Tag: 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!

‘The Dumbest Terrorist In the World’?

Businessweek has a story quoting a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, Michael Wildes, speculating that Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, made so many mistakes (leaving his house keys in the car, not knowing about the vehicle identification number, making calls from his cellphone, getting filmed, buying the car himself) that he may be the “dumbest terrorist in the world.” But Wildes can’t accept the idea that an al Qaeda type terrorist would be so incompetent and suggests that Shahzad was “purposefully hapless” to generate intelligence about the police reaction for the edification of his buddies back in Pakistan.

Give me a break. This incompetence is hardly unprecedented. Three years ago Bruce Schneier wrote an article titled “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot,” describing the incompetence of several would-be al Qaeda plots in the United States and castigating commentators for clinging to image of these guys as Bond-style villains that rarely err.  It’s been six or seven years since people, including me, started pointing out that al Qaeda was wildly overrated. Back then, most people used to say that the reason al Qaeda hadn’t managed a major attack here since September 11 was because they were biding their time and wouldn’t settle for conventional bombings after that success. We are always explaining away our enemies’ failure.

The point here is not that all terrorists are incompetent – no one would call Mohammed Atta that – or that we have nothing to worry about. Even if all terrorists were amateurs like Shahzad, vulnerability to terrorism is inescapable. There are too many propane tanks, cars, and would-be terrorists to be perfectly safe from this sort of attack. The same goes for Fort Hood.

The point is that we are fortunate to have such weak enemies. We are told to expect nuclear weapons attacks, but we get faulty car bombs. We should acknowledge that our enemies, while vicious, are scattered and weak. If we paint them as the globe-trotting super-villains that they dream of being, we give them power to terrorize us that they otherwise lack. As I must have said a thousand times now, they are called terrorists for a reason.  They kill as a means to frighten us into giving them something.

The guys in Waziristan who trained Shahzad are probably embarrassed to have failed in the eyes of the world and would be relieved if we concluded that they did so intentionally. Likewise, it must have heartened the al Qaeda group in Yemen when the failed underwear bomber that they sent west set off the frenzied reaction that he did.  Remember that in March, al Qaeda’s American-born spokesperson/groupie Adam Gadahn said this:

Even apparently unsuccessful attacks on Western mass transportation systems can bring major cities to a halt, cost the enemy billions and send his corporations into bankruptcy.

As our enemies realize, the bulk of harm from terrorism comes from our reaction to it.  Whatever role its remnants or fellow-travelers had in this attempt, al Qaeda (or whatever we want to call the loosely affiliated movement of internationally-oriented jihadists) is failing. They have a shrinking foothold in western Pakistan, maybe one in Yemen, and little more. Elsewhere they are hidden and hunted. Their popularity is waning worldwide. Their capability is limited. The predictions made after September 11 of waves of similar or worse attacks were wrong. This threat is persistent but not existential.

This attempt should also remind us of another old point: our best counterterrorism tools are not air strikes or army brigades but intelligence agents, FBI agents, and big city police.  It’s true that because nothing but bomber error stopped this attack, we cannot draw strong conclusions from it about what preventive measures work best. But the aftermath suggests that what is most likely to prevent the next attack is a criminal investigation conducted under normal laws and the intelligence leads it generates. Domestic counterterrorism is largely coincident with ordinary policing. The most important step in catching the would-be bomber here appears to have been getting the vehicle identification number off the engine and rapidly interviewing the person who sold it. Now we are seemingly gathering significant intelligence about bad actors in Pakistan under standard interrogation practices.

These are among the points explored in the volume Chris Preble, Jim Harper and I edited: Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It – now hot off the presses. Contributors include Audrey Kurth Cronin, Paul Pillar, John Mueller, Mia Bloom, and a bunch of other smart people.

We’re discussing the book and counterterrorism policy at Cato on May 24th,  at 4 PM. Register to attend or watch online here.

Afghanistan: Complicated, Confusing, and Tragic

Kabul, Afghanistan—Malou Innocent and I have been interviewing a range of people in Afghanistan’s capital.  Getting around isn’t easy.  The traffic is horrendous: automobile ownership has grown on roads built for a different era.  Street upkeep is not one of the city government’s strong suits.  Police checkpoints and traffic barriers dot Kabul.

