Tag: Pakistan

Leaving Afghanistan?

On Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Kabul, stated that the United States “will be well-positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July.”  But as Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reports, the planned reductions likely wouldn’t lead to a major change in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Indeed, even as Gates is stating that the United States will adhere to its date to begin withdrawing troops, negotiations are in the works that could establish a long-term security presence for the U.S. beyond 2014 and might include permanent military bases.

Secretary Gates and General Petraeus both claim progress in Afghanistan.  But their concepts of progress are murky and exist within a strategy that has never had clearly defined objectives.

Today, I attended a discussion on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan hosted by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.  The other attendees included journalists, think tankers, and government professionals—former and current.  On The Skeptics blog, I outlined some of the important points of discussion that I think help explain our broader problems in the region.

I would characterize the general mood as grim. A few attendees pointed to the killing of a number of Taliban figures in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and reports of progress in Marja and the rest of Helmand province as evidence of progress. These gains, one speaker maintained, were sustainable and would not necessarily slip in the event that U.S. forces are directed elsewhere.

(Giles) Dorronsoro (visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment), disputed these assertions. He judged that the situation today is worse than it was a year ago, before the surge of 30,000 additional troops. The killing of individual Taliban leaders, or foot-soldiers, was also accompanied by the inadvertent killing of innocent bystanders, including most recently nine children. So there is always the danger that even targeted strikes based on timely, credible intelligence, will over the long term replace one dead Talib with two or four or eight of his sons, brothers, cousins, and tribesman. How many people have said “We can’t kill our way to victory”?

For Dorronsoro, the crucial metric is security, not number of bad guys and suspected bad guys killed. And, given that he can’t drive to places that he freely visited two or three years ago, he judges that security in the country has gotten worse, not better. Many U.S. and Western troops cannot leave their bases without encountering IEDs or more coordinated attacks from insurgents. U.S. and NATO forces don’t control territory, and there is little reason to think that they can. Effective counterinsurgencies (COIN) are waged by a credible local partner, a government that commands the respect and authority of its citizens. That obviously doesn’t exist in Afghanistan. The Afghan militia, supposedly the key to long-term success, is completely ineffective.

Click here to read the entire post.

Obama’s Afghanistan War Plan

President Obama released his Afghanistan war review today. It highlights progress on the battlefield against insurgents, the success of Special Forces operations and drone strikes, and achievements in training the Afghan security forces.

I have four thoughts on the matter:

First, scattered throughout the document are passages such as “al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker,” “[a]l-Qa’ida’s senior leadership has been depleted,” and “al-Qa’ida’s leadership cadre have diminished.” However, can we deter more jihadists than our efforts help to inspire? After all, “fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad and his incompetently constructed bomb in Times Square. “Fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter failed British “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid. “Fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber,” who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

Second, although there is a persuasive case to be made that the United States should disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration never clarifies explicitly how it will encourage Pakistan to do more to fight militants that frequently attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The review claims “improved understanding of Pakistan’s strategic priorities,” but policy considerations seem to fail to take into account that no amount of pressure or persuasion will affect Pakistan’s decision to tackle extremism, particularly when its strategic priorities are tied directly to reinforcing Islamist bonds across its borders as a buffer against Indian encirclement.

The third core reality ignored in the review is the importance of regional actors, namely Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors (this list is not meant to preclude the inclusion of other countries). As long as the United States is at war, regional rivalries and insecurities will play out in Afghanistan at the expense of Afghan civilians and coalition forces.

Lastly, if the United States insists on pursuing the so far fruitless mission to create a viable Afghan government and economy, then U.S. officials should stop saying that the United States is not nation building in Afghanistan (and stop using the oft-repeated euphemism “capacity building”). After all, what is nation building? Perhaps in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton it is providing Afghanistan’s pervasively corrupt and predatory government with “economic, social and political development, as well as continued training of Afghan security forces.”

Overall, modest and ephemeral tactical gains have given the administration cause for optimism. It also gives the military a chance to buy more time, which means that the president will stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011. But a residual U.S. troop presence will remain in the country long after that official date.

Any policy, including war, makes sense only insofar as the United States and its citizens receive significant benefits in exchange for that policy’s political and economic costs. The Afghan War’s current cost-benefit disparity would call for a scale-down in mission objectives and correspondingly in troop presence. But for now, the United States would rather fixate on pipe dreams and on asserting America’s permanent role in Central Asia.

Wikileaks Sheds Light on Government Ineptitude

For years I have told anybody who would listen how U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan contribute to Pakistan’s slow-motion collapse. Well it appears that my take on the situation was not so over-the-top. Amid some 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables released by online whistleblower Wikileaks, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson warned in cable traffic that U.S. policy in South Asia “risks destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and the military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis without finally achieving the goal.”

On one level, this cable underscores what a disaster American foreign policy has become. But on another level, the leak of this and other cables strikes me as completely odd and slightly scary. How did Pfc. Bradley Manning, who stands accused of stealing the classified files from Siprnet and handing them to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, obtain access to these files in the first place? How does a young, low-level Army intelligence analyst gain access to a computer with hundreds of thousands of classified documents from all over the world?

