, the same week that the Khyber Pass is blocked, the major route for airlifted personnel into Afghanistan (15,000 troops per month, according to AP; considering there are only 53,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, that’s a lot of traffic) and also for 500 tpm of supplies goes pffft.

And the United States, all of a sudden, has to think seriously about expensive and roundabout rail arteries through central Asia—which means talking to our not very good friend, the brutal dictator of Uzbekistan who threw the U.S. out on its ear in 2005—and inviting the United Arab Emirates to host another large U.S. military facility, in this case an air base to support a war against the Arabs’ Sunni Pashtun Taliban brethren.

The U.S. also finds itself with very good and pressing reasons to make nice with Iran—which has a nice new port at Chabahar that links to landlocked Afghanistan’s eastern border crossing of Zaranj—and from there to Afghanistan’s national highway system via a road link that was built by India and ceremonially handed over to the Afghan government on January 22 of this year.

I have a feeling that Russia and Iran were exchanging high fives at what might turn out to be a brilliant coup—using the supply plight of NATO forces in Afghanistan as a hostage to force Washington to engage with Tehran.

The United States will get an opportunity to show Iran the sincerity of its desire for rapprochement at the Munich Security Conference.

Syed Saleem Shahzad writes in the Asia Times:

The annual Munich Security Conference, which brings together a dozen world leaders and about 50 top diplomats and defense officials, starts on Friday for the 45th time with one item paramount on its agenda: the United States-led world order, given the troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing impasse with Iran.

The US has sent a high-ranking delegation led by Vice President Joe Biden and the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrook. They are expected to seek informal dialogue with Iran, represented by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and parliament speaker Ali Larijani.

This contact on the event's sidelines will likely focus on the Iranian role in Iraq and the need for Tehran's cooperation over Afghanistan, especially in allowing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) non-military supply lines to pass through the Iranian port of Chabahar on the way to Afghanistan.

In anticipation of its worst year in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, it is possible that the Americans will abdicate much of their interest in Iraq in favor of the Iranians, and in return, Tehran will allow passage to NATO's non-military supplies through Chabahar port.

Direct U.S. dealmaking with Iran (in effect, giving a higher priority to America’s own strategic interests a la Walt-Mearsheimer at the expense of unequivocal support of Israel’s priorities and preferences) is Israel’s greatest fear, so any thawing of relations between Washington and Tehran will have to run the multiple gauntlets of opposition, resistance, provocation, and sabotage thrown down by the Israeli government (soon, apparently, to be run by the hard-right Benjamin Netanyahu) and its allies in the United States.

Not to mention Iranian intransigence and suspicion, a traditional American distaste for dealing with rivals instead of allies and clients—and the genuine perils of assisting the rise to regional preeminence of a power hostile to our main regional assets, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

So it may be a while before the shuttlecocks fly in Tehran.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Required Reading on the Pakistani Taliban: Syed Saleem Shahzad

To my mind, there is no more important journalistic source on the Taliban in Pakistan than Syed Saleem Shahzad, South Asia correspondent for the Asia Times.

Shahzad recently posted on a four-part report, On The Militant Trail, on a visit to western Pakistan that took him to Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, and--under Taliban auspices--to the valley of Swat. The series provides a sobering look at a government counter-insurgency campaign that is going very, very badly. It should also provide considerable food for thought for American strategists expecting that skillful coordination of NATO, U.S., and Pakistani military action--and the occasional Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone--are going to deny the Pakistan hinterland to the Afghan Taliban.

Briefly, the Taliban heirs to the Pashtun Islamicist militants who did the Western dirty work against the Soviets have returned to the traditional safe havens of the Pakistani tribal belt, this time with the strategic guidance and assistance of al Qaeda. They have responded to military attacks on their strongholds in the tribal areas by dispersing and embedding themselves in the settled regions of the North West Frontier Province (one of Pakistan's four provinces, with responsibility for the largely autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA lining its western border) and infiltrating Peshawar.

