Thursday, April 30, 2009

The ANP Struggles to Stay Ahead of the Taliban Parade in NWFP

The most interesting question in the North West Frontier Province mess is the stance of the Awami National Party (ANP), the secularist Pashtun party that triumphed over the Islamist parties in the 2008 provincial elections and formed the NWFP provincial government.

The ANP, which supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, was regarded as the bulwark of reason, the popular force that would turn the tide against the Taliban in NWFP.

The precise opposite seems to have happened. The ANP is literally on the run: its local officials, with a few brave exceptions, fled Swat for Peshawar; many of its provincial officials have left Peshawar for havens in Sindh, Punjab, and overseas.

And the ANP pushed for the Nizam-e Adl Regulation of 2009 (NAR), which authorized the implementation of sharia in the Swat valley.

Did the ANP champion the NAR in an attempt to get in front of the sharia parade and take credit for a regulation that could be spun as an affirmation of Pashtun cultural and political autonomy?

If so, the effort failed miserably. The implementation of the NAR is regarded, rightly so, as a capitulation to the demands of the Pakistan Taliban forces that dominate Swat (and forced out the ANP).

I’m willing to believe that the ANP is employing a rope-a-dope strategy: to lure the Pakistani Taliban groups away from the military battlefield onto the political battlefield, where the cosmopolitan, connected ANP expects to enjoy a decisive advantage.

The question is, who’s the dope?

Part of this strategy seems to be creeping acquiescence to the legitimization of elements of the Taliban as a conventional political pressure group, first in Swat and then perhaps in other areas of the NWFP and then the nation.

Divide-and-rule is, of course, the default solution for politics in the Pashtun zone. Western Pakistan is already fragmented into Islamicist parties like the JUI and JI, which habitually line up on different sides of the political fence (currently JUI+PPP vs. JI+PML-N) and one more Islamicist party would presumably be regarded as just another way to split the conservative vote opposing the ANP.

Political legitimacy is, I believe, the carrot that the ANP and its ally in Islamabad, the ruling PPP, is quietly offering militant groups in the Pakistan Taliban constellation, even as it noisily flails the stick of military operations if they insist on cleaving to an exclusively military track.

Hard to believe a Pakistan Taliban party could—or would—contest elections in the NWFP.


Given the debased nature of Pakistan politics, widespread national abhorrence of the Taliban would be no obstacle to the ANP, PPP, or PML-N welcoming a political Taliban into the big tent as a powerful electoral ally. It wouldn’t be the first time ambitious politicians at the center made a deal with the devil in order to grab power in Islamabad.

There are definite fracture points in the Pakistan Taliban, actually a coalition of diverse militant groups brought together under the Taliban aegis by the tactical and strategical advantages of a united front against the central government's attempts to pacify the Pashtun regions.

Nevertheless, it's not easy work for the ANP, dealing from a position of weakness with people and groups it probably detests--and which detest it. More disturbingly, it appears that the deals are designed primarily to bolster the tottering ANP and central government writ in the Pashtun areas--while knowingly freeing up Taliban assets to take the politically-popular fight to the West in Afghanistan.

So the ANP and its supporters domestically and internationally have adopted a rather testy "leave it to us we know best" attitude in response to Western criticism of a rather humiliating and ineffective campaign of appreasement with Islamicist militancy that may well hasten the day of reckoning for the entire U.S./NATO adventure in Afghanistan.

The first big test was the Swat Valley.

The leader of the Swat "Taliban" is actually an ex JI bigwig, Sufi Mohammed.

His organization, Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), has relatively remote ties to the Taliban. He apparently does not enjoy the confidence of the real Taliban because he's suspected of being an I.S.I. asset. Mullah Omar declined Sufi Mohammed's services when he rushed to the Afghan border in 2001 to provide hundreds of under-equipped and untrained youngsters as cannon fodder.

Conveniently, Sufi Mohammed was in prison for a few years while his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah ran the operation; this meant that the government had an established channel to TNSM--and the opportunity to make a political concession by releasing Sufi Mohammed to negotiate the Swat sharia/cease-fire deal.

In addition to being a relatively marginal figure inside the Taliban-led movement, Sufi Mohammed is a rather detestable old fossil, as this interview demonstrates convincingly.

Presumably, the ANP would welcome the opportunity to line up against this obscurantist cleric and his bully-boy son-in-law in an electoral fight, instead of trying to outgun them in a counterinsurgency operation.

But I'm not optimistic that bringing pseuodo-Taliban like Sufi Mohammed onto the Pakistani political scene is going to translate into anything except diminishing clout for moderate Islamic parties in general and the ANP in particular. Sufi Mohammed already appalled the ANP by refusing to disarm in the wake of the sharia deal--the one concession that would have been meaningful and useful to the ANP.

Hard-core Taliban are undoubtedly prepared to push into the political tent after Sufi Mohammed at the ANP's expense--and, like Sufi Mohammed, they are unlikely to surrender the weapons that are the real source of their political power.

For truly depressing reading, go to the comments in to read the bullying invective meant to expand the definition of political and moral acceptability to include the Taliban.

Taliban rhetoric, though coarse, repeated ad nauseum, and often EXPRESSED IN FULL CAPS, is effective.

It doesn’t merely play on widespread revulsion over U.S. drone attacks. It also makes use of the widely-reported willingness of the U.S. and NATO to negotiate the admission of the Taliban into the Kabul government. If it’s OK in Kabul, why not in Peshawar or Islamabad?*

Government military operations in west Pakistan are persuasively painted as immoral efforts to assist the United States effort to block the just and glorious reconquista of Afghanistan by the brave Taliban.

As the Taliban knows full well these operations are also the best conventional hope for pushing out the Taliban and allowing moderate government institutions dominated by the ANP to reassert themselves.

It’s easy to see the political problems that the drone attacks and the military operations create for the ANP—and why the ANP is anxious to distance itself from them and assert a more defiant Pashtun and Muslim identity in order to avoid being tainted as an American stooge...…and try to take credit for the Swat NAR deal.

Meanwhile, the ANP will do what it takes—including shifting toward the Taliban end of the spectrum as regards rhetoric, policies, and violence in order to support its claim to speak as the acknowledged and respected voice of Pashtun aspirations.

With the support of the ruling PPP party, the ANP refers to NWFP as "Pakhtunkhwa"--"Land of the Pashtuns"--in its party communications and the ANP now frames its struggle with militants as a battle for the "survival of the Pakhtun nation" in the face of local separatism, a somewhat contradictory stance since the ANP supports the current split of the homeland between two nations and the continued existence of its particular chunk inside the Pakistan federal system.

Standing up for the Pashtuns also means conspicuously standing up for the Pashtuns in Karachi, which has become the primary haven for Pashtun refugees fleeing Afghanistan, and Pashtun IDPs uprooted by the myriad security operations in FATA and NWFP.

One of the interesting and underreported aspects of Pakistan politics is the waves of bloody violence and rioting that periodically sweep Karachi.

One just happened this week. 35 people dead and the entire city paralyzed as emergency vehicles, Army Rangers, and police rushed through the streets trying to deal with shootings, torchings, and window-breaking all over town.

I guess nobody pays attention because it doesn’t fit into the dominant Islamabad vs. Taliban conceptual framing—and because it involves two of the ruling party’s major allies: the MQM and the ANP.

Many of these clashes reflect ethnic divisions between the dominant Urdu-speaking mohajirs and the largely-migrant, mostly-underclass Pashtun minority—a minority of four million in a city of 15 million.