Arriving at your destination is merely the start.  Military bases, government ministries, Western embassies, luxury hotels, and large businesses are fortified with tall walls, barbed wire, concrete barriers, reinforced gates, and guard posts.  Armed personnel man entrances and patrol grounds. 

As so often is the case, it quickly becomes evident on the ground that foreign conflicts are far more complicated than commonly advertised.  Afghanistan is a diverse and complex land.  Parts of it are stable and peaceful.  Ethnic and tribal divisions run deep, but vary around the country.  Although rural illiteracy is high, many urban Afghans are as educated and sophisticated as the Westerners who have flocked to Kabul.  And most everyone evinces a desperate desire for peace and security.

An overwhelming sense of tragedy hangs over this beautiful land.  The evidence of war and instability is everywhere.  The old royal palace still stands, abandoned and wrecked years ago.  The casualties of endless conflict are visible—adults and children hobbling along on only one leg, legless beggars by the road.  “Poppy palaces,” many constructed with drug money, continue to rise while the streets teem with people struggling to find work.  Afghan women covered by burqas walking outside of hotels and restaurants serving alcohol to foreigners.  Westerners abound, fighting the war, running NGOs, advising government ministries, and otherwise attempting to re-engineer Afghan society.

Individual stories remind us how blessed we are to live in America.  As frustrated as we might grow with U.S. government policy, we live in a nation that is prosperous, peaceful, democratic, stable, and still relatively free.  One 27-year-old Afghan, who currently works for a government ministry, told us about how his family decided to flee Kabul after his neighborhood was bombarded as the city was being fought over by various mujahedeen factions.  They returned home from Pakistan after the ouster of the Taliban; now he worries about the future.

The overwhelming message that we have heard so far is that the Afghan government is incompetent and corrupt; as such, it is a poor partner to Western nations seeking to create a functioning state.  Moreover, Western nations, and especially the U.S., are commonly unrealistic in their assumptions, objectives, and tactics.  We have yet to encounter many optimists about allied policy.

Although many foreigners of good intentions are working in Kabul, the flood of money to consultants and NGOs is often wasted or misspent.  Afghans themselves have grown cynical after decades of war; many focus on the short-term and are happy to manipulate Western aid agencies and militaries alike.  At the same time, those who have come forward to idealistically work for a better future are vulnerable and worry about the consequences of an allied retreat.

Every conversation makes it more evident how little we know and hard it is to understand this complex society and conflict.  Malou and I don’t expect our time here to turn us into experts.  But we do hope that we will learn enough to better participate in the Washington debate over U.S. and allied policy towards Afghanistan.

Emanuel on TV and Filkins on McChrystal

A. It’s encouraging to see Rahm Emanuel and John Kerry saying that we shouldn’t up force levels in Afghanistan without a reliable partner. But if we shouldn’t send 40,000 more troops to prop up a crooked government, why keep the 68,000 we have there? A focused counter-terrorism mission would require far less than that.

B. According to Dexter Filkins’ article in the New York Times Magazine, the war in Iraq taught General Stanley McChrystal the following:

No situation, no matter how dire, is ever irredeemable — if you have the time, resources and the correct strategy. In the spring of 2006, Iraq seemed lost. The dead were piling up. The society was disintegrating. One possible conclusion was that it was time for the United States to cut its losses in a country that it never truly understood. But the American military believed it had found a strategy that worked, and it hung in there, and it finally turned the tide.

What’s interesting about this claim is its utter confidence in the potential efficacy of US military power – it is not just necessary to solving Iraq’s problems, but sufficient. If this view is right, Iraqis themselves, and their civil war, were unnecessary to the limited political reconciliation that occurred there.

Filkins, surprisingly, seems to agree, depicting the evolution of the war this way:

For four years, the American military had tried to crush the Iraqi insurgency and got the opposite: the insurgency bloomed, and the country imploded. By refocusing their efforts on protecting Iraqi civilians, American troops were able to cut off the insurgents from their base of support. Then the Americans struck peace deals with tens of thousands of former fighters — the phenomenon known as the Sunni Awakening — while at the same time fashioning a formidable Iraqi army. After a bloody first push, violence in Iraq dropped to its lowest levels since the war began.