The Pakistan Taliban has been strikingly successful in creating an identity for itself beyond a militarized jihadist force, establishing itself as the face of a conservative Islamic movement beyond the tribal areas and in the relatively developed non-urban areas of the NWFP, using its military muscle to promote sharia law, enforce puritanical social norms, advance Islamist ideas of equity and social justice, and even flirting with populism in attacks on the secularized Pakistani political and economic elite, their local adherents, the feudal lords or "khans", and the armed forces that seek to protect them.

Shahzad paints a grim image of Peshawar waiting for the axe--a high profile outrage in the city center--to fall. Hotels are deserted, the citizens apprehensive, and the military filled with empty bluster. Swat, a jewel-like valley filled with green meadows and crystalline lakes, has made an alarming swing from Pakistan's premier tourist destination to a Taliban stronghold.

At the heart of the problem appears to be a Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps counter-insurgency campaign remarkable for its ineffectiveness, demoralization, and dishonesty.

When it is, according to Shahzad, necessary to motivate government troops to do their bloody business against their fellow citizens by promoting the canard that the enemy--bearded Islamic fundamentalists intent upon instituting sharia law and energized by secularized Pakistan's kowtowing to the United States and the lack of progress on Kashmir--are proxies for India's intelligence agency (the Research and Analysis Wing or RAW), that's a sign of a military effort in deep trouble.

A concrete expression of the dire straits of the Pakistani campaign can be found in the question of how the Taliban obtains its arms.

Shahzad interviewed a Taliban spokesman in Swat:

ATol: That gun of your's, it's not locally made, and it is not the kind used by the Pakistan army. Where did you get it?

MK: These are the fruits of jihad, which are in the hands of the mujahideen today. This is manufactured in Austria. Those infidels gave them to our army to use against our mujahideen. There is a police station called Dewale in Swat. We snatch them from there from the Pakistani security forces. I am surprised when people ask us from where we get modern weaponry. These are the fruits of jihad. Whoever manufactured this and for whatever cause, now it is in our hands and for our cause.

Apart from this, our army used a spiritual guide [pir], a religious leader, to fight against us. We not only killed that pir, but recovered 20 best-quality light machine guns, besides 20 other guns that had been supplied to that pir by the Pakistan army. Now these guns are in our possession.

That reminded me of something I read in David Halberstam's book about the Korean War, The Coldest Winter (New York: Hyperion, 2007), describing the success of the Chinese Communists in the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek [pg. 235]:

[George Marshall] told [Wellington] Koo that Chiang "was the worst advised military commander in history." That did not stop Koo from asking for more weapons. "He is losing about 40 ercent of his supplies to the enemy," Marshall told Koo and added sardonically, "If the percentage should reach 50 percent he will have to decide whether it is wise to continue to supply his troops." Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao would later comment laconically, "was our supply officer." When Weifang and Jinan fell in 1948, David Barr, the last American senior military adviser to Chiang's army, added, "The Communists had more of our equipment than the Nationalists did."

Shahzad anticipates a major battle in Pakistan "before the annual spring offensive even begins in Afghanistan this year".

He writes:

I chatted with a senior al-Qaeda member who told me that the group considered NWFP and southwestern Balochistan province as already wiped off the map of Pakistani as they were now militant country. Although not entirely accurate, it portends a chilling turn in the "war on terror" in which Washington will be more concerned over the stability and security of Pakistan rather than that of Afghanistan.

As I wrote in New Hope for Pakistan?, I found some encouraging signs that the Obama administration is taking a second look at South Asia policy and perhaps pondering whether its short-term focus should shift from a dramatic, surge-powered turnaround in Afghanistan--an objective that is by no means guaranteed--to ensuring that Islamabad's forced participation in an unpopular, ineffectual, and highly destabilizing counter-insurgency campaign doesn't tear Pakistan apart.

Pakistan's President Zardari is clearly looking to decouple the challenge to government authority in FATA and the NWFP from the NATO and U.S.-led assault on the Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan and obtain enough political and military breathing space to re-establish a modus vivendi with the tribal leaders and Taliban in western Pakistan.

However, the disturbing message of Shahzad's report is that the time for a return to the status quo ante, or any other easy solution, may be long past. With the Taliban entrenched, emboldened, and determined to substitute its rule for the government writ that has traditionally run in Pashtun affairs, it will be very difficult for the United States and the central government of Pakistan--two disliked and discredited antagonists--to dislodge them.