Now these struggles have an unmistakable political component: the MQM champions the mohajirs and the ANP speaks up for the Pashtuns.

It used to be that the MQM was Pakistan’s acknowledged master of thug politics, ready to put well-armed punks on the street to kill and burn the enemies of the MQM and whatever national ally—Musharraf during the previous regime, the PPP today—required their services.

Now it looks like the ANP is trying to match them in Karachi, ratcheting up the rhetoric and calling a general strike on May 12, the second anniversary of a particularly bloody piece of MQM business: the attack, allegedly organized at President Musharraf’s behest, that killed 48 marchers in a peaceful demonstration in Karachi honoring deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudrhy in 2007.

We’ll see if the ANP can stay ahead of the Taliban and co-opt an increasingly militant political and religious trend in Pashtun opinion, and provide a credible alternative to Islamicist radicalism in western Pakistan.

In my opinion, this isn’t going to end well.

The ANP is going to get crushed between the millstones of the MQM—which hates it—and the Taliban—which recognizes it as a politically compromised, militarily weak, and supremely vulnerable rival.

*It’s worth pointing out that the meaningful negotiations are going on with non-Taliban elements of the Afghan insurgency—specifically Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other old-school fighters who predate the Taliban and trace their roots to the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s. This is a case in which sloppy international reporting redounds to the benefit of the Taliban, by implying that the West is ready to recognize its legitimacy inside Afghanistan.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Book Review: Sex and the Forbidden City…Not!

The title and cover of Sara Gilman’s China memoir promise a sexy romp through the Orient.

The dust jacket of “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven” is adorned with a picture of a foxy model gazing at the observer with cool calculation, seemingly naked, legs akimbo, her private bits covered up by a strategically-placed backpack.

This is a double bait and switch.

Not only is there virtually no sex in UMTH, the sex that occurs is miserable and embarrassing, and the only truly happy moment in the book is when Ms. Gilman decides not to soil a moment of transcendent joy by screwing a sleazy Australian sailor on the Great Wall.

The false promise of China sexy-time is rather ironic, given Ms. Gilman’s impeccable credentials as an avatar of chick-lit.

Ms. Gilman’s talents as a writer—and her wrenching honesty--are on full display in this noteworthy addition to the catalogue of “travel tales from hell”.

Ms. Gilman and a schoolmate at Brown University impulsively—i.e. with a minimum of forethought, planning, caution, or self-reflection and a superfluity of heedless optimism—decided to backpack through China in 1986.

Their visions of encountering wonderful people and wonderful experiences in wonderful places did not materialize.

Quite the contrary.

The misery and claustrophobia of her account is actually enhanced by her utter ignorance of the Chinese language, China itself, and the ways and means of navigating through the maddening Chinese travel and security bureaucracy of the 1980s.

UMTH does not trip down the well-worn path of snarky travelogue by the ignorant and condescending tourist because…

Beware mateys, here be spoilers

…because Ms. Gilman’s traveling companion, Claire, is nuts. Nuttier than the whole Blue Diamond almond operation. And not nuts in a giddy, Auntie Mame kind of way. Or nuts in a noble, pathetic manic/depressive kind of way.

Claire is apparently nuts in a nasty paranoid schizophrenic “everybody’s out to get me” kind of way.

That was definitely not the best mindset for a privileged Ivy League poppet to bring to the daunting task of improvising a way through the dirty, confusing, and profoundly alien world of the 1980s Chinese surveillance-state on a financial and emotional shoestring.

The Susan Jane Gilman of 1986, immature, emotionally brittle, and leaning heavily on Linda Goodman’s Love Signs for spiritual and practical guidance, was ill-equipped to diagnose, console, or care for the increasingly freaked-out Claire.

One of the ironies of the book, intended or unintended, is that Discerning Reader realizes long before UMTH’s narrator (Ms. Gilman in her clueless twenty-something persona) that Claire is going crazy.

Things do not end well. Claire flips out and Ms. Gilman (and the reader) are subjected to the emotionally grueling task of extracting Claire from China and delivering her to her family back in New York.

We don’t find out what happened to Claire (or who she is; her true name and identity are disguised in the book) but I think it’s safe to say that this train wreck of a vacation left some psychic scars on Susan Jane Gilman.

The book ends with Ms. Gilman’s trek to China twenty years later to get a hug and some closure from the proprietress of a Yangshuo flapjack house, who had extended a helping hand during some of the toughest moments.

I think it did Ms. Gilman good to write the book, and it will do fans of emotionally-harrowing rite-of-passage fiction good to read it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Backstory of Collaboration and Betrayal in Eileen Chang’s “Little Reunion"

I’ve got an article up at Asia Times Online entitled “Eileen Chang’s fractured legacy” under the pen name “Peter Lee”.

It’s about the posthumous publication in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the PRC of Chang’s autobiographical novel “Little Reunion”, and the attendant media circus.

Chang’s best work, apolitical and acutely observational, was done in the 1940s in Japan-occupied Shanghai. Uncomfortable with the leftist line in literature, she wisely left the mainland in 1952 for Hong Kong.

Even before she had left the mainland, she had been roughed up by leftists in the press for having unheroically published under the Japanese occupation. Excoriating Chang’s screenplay for a popular piece of fluff entitled Long Live My Wife, an irate patriot wrote of “the stench of High Comedy coming off a walking corpse of the puppet government.”

Chang toiled at the U.S. Information Agency in Hong Kong, and then—perhaps because her work at USIA and the production of a written-to-order anti-Communist novel entitled Love in Redland—she was able to emigrate to the United States.

C.T. Hsia, the most influential scholar of modern Chinese fiction, enthusiastically praised Chang’s work and her popularity in Taiwan among readers, writers, and students of literature exploded in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chang continued to write in the U.S., producing Chinese and English-language novels and stories, screenplays, and translations, but was unable to regain the acclaim—and sense of unalloyed exhilaration—that marked her emergence as perhaps China’s most gifted writer in the 1940s.

When she died in Los Angeles in 1995, alone and disappointed, Dominic Cheung of USC eulogized her in the New York Times as the writer who would have been the first Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, if not for the political division between the Nationalists and the Communists.

The PRC relaxed its restrictions on Chang’s work and her fame grew on the mainland. The army of “Eileen Chang fans” vastly increased in the hubbub surrounding the 2007 release of the Ang Lee film Lust, Caution, based on a short story that Chang wrote in the 1970s.

Both Lust, Caution and the recently-published “Little Reunion” have at their center a romance between a relatively na├»ve young woman and a Chinese man collaborating with the Japanese in the 1940s. The two works are autobiographical—Little Reunion is explicitly a roman a clef—taking their source material Chang’s disastrous marriage to Hu Lancheng, who was an up-and-comer in Wang Ching-wei’s puppet government.

Hu Lancheng was, in addition to being a hanjian, or traitor, quite a jerk. But no ordinary jerk. Brilliant, charismatic, and endowed with the skin of a rhinoceros when it came to shrugging off the savage attacks his amoral/immoral behavior attracted, Hu cast a long shadow over Eileen Chang and her work, and over the development of the literary scene in Taiwan.

Hu is a key factor both in the story and the drama that delayed its publication for 33 years. And that’s what I write about in Asia Times Online.

Ang Lee’s Eileen Chang obsession is a whole ‘nother story.