Note the use of the word “then” preceding the sentence about peace deals. It carries a heavy load. Filkins wants to say that the hearts and mind theory of counterinsurgency caused the Anbar Awakening. But he offers no real causal story about how they are connected; he just says that one happened and then the other.

Another view, one that leaves Iraqis some agency, is that the growth of the al Qaeda Iraq and the progress of the civil war changed the Sunni insurgents’ strategic calculus, such that they decided to cooperate with Americans to gain locally. And that in turn, limited violence. U.S. forces had a role in this – the covert killing campaign that McChrystal led and Filkins chronicles probably pressured insurgents and weakened AQI, for one. But the deals – the awakening – began well before the troop surge and before David Petraeus took command and tried to implement a new counterinsurgency doctrine. The key American decision was willingness to play ball with insurgent groups. This decision had little to do with winning hearts and minds via population security and increased troop levels. And by empowering forces at odds with the central government, it contradicted the goal of state-building in Iraq, at least in the short-term.

I obviously agree with the latter view. Our dependence on local politics limits what we can accomplish in counterinsurgency. We can certainly affect what happens in Afghanistan, but it is hubris to think we control it.

Filkins also quotes McChrystal on Afghanistan’s effect on Pakistan:

“If we are good here, it will have a good effect on Pakistan,” he told me. “But if we fail here, Pakistan will not be able to solve their problems — it would be like burning leaves on a windy day next door.

It’s sensible to conclude chaos nearby is unhelpful to stability in Pakistan, but it goes way too far to say that Afghanistan’s stability is necessary to Pakistan’s, which has been fairly stable for long periods while Afghanistan was not. What’s more, as Robert Pape argues, it is likely that U.S. forces are a cause of insurgency in both countries.

Wednesday Links - Afghanistan Edition

Today marks the eighth anniversary of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Cato foreign policy experts have been following and analyzing the war since the beginning. Here’s a round up of their assessment thus far:

  • In today’s podcast, foreign policy analyst Malou Innocent discusses the future of policy in the region.
Topics:

Exiting the Afghan Quagmire

Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, and Anatol Lieven, a professor at King’s College London, discuss in the Financial Times how we can exit the Afghan quagmire:

The west should therefore pursue a political solution, open negotiations with the Taliban and offer a timetable for a phased withdrawal in return for a ceasefire. This should begin with the military pulling out of specific areas in return for Taliban guarantees not to attack western bases and Afghan authorities in those areas. If the Taliban refuses such terms, then military pressure should continue. The point should not be to eliminate the Taliban – which is impossible – but to persuade it to agree to a deal.

Lodhi and Lieven’s argument echoes one that David Axe, Jason Reich, and I made yesterday on ForeignPolicy.com.

… regime change, and democracy, are not necessary for counterterrorism. Propping up President Hamid Karzai’s Western-style government in Kabul does not make operations against al Qaeda any easier or more successful. If anything, it distracts from the conceptually simpler task of finding and killing terrorists. Without U.S. and NATO protection, Karzai’s regime would, sooner or later, probably fall to the Taliban. But U.S. observers should not equate that eventuality with “losing” the war. The war is against terrorists, not Islamist governments. The United States should be prepared to make peace, and amends, with a resurgent Taliban – and to encourage the group to excise its more extreme elements.

I admit talking to the Taliban sounds weird and scary. But my contention is that there is no shortage of Pashtun militants willing to fight against what they perceive to be a foreign occupation of their region. Certainly the Taliban does not enjoy support among the majority of Pashtuns—as Lodhi and Lieven point out—but neither did the IRA in Northern Ireland or the FLN in Algeria. The point is not exclusively about popularity (although that’s a critical component, along with local legitimacy), but the fact that these indigenous groups are willing to fight the United States and NATO indefinitely. Indeed, it is the western military presence that is driving support for the Taliban both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

Moreover, the notion that we must protect Pakistan from the Taliban is ludicrous. Pakistan’s intelligence service helped create the Taliban and they continue to protect the Afghan Taliban to keep India at bay. From this point of view, deploying more troops would be irrelevant to the fight against al Qaeda and counterproductive in our attempts to pacify the region. For more on what we should do, check this out.