After 9/11, the government made an effort to link up separate archives of government information. In theory, anyone in the State Department or the U.S. military can access these archives if he has: (1) a computer connected to Siprnet, and (2) a “secret” security clearance. As Manning told a fellow hacker: “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing… [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” Manning said he “had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months.”

I’m all for less government secrecy, particularly when U.S. officials are doing bizarre things like tabulating the biometric data of various UN officials, the heads of other international institutions, and African heads of state. That these supposedly “confidential” communications were so easily leaked highlights the appalling ineptitude of our unwieldy national security bureaucracy. Indeed, the phenomenon of Wikileaks says as much about government policy as it does about government incompetence.

Cutting the Fuse

I’m thrilled to be participating in a day-long conference on Capitol Hill next week to coincide with the release of a new book from the University of Chicago, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It. Co-authored by Robert Pape and James Feldman, the book builds on Pape’s earlier pioneering work, including here and here, into the causes of terrorism. Drawing on data compiled by the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism (CPOST), the book includes chapters on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Chechnya and Sri Lanka.

The authors’ concluding observations offer some hope for those of us who have been calling for a new narrative pertaining to counterterrorism, one that begins with the presumption that fear is the terrorists’ true weapon. A strong, resilient society retains the ability to kill or capture those who would harm innocents to make a political point, as the United States has done since 9/11. But a country of more than 300 million people shouldn’t cower before a few hundred individuals with delusions of world domination, but who are too frightened and weak to show their faces for years.

I think that the book’s conclusions might be a bit too optimistic as far as the politics of counterterrorism goes. There are still ample incentives for people to hype the threat of terrorism, and not enough competing pressures to dial back the most extreme claims of impending doom. But perhaps we are approaching a “period of understanding” as Pape and Feldman claim?

I certainly hope so.

‘Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.’

Earlier this year, both The New York Times and The Washington Post confirmed that the Obama administration authorized the CIA to kill American-born, Yemeni-based Islamic cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki.

Several people I admire and respect—and who are far more versed in the legal aspects of the “war on terror”—have already weighed in on whether the U.S. Government is authorized to kill U.S. terror suspects abroad, so I defer to those experts.

But what’s interesting is that the U.S. Government has killed “many Westerners, including some U.S. passport holders” in Pakistan’s tribal areas dating all the way back to the Bush administration, according to Bob Woodward’s new book.

Jeff Stein over at WaPo’s SpyTalk writes that according to Woodward, on November 12, 2008, then-CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden disclosed the killings to Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari during a meeting in New York. At the meeting, Zardari allegedly said, “Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”

It now appears that two human rights groups are challenging the legality of the Obama Justice Department’s right to kill U.S. citizens abroad. Will these groups now do the same with former Bush officials, too?

Musharraf Cometh?

Last Wednesday, former Pakistani President and military leader Pervez Musharraf announced he intends to return home as head of a new political party called the All Pakistan Muslim League. Sources close to Musharraf say he is reportedly eyeing the presidency and prime ministership. Amid ongoing political unrest and economic uncertainty under the leadership of President Ali Asif Zardari, U.S. leaders may hope that Musharraf can bring some semblance of stability to the country given recent developments, but his return could be something of a mixed blessing.

On Friday, Imran Farooq, a founding leader of MQM (Muttahida Quami Movement), the fourth-largest political party in Pakistan, was stabbed to death in London. Since 2009, more than 200 MQM workers and supporters have been the victims of targeted killings.  Because MQM dominates the Muhajir urban centers of Sindh, including Karachi—Pakistan’s largest city of more than 16 million—each targeted killing unleashes waves of violence that further contributes to the city’s deteriorating law and order situation. Indeed, when news of Farooq’s death reached Karachi, rioters torched vehicles and scores of people were killed and injured.

These targeted killings reflect a multi-dimensional problem. Part of it is tit-for-tat gang warfare between Muhajir-dominant MQM and Pashtun-dominant ANP (Awami National Party). [Note: When I was in Karachi a couple years back, I was warned to steer clear of certain areas that were MQM “turf.”] It is important to note, however, that MQM has made it a point not to conflate violence with Pashtuns; in fact, ANP continues to make it a point of joining the two together in order to condemn MQM for highlighting the increasing number of Taliban seeking refuge in Pashtun areas of Karachi. Another part of this ongoing violence is competition over new development in the city, the ANP’s resistance to the government’s redress of illegal land encroachment, and the collusion of political parties with criminal networks and religious extremists. MQM has been quite vocal about what they called the increased “Talibanisation” of Karachi, a concern that foreign diplomats have continually ignored.

The tragedy is that Musharraf was driven from power to bring democratic governance back to Pakistan. But despite his back-room dealings that brought an incompetent Zardari to power, and a crackdown on the judiciary that led to the former military leader’s ignominious resignation, Pakistanis stuck in desperate straights might welcome Musharraf back with open arms. Perhaps if he returns to the political game, the West will pay more attention to events unfolding in Pakistan.

Pakistan: Washington’s Blind Spot in Afghanistan

I have a piece in the latest issue of Foreign Service Journal that details the ongoing clash of competing strategic interests among the United States, Pakistan, India, Iran, and other regional powers in Afghanistan . It’s a point I’ve belabored in the past (see here, here, here, and here, for example), yet it remains an understated problem in Washington’s Central and South Asia policy. C’est la vie.

Check it out!