Lee insisted on absolute fidelity in the film’s depiction of Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. The Shanghai Film Studio obliged the world-famous cineaste by building a full-scale replica of Nanking West Road in 1942, down to the correct presentation of seasonal fruit in the costermonger’s stall, at its own expense.

Ang Lee also instructed the female lead, Tang Wei, to set aside her shaving razor for six months prior to filming so the notorious sex scenes would have the requisite period texture.

Not many people saw Love, Caution in the United States when it came out because Ang Lee delivered an NC-17 cut that American theaters chains refused to show.

It seems that Lee was oblivious to the film’s U.S. commercial prospects and regarded the U.S. NC-17 version primarily as the sole genuine record of his artistic vision, since he was prepared to make whatever cuts were necessary to get his film into Asian theaters.

The famous sex scenes were shot on a closed set in Hong Kong. How closed?

Only Lee, the cameraman, the camera assistant, the sound assistant, and the actors Tang Wei and Tony Leung were inside the room. Outside were the supervisor, the script holder, the sound recorder, and the first assistant director; they listened to the action on headphones. The rest of the soundstage was empty.

Ang Lee kept the cameras rolling for a mind-boggling 14 hours per day for 11 days—154 hours.

First AD Roseanna Ng wrote:

One could imagine the pressure on the director and the actors. Even Tony Leung, the seasoned actor who had been through it all, was close to collapse when he emerged from the small room eleven days later. (Lust, Caution: The Story, the Screenplay, and the Making of the Film, Pantheon Books, New York, 2007, pg. 257)

Whether Leung was overwhelmed by the naked emotional truths that he confronted during the marathon sessions, or simply profoundly creeped out by having to spend almost two weeks naked in a tiny room performing endless, minutely varied iterations of erotic choreography under the direction of an obsessive and introverted perfectionist is unknown.

Everybody connected with the scenes is sworn to secrecy, which of course gave birth to the scurrilous rumor that Leung and Tang had actually engaged in intercourse on the set.

Eileen Chang’s posthumous fortunes are in the capable hands of Roland Soong, the proprietor of the Asian affairs blog EastSouthWestNorth and the son and heir of Chang’s close friends and literary executors Stephen and Mae Soong. Eileen Chang fans in Asia can follow news and backstory on Little Reunion and plans for further publications on Mr. Soong’s Chinese-language blog.

Perhaps the best way for Western readers to discover Eileen Chang is through a collection of her most famous 1940s stories published by New York Review Books, entitled Love in a Fallen City.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sharia in Swat: A Big Gamble on a Big Deal?

Informed analysis of Pakistan has exploded in a whirlwind of conflicting narratives following the announcement of the deal on sharia law—the Nizam-e Adl Regulation or NAR-- in Swat and the apparent burgeoning of Taliban-centric religious extremism in western Pakistan.

The United States policy sphere reacted with a hysterical, “barbarians at the gate (or 100 miles from Islamabad)” reading that was widely resented and, I believe, can be properly discounted.

Juan Cole and the Pakistan government took a diametrically opposed tack, along the lines of “big country small problem” and positing that Pakistan is properly groping toward a political solution to a political issue.

The third group, into which I fall, apparently with a lot of Pakistanis from the educated-liberal quadrant, saw the sharia deal as a disastrous capitulation.

I also see the NAR as part of a big gamble—an attempt by Pakistan’s political/intelligence/military deep thinkers to orchestrate a grand bargain that will get the Taliban off their backs and back into Afghanistan.

It’s a gamble that I think will fail, in large part because U.S. and Pakistan definitions of what constitutes an acceptable outcome inside Afghanistan are fundamentally at odds.

I’ve read what a lot of serious people have written on the issue and I will now explain why I still think Pakistan’s ruling elite is going to get its ass handed to it by the Taliban.

First, I would suggest that everyone read Syed Saleem Shahzad’s interview at Asia Times Online with Owais Ahmed Ghani, the governor of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Shahzad appears to be one of the most important channels for both the Taliban and the Pakistani government to publicize their positions but he is no mere stenographer—his knowledgeable, pointed, and prolonged questioning of Ghani’s assertions concerning the situation in NWFP is exemplary and should be a model to all political and national security correspondents.

The NWFP is at the frontline of Pakistan’s confrontation with the Pakistani Taliban and the intelligent and energetic Ghani is the pointy end of the stick as far as Pakistan’s Taliban policy is concerned.

Ghani previously served as governor of Balochistan.

Balochistan, like NWFP, is a destitute and disgruntled frontier province and by all accounts Ghani did a good job of keeping the lid on the province with the carrots and stick approach. Ghani, in a way, is Pakistan’s best hope for managing the NWFP problem and it’s reassuring that Pakistan’s frequently dysfunctional political system has managed to put the right guy in the right job.

Trouble is, the scope of the challenge in NWFP is far greater than Balochistan’s.

Iran apparently kept its malicious meddling in Balochistan to a minimum, despite its detestation of Pakistan’s essential Sunni-ness, its casual trampling of the aspirations of pro-Iranian Balochs, and Islamabad’s support for violently anti-Shi’a elements—i.e. the Pashtun jihadniks, up to and including the Taliban—in Afghanistan.

NWFP—a different story. The mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a subsidiary of Taliban Inc., a flourishing enterprise that can devote significant financial and military resources to keeping its havens in FATA and NWFP secure.

Ghani describes what’s going on:

Last year we conducted, in September, an analysis that showed that about 15,000 militants in arms [in the Pakistani Tehrik-i-Taliban] on an average then, today it is more, were getting a 8,000 [US$100] to 10,000 rupees salary. Their rations were free. All their arms and ammunition were free. They were highly mobile with 4x4 off-roaders, diesel free, petrol free, everything was free. They had fantastic communication equipment, including satellite phones. So who was paying for them? We estimated that they were spending at least 20,000 rupees per person [per month]. A very conservative estimate, 20,000 times 15,000 men times 12 months equals a 3.6 billion rupees per annum budget.

We asked, "Where is this money coming from?" Pakistan has not given this money. no zakat [charity] or donation is going to raise that sort of money. Please tell us where this money is coming from. The route is Afghanistan. They, [US] talk about cross-border intrusions from Pakistan into Afghanistan. What about the reverse, which has been taking place for years, this ammunition, money, narco, everything is coming from Afghanistan.

From what I understand of the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ghani’s analysis of the Taliban’s strength inside NWFP is dead-on.

His interview is a lengthy exposition of his view that all of Pakistan’s problems come from the U.S. failures inside Afghanistan—which is true enough—though it conveniently ignores little details like the ISI funding the Taliban in their bid to take over the country in the 1990s:

So we are not responsible for Afghanistan. They are responsible - Afghanistan and those people in Afghanistan who accepted the responsibility for Afghanistan [coalition forces] are responsible for the mess and problems we are facing in Pakistan. I am very clear about it.

His views on Afghanistan—stated so publicly and categorically—must be causing Washington a great deal of heartburn as they obviously reflect the deeply-held convictions of Pakistan’s political and security jefes.

They could be summed up as “let Afghanistan go down the tubes”.

If a certain degree of normalcy returns to Afghanistan, normalcy according to Afghan standards, only then can the issues the tribal areas and our provinces and Pakistan face subside.

Ghani all but admits that the price of peace with the militants in Waziristan was letting them use the areas as havens while they mixed it up in Afghanistan. He justifies this hands-off attitude by claiming that the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan is profoundly destabilizing and keeps the local tribal elders from keeping a lid on things on Islamabad’s behalf.

Ghani makes the rather dubious claim that the Swat NAR was promulgated in response to long-standing local demands for sharia law, and not simply as capitulation to the militants.

But it is clear that Ghani is talking to an international audience about the way forward for Taliban, and the deal in Swat is important as a harbinger of his hopes for political negotiations with the militants on a broad range of issues, which will decouple Pakistan’s security concerns from the preoccupations of the United States:

I told the Americans, Petraeus and Boucher were sitting here. I asked, "Gentlemen, for seven years you have been fighting, what is your result?" We have been fighting. What is our result? So we have had to step back and review our strategy and we have come to the conclusion that we will proceed like this.

However, if you have differences with my strategy, then you had better have a better idea to put on the table. If you don't have a better idea, then don't tell me to go back to the old strategy because that patently did not work. Therefore, let me try this, if it does not work, we will come back and discuss it. I told them our strategy was working and we are moving forward.

The trouble is, I suspect, that generously giving the Taliban a free hand in Afghanistan in return for laying off Pakistan may have worked in 2005, but not 2009. With the Taliban more deeply entrenched in Pakistan’s west, the Taliban’s calculation of risks and opportunities may sway them toward a decision to go for wins in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Reading between the lines, Pakistan’s plans for a “politically negotiated” solution include the following ideas, expectations, and hopes:

First, the old-line mujihadeen (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, et. al.) who are fighting the U.S./NATO presence in Afghanistan and rely on secure bases in FATA, will finally, after years of wooing, enter the Afghan government.

Second, this drives a wedge between the Pakistan-based mujihadeen from the Afghanistan-based Taliban. Hekmatyar and Haqqani will, as a matter of self-interest, seek to weaken their political rivals, the Taliban, and deny them access to safe havens in Pakistan.

Third, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar, will keep his eyes on the prize—Kabul—and cut his ties to the Pakistan Taliban rather than attempt to take on Hekmatyar and Haqqani on their home turf. As long as Mullah Omar plays nice and doesn’t assist the Pakistan Taliban in destabilizing Pakistan, Islamabad keeps Hekmatyar on a tight leash and doesn’t allow him to use Pakistani money and arms to try to eliminate the Taliban.

Fourth, the isolated and weakened Pakistan Taliban can be contained and perhaps eliminated by a judicious combination of military confrontation, political incentives, and concerted efforts to strengthen the local, Islamabad-friendly Pashtun tribal elders.

Ghani worked the Afghan/Pakistan Taliban wedge assiduously in his interview with Shahzad:

They [the Afghan Taliban] say that it is a jihad for them and they call it a war of liberation against the foreign occupation army. Their focus is not Pakistan at all. Does it mean that we are supporting them? No, sir. It only means that their focus is Afghanistan and not Pakistan. I had only said that this Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan [TTP] has a strange approach on jihad in that their entire focus is Pakistan - they don't fire a single bullet on Afghanistan. As a Muslim, I cannot comprehend their [TTPs] concept of jihad.

There are a few problems with this fiendishly clever four-act scenario.

First of all, for it to work the U.S. has to give up on Afghanistan.

None of the mujihadeen are going to join the Kabul government unless U.S. and NATO forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan. I don’t see that happening. We probably wouldn’t see Hamid Karzai swinging from a lamppost (the fate of his Soviet-backed successor, Najibullah) but President Obama won’t want the signature foreign policy image of his first term to be Islamic fundamentalists dancing triumphantly on their tanks as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is proclaimed.

Therefore, the keystone of the Pakistani plan: a split between the mujihadeen and the Taliban, perhaps followed by that most gratifying of developments-- these violent antagonists annihilating each other in a catastrophic civil war in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan—is not likely to materialize.

Second, by now the Pakistan Taliban is perhaps too valuable a political and military asset for Mullah Omar to abandon.

Undoubtedly, Ghani has been reaching out to Mullah Omar and Mullah Omar has been making happy talk about how he has laser focus on Afghan jihad and has no plans to destabilize Pakistan. However, the old mujihadeen and the Taliban are oil and water in terms of their doctrine, political strategy, and closeness to Islamabad. If the unifying force of the U.S./NATO presence in Afghanistan ever evaporates, things are not going to end peacefully.

Mullah Omar undoubtedly realizes that the Pakistani government is poised to pour money and arms to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar should the old bandit decide to raise the banner of internecine Islamic warfare against him.

In such a showdown, the Pakistan Taliban might turn out to be a vital local proxy for the Afghan Taliban.

I would speculate that Mullah Omar is buying time with reassuring statements, while he and Pakistan Taliban jefe Baitullah Mehsud seed urban Pakistan with sleeper cells in preparation for a confrontation with the Pakistan government that he intends to fight on his own terms: not just in conventional skirmishes with Islamabad’s Pashtun proxies in the border regions, but with a bloody campaign of urban terror that will extend from Peshawar and the other towns of the NWFP to the great cities of Pakistan’s heartland—Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad.

So I would say that a season of hell for Pakistan is at least as likely as a decision by Mullah Omar to abandon the force securing his rear areas in Pakistan and stick to his Afghan knitting.

Despite his public protestations that the extremists only really care about jihad--and would lay off Pakistan if given a free hand to pursue their jihadi bliss in Afghanistan--I expect Ghani harbors no illusions about the Taliban's bloody-minded willingness to battle with their Islamic brothers inside Pakistan--as they have battled their Islamic buddies inside Afghanistan for almost two decades--to secure their political and military power.

The genuine threat of urban terror has been communicated unambiguously and persuasively to the powers that be in Islamabad.

For Juan Cole and proponents of the “nothing to see here school”, I would direct their attention to a) the bloody assault on the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad and b) the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott last July as signs that things can go very bad very quickly, even for a nation of 170 million confronting a small extremist movement.

Finally, if Mullah Omar doesn’t cut ties with the Pakistan Taliban, I’m not sure that Pakistan’s military and political elite has the capability to withstand the armed extremists that can rip the social fabric with terrorist bombings, encourage Pakistan’s vast numbers of disaffected and disappointed poor (Punjabi and Sindhi as well as Pashtun and Baloch) to attack the wealthy local elites that monopolize political power and economic opportunity, and split the nation’s religious community with calls to purify Islam by enforcement of conservative Deobandi norms.

Where does it all end?

It probably doesn’t end with bearded mullahs taking over the government and adding Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to the jihadi toolkit.

It might end with Pakistan’s cowed elite reeling from a campaign of internal terror and cutting off its support of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at the Taliban’s behest; recognition of the Taliban as the dominant power in Pakistan’s Pashtun areas; and the Taliban becoming a decisive political force in Pakistan’s national affairs—and the Taliban becoming masters of Afghanistan as well.

So, contra Mr. Ghani, I think his proposal to get the United States out of Afghanistan, turn over Afghanistan to the mujihadeen and hope that Hekmatyar will do Pakistan’s dirty work if and when necessary will leave Pakistan in even more dire straits than it is currently.

Because it might mean Pakistan facing the Taliban alone.

And I don't think Pakistan, divided, confused, conflicted, and demoralized behind the brave front of the world's fifth-largest army, can handle the Taliban by itself.

That makes Pakistan a weak and unconvincing deal-maker.

I guess we could consider the sharia agreement in Swat as a intended local prequel to a grand deal mediated by Pakistan with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the old-line mujihadeen.

And the Pakistan government is defending it so vociferously because, if the fragile Swat deal collapses, the Big Deal is D.O.A.

We’ll find out soon enough if the Swat deal was a victory for the Pakistan government, or a time-buying tactical win for a fundamentally hostile Taliban organization inside Pakistan.

My bet is that the Taliban won’t sink into their La-Z-Boys with a relaxed sigh now that a permanent modus vivendi has been reached with their friends in Islamabad; instead they will use whatever breathing spell they get to frantically prepare themselves for a final, two-front struggle with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Pakistani friends across both sides of the Durand Line as the Karzai regime staggers to its doom.

Trouble is, the alternative to Owais Ghani’s Machiavellian Hail Mary is a coordinated, costly, multi-year anti-Taliban policy undertaken by all the regional stakeholders from Washington to Tehran to Moscow to Beijing to Islamabad in an atmosphere of trust, courage, and commitment—qualities that are in short supply everywhere in the world, but particularly in the capital of the key player, Pakistan.

I am no fan of the U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

In my view, the U.S. failed disastrously by pursuing an externally-imposed military solution inside Afghanistan.

Perhaps, as the Pakistanis have been saying, it would have been better if we had gotten the hell out of Afghanistan shortly after our feel-good invasion, and let Pakistan arm Hekmatyar to the teeth to slug it out with the weakened Taliban for control of the country.

Instead, the U.S. tried to engineer a democratic triumph on the cheap with little success as the Taliban regrouped.

We kept our one-time and potential allies, the old-line mujihadeen on the sidelines (actually, they were fighting us!) while the Taliban grew much stronger.

Then, the U.S. responded to the Taliban surge into western Pakistan with disastrously counterproductive military operations (including the notorious drone attacks which, by the way, I think will be revealed to be conducted by the U.S. in consultation with Pakistan’s I.S.I. as part of a clumsy good cop/bad cop dialogue with various favored and disfavored factions in the Pashtun resistance and not some piece of hyper-aggressive U.S. unilateralism) and infantile political gamesmanship with the Musharraf and Zardari governments.

Now, if we let Afghanistan go down the tubes, as the deep thinkers in Pakistan are proposing, there’s no assurance that the Taliban can be rolled back in Pakistan.

Perhaps this problem has become too big for the United States and Pakistan to solve on their own. And, since Washington and Islamabad apparently disagree on the definition of the problem, let alone the outlines of a solution, it looks like nothing but years of bloody muddle lie ahead.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Should the Taliban be Reclassified as a Criminal Threat?

In commemoration of Earth Day, and in response to a post by Laura Rozen on a book by Gretchen Peters, Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda, which posits that the fight against the Taleban would be best framed as an anti-criminal—instead of anti-terrorist—effort, I am recycling one of my pieces from February, The Other Side of the COIN: Is America Taking on the Neo-Taliban and Missing the Point?

I hope you read the whole thing because I think it amuses and instructs. For those with less time on their hands, the basic thesis is:

And [the Taleban is] 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.

For good measure, I proposed that the fight be refocused against the Taleban’s economic base in the opium heartland near Iran, instead of mounting a frontal assault on its mountain fortress at border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ah, that clever China Hand!

Well, if expressing profound and important memes in a timely, succinct, and entertaining fashion were all it took to rule the world, you would all be living in the benevolent kingdom of China Matters.

What merits pointing out is that, once criminal gangs with firepower, fighters, and drug revenues entrench themselves in an area, they are very difficult to uproot.

Case in point: the Mafia of Naples and Sicily.

It is rather sobering to think that, giving the Treaty of Westphalia rationales that the neo-cons spouted in the golden days of pre-emption, the demesne of our good buddy and anti-terror hardhead, Silvio Berlusconi, could be invaded on the grounds that his government has ceded effective sovereignty over the southern portions of his realm to the forces of lawlessness.

Going after a powerful, well-heeled, and well-armed transnational gang—be it Mafia or Taleban—is going to take some serious multi-national enforcement by Afghanistan's neighbors.

That means Iran, Russia, and, of course, Pakistan.

I took some heat for my most recent post, Pakistan Surrenders to the Taliban in Swat , for seeming to blame Pakistan for the Taliban problems instead of engaging in the requisite finger-pointing at the U.S.

I’ve argued consistently that the United States, under both Bush and Obama, have missed the point.

Instead of single-mindedly pouring in troops and money to beat up on the Taleban militarily in Afghanistan, we should have been doing everything in our power to strengthen Pakistan politically and economically—because the Taleban would without question exploit Pakistan as the weak link in the campaign to encircle it.

The United States made fatal errors in Pakistan, both by relying on showy drone attacks that create corpses and defiance in equal proportion, and by encouraging political games by Asif Zardari that crippled the nascent democratic unity of Pakistan’s civil society.

Zardari’s latest gift to Pakistan was to turn the regulation on implementing shariah law in Swat, the Nizam-e Adl Regulation, into a shared ceremony of national humiliation.

Instead of promulgating it as president and taking the heat himself, he tabled it in parliament so all the democratic parties—with the exception of the MQM—would vote to endorse it and advertise their utter cravenness to the United States (which is apparently eyeing Nawaz Sharif as its expected future interlocutor).

In the process, the weakness and rot of the ruling elite was put on display for the people of Pakistan and the Taliban to see.

I don’t have a problem with Islam, Islamic states, or accommodation with conservative religious pressure groups per se.

I do, however, have a problem with states that commit political suicide and sacrifice the aspirations of their citizens for peace and prosperity because fear, suspicion, and opportunism put unity and even simple honesty beyond their reach.

Given the brief history of Pakistan’s current fling with democracy, the deep divisions that murderous competition has driven both between individuals and parties, and the equivocal history of the most important political leaders, it is perhaps asking too much for everybody to put their shoulder to the wheel and figure out how to bring justice and security to the country—or at least debate the role of Islam and the Taliban in Pakistani governance in a serious manner.

But to accept in arrangement in which everybody hides behind “we’re all Muslims” happy talk and says, in effect, we’ll have no problems with the Taliban if the U.S. just stops those cursed drone attacks, is definitely asking too little.

The surrender on Swat doesn’t look like a reasoned effort to deal with issues of social, economic, and religious justice. It looks like an abject capitulation by an elite unwilling and unable to address those issues.

That’s a dangerous message to send not only to extremists and their sympathizers. It’s a message that radicalizes the poor, disillusions moderates, and demoralizes institutions at the local and national level.

That kind of disarray, when facing a resurgent Taliban that has the wind at its back and unity and determination on its side, is a recipe for disaster.

If the odious Zardari could be cast aside and the PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Gilani of the PPP formed a national unity government that enjoyed the continued support of the army, perhaps Pakistan in its present form can muddle through.

But for now it looks like Pakistan’s bosses are more interested in saving themselves than saving their country.

The original post follows below.

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, April 17, 2009

Pakistan Surrenders in Swat...

...and the MQM Draws the Line in Karachi

Pakistan’s divided democracy, representing 170 million people, seems incapable of dealing with the collection of obscurantist theocrats and well-armed bumpkin bullies who make up the Pakistani Taliban.

On April 13 . Pakistan’s national assembly voted to ratify “Nizam-e Adl Regulation of 2009”, or NAR: the imposition of shariah law on the valley of Swat in the North West Frontier Province.

The vote itself was a typical piece of spite and short-sighted opportunism by Pakistan’s president Asif Zardari.

Smarting from his humiliation at the hands of the lawyer’s movement and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, Zardari had the regulation tabled as a bill at the National Assembly instead of simply promulgating it himself as president.

His motives: to share the blame for the capitulation with the ANP (the Awami National Party, the NWFP’s embattled ruling party) and the other democratic parties, and demonstrate to the United States that the PML-N was unable and unwilling to assume leadership of Pakistan’s anti-Taliban struggle.

Indeed, the PML-N squirmed with embarrassment as it endorsed the ruinous legislation, which was pushed through in less than an hour with no serious debate.

And the sordid political accommodation with the Pakistani Taliban was transformed into an episode of shared national humiliation.

The Awami National Party—which had been touted in the United States as the moderate Pashtun good guys who would swing the NWFP away from extremism—had begged Zardari for the deal in a desperate bid to stabilize the province, and was forced to defend it.

Only one party stood against the deal: the thuggish masters of Karachi, the MQM.

The Taliban had openly threatened retaliation against any MNA (member of the National Assembly) who voted against the deal.

Only a handful of representatives acquitted themselves with honor, including a lone MNA of the PML-N, Ayaz Amir.

This exhibition of mass cowardice does not bode well for the impending bloody struggle to contain and roll back the Pakistani Taliban.

Rauf Klasra’s report in Pakistan’s secularist/liberal The News is worth quoting at length.

"Ayaz Amir, a liberal intellectual and columnist, was the only parliamentarian to shout, “This agreement was signed under the shadow of guns and most importantly the guns of Taliban had turned out to be more powerful than the guns of our Pakistan Army.”

It was crystal clear that the serious threats of Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan, carried by all the morning newspapers on their front pages, were very much on the minds of all the scared looking parliamentarians. So except for those in favour of the deal, no one from the Punjab [PML-N stronghold] or Sindh [PPP stronghold] spoke out.

None of them asked any tough questions from a visibly browbeaten Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who too was seen content with the fast falling writ of the state and his government, as many believed that a new state within the state had been created.

The desperate pleas of a genuinely worried Ayaz were, however, of no use, as his parliamentary leader Nisar Ali Khan had already given up in the face of mounting pressure from the supporters of the deal with the Taliban in the Parliament.

The MNA from Chakwal, an obvious target for Taliban where they carried out a suicide bombing recently, wondered how Muslims which could not agree on a definition of Shariah in 1400 years, would now achieve this goal in Swat. Ironically Ayaz even paid rich tributes to MQM leader Farooq Sattar for what he believed was a wonderful speech against the deal in Swat."

Klasra’s account documents the demoralization of Pakistan’s secular political elite:

"Only two sane voices were heard in the house of 342. But the most shocking part of these proceedings was that not a single woman parliamentarian stood up to protest the sweeping laws which would greatly affect the women of Swat.

It was being widely expected that some protest by the women parliamentarians would be registered and the most relevant question from PM Gilani about how the rights of women would be protected in Swat Valley, would be asked. But it was not.

Just two weeks ago, a horrible video had shocked the whole world when a poor girl of 17 years was flogged. None of the 80 female MPs representing different political parties raised the issue, as if they had not seen the video. Liberal PPP MNAs Sherry Rehman and Fauzia Wahab, who had been championing the cause of human and women rights during the long 12 years of opposition, were also found avoiding eye contact with anyone who may ask them why they were tightlipped."

Clearly, the jubilation of Pakistan’s elite on the victory over the justly-despised Zardari on the issue of the independence of the judiciary and the restoration of the Supreme Court has been erased, almost immediately, by fear of the growing Taliban presence inside Pakistan.

"All the women, mostly belonging to the elite class of the country sitting in the Parliament conveniently preferred to stay quiet as they did not heed to the warning of MQM leader Farooq Sattar who said a day would soon come when the Taliban would issue a fatwa against the presence of women parliamentarians in the house as, according to them, it was also against their Shariah."

The decision appalled the United States and the entire region.

Hamid Karzai’s beleaguered government in Afghanistan saw the Taliban, instead of being confronted in their safe haven of western Pakistan, becoming further entrenched. It issued a statement:

"We do not interfere in Pakistan's internal affairs," President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Homayun Hamidzada, told reporters in response to a question about the deal.

However there were concerns that "dealing with terrorists and handing over parts of one country to terrorists could have dire consequences in the long term", he said.

Hamidzada added that "since any deal with terrorist groups can affect our people and our country's security, we request Pakistan, before any such deals, take into consideration its negative impacts on relations between the two countries".

Just to make sure that there was no misunderstanding and the humiliation and degradation of the ANP was complete, the Taleban then reneged on the disarmament agreement that was meant to provide window-dressing for the deal.

And the ANP went along, according to the Hindustan Times:

"Within a day of the accord being announced, Khan said, contrary to what was agreed, that the Taliban in Swat would not surrender their weapons on the grounds that Islam permitted the carrying of weapons. The Awami National Party (ANP) spokesman explained that what Khan meant was that “personal weapons” would not be surrendered. Earlier, Khan had made the Taliban forsaking weapons conditional on “the enforcement of Sharia on the ground by the government” when no such condition was included in the infamous agreement with the ANP."

Indeed, the ANP seems to have given up on the moderate Islam effort entirely:

"NWFP Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti – who represents the liberal Awami National Party – appeared enraged at criticism coming from within the country and from European and the US governments. “This is our problem,” he said. “Islam is our religion and we are Muslims,” … He also ruled out the possibility of action against the Taliban for destroying state property, including girls’ schools, saying it would be against local traditions."

And, when you think things couldn’t get any worse, they do!

"Talking to TOI [Times of India] from an undisclosed location, Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan echoed Sufi Muhammad’s call for implementation of sharia across Pakistan. ‘‘Our demand for Sharia wasn’t Swat-specific. We’ll continue our struggle for implementation of sharia outside the Pashto-speaking areas,’’ he said. Khan said Taliban would ‘‘make Swat a model of good governance and soon people in other areas will also demand the same set-up’’. He said Swat people had sacrificed for the sharia cause. ‘‘People who opposed sharia were neither sincere to Islam nor the nation.’’ "

The high-profile exercise in appeasement (or intimidation) in Swat was followed by another, less publicized, but even more blatant accommodation: the release of Maulana Abdul Aziz on bail.

Aziz was arrested in the aftermath of an incident that, in retrospect, may have marked the high-water mark of Pakistan’s effort to genuinely confront Islamicist fundamentalism—the bloody assault of the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad ordered by Pervez Musharraf in July 2007.

In an eerie and disturbing piece of foreshadowing Aziz, the leader of the mosque, had challenged government writ in Islamabad by presuming to interpret and enforce sharia law backed by vigilante raids in the capital from his large and centrally-located mosque.

Perhaps 1000 died in the operation, which provided heartland Punjabi extremists (as opposed to Pashtun fundamentalists in the remote western lands) with a powerful sense of grievance and rallying cry. Aziz was famously captured trying to flee the mosque dressed in a burkha together with a group of women and children.

Certainly, the circumstances surrounding Aziz’s release do not inspire confidence that the Zardari government is managing the extremist threat with some masterful combination of concession and coercion:

As Iran’s state media reported with open alarm and distaste:

"The former chief cleric of Islamabad's Red Mosque, addressing a crowd of nearly 1,000, vowed to continue his struggle to enforce Taliban style law throughout the country.

"The sacrifices given by the people in the Red Mosque and its female students will not go in vain. Islamic system will be enforced in the country," the cleric told a cheering crowd. "

Both the Zardari government and the PML-N attempted to distract attention from the problem they had delivered to Islamabad’s doorstep with the Swat agreement by criticizing that convenient, destabilizing bugbear—the United States.

For good measure, a government minister invoked the Indian menace and threatened to play the China card (which, I expect, has Beijing cringing with disapproval):

"The government should not help NATO and the US against the Taliban, as both parties are open enemies of the country, Federal Science and Technology Minister Azam Khan Swati said on Tuesday. Addressing workers of the Federal of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) zonal office, he said: “They are not our friends and wanted to make India the leading power of the region.” It is the duty of the President and prime minister to resist efforts to help them at all costs, he added. He said the US might go after Pakistan’s missile and nuclear technology, as it had been unwilling to give any leeway to Iran’s “peaceful use” of atomic technology. He said his ministry would focus on technology imported from China to deal with every situation." [emph. added]

Perhaps Asif Zardari’s response to his cratering political fortunes and the United States’ rumored intense interest in buddying up with Nawaz Sharif will be to climb in bed with the hypernationalists and maybe even the Islamicists. It is likely that, as before, his crude efforts to strengthen his position will fail and, as usual, the national unity and Pakistan’s democracy will suffer as a result.

If anybody is going to stand up to the Pakistani Taliban, it’s probably not going to be the cupcakes of the PPP and the PML-N, who have cynically accommodated and exploited the powerful religious and social forces inside Pakistan to preserve their wealth and power and in the process created political movements whose cadres are addicted to money and influence and whose rank-and-file is good for little more than the tire-burning raree-cum-riots that characterize Pakistani street-level politics.

It looks like it’s going to up to the MQM, the political/criminal combine that rules Pakistan's greatest city, Karachi.

The MQM or Mutehida Qaumi Movement is a party whose political base is the mohajirs--descendants of Urdu-speaking refugees from India who fled to Karachi at partition in 1948. It was founded in 1984 by Altaf Hussain, an ex-Chicago cab driver and student organizer with the stated purpose of protecting mohajirs against discrimination and reputedly enjoyed the sponsorship of Pakistan’s president at the time, Zia ul-Haq.

The MQM is socialist in orientation, Leninist in organization, and is not averse to maintaining and expanding its influence through the use of political violence. A definitely unfriendly but apparently rather accurate account of the MQM’s rise by a Karachi blogger states:

"This later on with army backing led to a network of professional militant bands with a hand in the drug trade of Karachi, composed of 5,000-6,000 hit men and notorious criminals. Carjacking, land grabbing, extortion, kidnapping, drug running, illegal construction made them unbelievable sums of money which gave them remarkable gains in successive elections. Altaf also opened up a number of torture cells around the city for those hard cases(reporters, human rights activists, doctors, police officials, etc.) who refused to toe his line. Besides the professional criminals and terrorists, the MQM also trained a whole generation of street gangs in the ABC’s of street thuggery, and used them to ensure that the people in the MQM ‘areas’ toed the party line."

Hussain fled Pakistan for England to escape a bloody campaign by the Pakistan government under Nawaz Sharif in 1991-2 that claimed the lives of several of his relatives. His decision was apparently a wise one, given the brutal character of the crackdown, as the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services reported in 2004:

"Pakistani forces resorted to staged “encounter killings” in which they would shoot MQM activists and then allege that the killings took place during encounters with militants (U.S. DOS Feb 1996)."

Perhaps because of the dirty war angle in the Pakistan government’s campaign against the MQM, Altaf Hussain obtained asylum as a political refugee and, in 1999, British citizenship.

Atlaf Hussain (whose name now carries the honorific Bhai) runs his operation by phone from London now and by all accounts keeps a tight grip on affairs.

A December 2006 report on the murder of Athar Usmani, the central secretary general of the MQM-Haqiqi, the dissident faction of the MQM reputedly backed by Nawaz Sharif’s government in the 1990s, gives a flavor of how things still run in Karachi:

"During his last interview with Gulf News in Lahore, Usmani had stated that the Altaf group had murdered 98 workers of the Haqiqi group in Karachi alone since 2003. The family members of none of the deceased were allowed to lodge a police complaint.

While making public a letter written to newspaper editors by Afaq Ahmad, the chief of the MQM-Haqiqi who is behind the bars since 2003, Usmani had said his party's chairman has survived two attempts on his life in Karachi's central jail during the last six months.

In the first attempt, his food was poisoned while in the second one, the rivals tried using a poisonous injection to get rid of him, said Usmani, who was released in December 2005 from a Karachi jail after a three-year detention."

The MQM delivers Karachi and muscle to whatever party is in power; it allied with Musharraf, then Zardari, and has allegedly killed activists in the PPP, the PML-N, and the lawyer’s movement as need and circumstances permit.

The MQM has one political base—Karachi—and is committed to defending its position there with the threat of force. That includes trampling on the aspirations of Karachi’s large Pashtun population.

It’s worth noting that there are an estimated 4 million Pashtuns in Karachi—more than in Kabul, Peshawar, or Qetta--many of them displaced by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan or government military operations in the Northwest.

MQM’s clash with the Pashtuns in Karachi predates the Taliban era, dating back to riots in 1984, and has deep socio-economic and political roots.

The recent appearance of genuine Taliban elements in Karachi has given a new justification and urgency to the MQM’s campaign against the Pashtuns in Karachi.

As the invaluable Syed Saleem Shahzad reports in Asia Times, Karachi—and the MQM—are in the Taliban’s cross-hairs as it seeks to extend its reach beyond the Pashtun-dominated FATA and NWFP into the urbanized heartland of Pakistan.

"With the "truce" with the security forces having been broken, Mehsud and his allied groups now want to strike back, starting by creating chaos in Karachi. They have chosen the city for two reasons:

· It has the largest concentration of the Mehsud tribe after South Waziristan.
· It has a non-Pashtun majority, making it ripe for ethnic violence with the second-largest community, the Pashtuns.

In this battle, Asia Times Online has learned, the militants are searching for ways to unnerve their enemies in top positions, including high-profile kidnappings in the country's largest city and financial center.

The battles of the tribal areas have now unmistakably moved to the urban centers."

It’s not a question of will the MQM fight when the Taliban get to Karachi.

The Taliban are already there, and the battle has been joined.

Again, from Saleem Shahzad, describing how the “truce” between the Taliban and government forces in Karachi was broken:

"Senior investigators have told Asia Times Online that the situation in Karachi is very delicate and law-enforcement agencies had decided to avoid any direct clashes with militants. That is, there was a tacit agreement that the militants could use Karachi to raise funds and for other logistic purposes, and the security agencies would not carry out any operations against their sanctuaries.

Most of the fund-raising was to provide support for the Taliban in Afghanistan - a source of anger for the US. This concern was translated to a Karachi-based political party, the Muttehida Quami Movement (MQM), which recently began a campaign against the Taliban in the city.

This included an incident in which the MQM blew the whistle on a kidnapping operation in Karachi by the Mehsud tribe in which several police officers were injured. This forced the police to take action, leading to several arrests, including the high-profile one announced on Monday. "

Given the U.S. anger at the use of Karachi as a base for funding the anti-U.S./NATO battle in Afghanistan—and the possibility that Washington will force Pakistan’s flabby democratic parties to get serious about the penetration of the Taliban into urban centers--the MQM seems to be ready to make a calculated gamble by escalating the conflict with the Taliban in Karachi.

With full respect for the MQM’s murderous valor and its fierce determination to maintain control of Karachi, it is possible to speculate that this isolated party’s bravado also reflects a measure of sub rosa support from the United States.

The United States is poised to make a deal with an anti-U.S. anti-Taleban devil in Afghanistan—Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Foggy Bottom and Langley are exploring the possibility that it might take an alliance with a borderline-criminal bunch in Karachi—instead of single-minded support for a democrat but perhaps terminally feckless government in Islamabad—to open the effective second front against the Taliban that the U.S. has been craving since 2002.

During the Bush administration, the MQM leadership was already meeting with Ambassador Anne Patterson to anxiously deplore the “Talibanization” of Pakistan.

In December 2008, Richard Boucher had a publicized meeting with Altaf Hussein in London to discuss Pakistan’s problems—and probably to agonize over the importance of protecting the supply lines for the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan that stretch from Karachi up to the Khyber pass.

Despite the MQM’s vociferous condemnation of the Swat deal, the aftermath of the NAR vote has exposed divisions between Pakistan’s democratic parties and the MQM that the Taliban must find extremely gratifying.

The PML-N, and the ANP have been forced into the awkward position of defending the Swat shariah legislation, mainly by ad hominem attacks on the hypocrisy of the bloody-minded MQM—and an apparently dishonest (and hypocritical) discounting of Karachi’s significant stake in the struggle.

The MQM has responded with attacks of its own on the PML-N and ANP. Presumably because the MQM is still in alliance with the Zardari government in the National Assembly, it has refrained from attacks on the PPP—it only noted with disapproval that the NAR was tabled without consulting the MQM.

The hostility between the MQM and the PML-N is a byword, given the ferocious attempts to destroy the movement during Nawaz Sharif's first prime-ministership. There is also a great deal of bad blood between the ANP and the MQM, as the ANP’s championing of the growing Pashtun population of Karachi represents a threat to the MQM’s pre-eminence.

The ANP’s Minister of Information dumped on the MQM—referring to its skill set, he not inaccurately stated that “killings and torture is the raisin d’etre of the MQM, which was created and nourished by military dictators”--in a telephoned tirade to The News:

"“ The MQM stance on the Regulation was not much astonishing for us because it has a long history of brutalities against Pakhtuns in the port city. Instead of seeing nightmares about the entrance of Taliban into Karachi, the MQM chief should immediately stage a comeback to Pakistan and face the ground realities,” NWFP Senior Minister Bashir Bilour said while talking to The News by phone."

Contra Mr. Bashir Bilour, it is likely that the “ground realities” in Pakistan will indeed involve some galvanizing, bloody outrage in Karachi, given the MQM’s patent desire to force a confrontation now, before the situation deteriorates even more.

The MQM has repeatedly stated it will not permit the “Talibanization” of Karachi and there is every sign that they should be taken at their word. And they might do rather well, in an communal violence/death squad/ethnic-cleansing sort of way, even if they don’t get effective government backing.

The MQM is mobilizing its local, national, and international assets to confront the Taliban as Nisar Mehdi reported in Pakistan’s The Nation on April 11:

"In a meeting of the party’s unit offices held here Friday, MQM office bearers pointed out that Taliban had found safe havens in Aurangabad, Paposh (Nazimabad), Gulzar Hijri, Baldia Town, Bahadurabad and others areas of the city. They urged the party workers to remain alert especially during the current month.

In the meeting, it was decided to form vigilance committees at union council level and establish foolproof surveillance system to address the menace of extremism and cope with terrorist activities in Karachi.

Meanwhile, it was also learnt that members of MQM Rabita Committee, including Dr Farooq Sattar, Shakeel Umar, Naik Mohammad, Anees Ahmed Kaimkhani and Waseem Aftab would leave the country today (Saturday) to attend an important party meeting in London.

According to sources, growing extremism, presence of Taliban in Karachi and re-organisation of the MQM in Punjab, Balochistan and other areas of the country will be discussed in this meeting of Rabita Committee to be held under the chair of party chief Altaf Hussain.

Meanwhile, Altaf Hussain has directed the Rabita Committee members and other party office bearers to remain alert to thwart any terrorist incident in the city.

Addressing a gathering of the MQM office bearers at Khursheed Memorial Hall, Altaf Hussain said the country was in a state of war due to terrorism and extremism and therefore it was imperative for all party workers to remain vigilant and united. He added that Taliban pose an existential threat to the solidarity and integrity of the country.

“Terrorism has become a cancer and therefore, it is the duty of each and every party, including the MQM, to come forward to save the country."

Clearly, the MQM’s anti-Taliban doctrine will be the driving force in its politics in the near future—and an important touchstone for determining which party’s aspirations for the prime ministership it will support.

The question is, will Pakistani democracy survive long enough for the transfer of power to the PML-N that now seems well within Nawaz Sharif’s grasp.

Democratic Pakistan is in poor shape to confront a violent insurgency ready to engage in a campaign of urban violence. The violent antipathy between prime-minister-in-waiting Nawaz Sharif and the MQM--which will be in the vanguard of any confrontation with the Taliban in Pakistan’s urban heartland--doesn’t help,

It may be democratic Pakistan’s fatal flaw that its survival depends on the cooperation of the two parties least likely to work together.

The brave PML-N MNA, Ayaz Amir, wrote an op-ed in the Khaleej Times.

"These are depressing times for Pakistan mainly because while our troubles are many, and our challenges daunting, there is no sense of direction and very little by way of reassuring leadership. Before the ‘long march’ things were easy in that everything could be blamed on Zardari. Now it’s not so easy.

Does the PML-N have any policy regarding what once-upon-a-time was the ‘war on terror’ and now God alone knows is what? The nation is dying for a lead, a clarion call to arms.

Coming to power is not the problem. The PML-N is already in power in Punjab, and will make it to power at the centre when the opportunity comes. But will it be able to deliver? Can it give the lead the nation wants and the people of Pakistan deserve? That is the question. Nawaz Sharif has been prime minister of Pakistan twice before. He will have to be a better prime minister of Pakistan next time round if Pakistan is to get out of the woods and surmount the terrifying challenges it currently faces."

Amir recounted the gist of a conciliatory phone call he received from MQM jefe Altaf Hussain in London and struggled with his sense of ambivalence (and his awareness of the MQM's well-documented history of violence against politicians and journalists):

"There would be no soul so foolhardy as to speak against Fazlullah in Swat. It takes a brave soul to speak against Altaf Bhai in Karachi.

Altaf Bhai called me from London the other day and said that in order to save Pakistan we must all join hands and forgive and forget. No one can disagree with his sentiments but if anyone could ask him to consider that if the media in Karachi live in fear of the MQM and if MQM supporters get touchy even at the faintest hint of criticism, then what, in real terms, is the difference between the politics of Karachi and Swat? A harsh comparison no doubt but one I hope, in the new spirit of democracy he appears to be advocating, he will forgive me for making."

With Pakistan’s elite, both in government and in the army, compromised and divided by its equivocal attitude toward Islamic fundamentalism, and the potential for the Taliban to exploit a clumsy and incompetent counter-insurgency executed by a pandering elite by tapping into the alienation and anger that smolders among Pakistan’s poor, Pakistan’s young, corrupt, and narrow brand of democracy may not get the breathing space it needs to emerge as a genuine and effective national force.

If the democratic parties are unable to meet the challenge, the likely alternative is not necessarily Islamicization—it is a return to military rule.

Once again, Ayaz Amir:

"…realistically speaking, Pakistan has all the democracy that it can safely handle. Democracy therefore is no longer the problem. Our national debate must move on and focus on the battle for national survival which is staring us in the face."