Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Pundit Predilection: Reading a Lot into a Little

American policymakers have a tendency to ignore the viewpoints of other nations.  Such was the case when Gen. David Petraeus complained that Pakistan saw India rather than the Taliban as the more significant security threat.  I made the simple but still important (in my view, anyway) point that Pakistan had reason to fear India, including the latter’s role in detaching East Pakistan from what had been a geographically divided state.

Yet there appears to be predilection by some pundits  to read a lot into a short blog post.  Matthew Yglesias apparently believes that to point to India’s role in the 1971 war is to gloss over Pakistan’s ignoble conduct in what became Bangladesh.  Others may have seen “a happy Pakistan bouncing along” until victimized by a “rapacious” India, but my post said nothing of the sort.  In fact, in contrast to Mr. Yglesias, I was alive during the war and remember stories about Pakistani atrocities. 

 Nevertheless, the point remains:  there is a reason leading Pakistanis fears India more than the Taliban and other extremists.  And lecturing them that they are misguided, that Pakistan’s artificial geographic and social configuration was doomed and that the Khan government’s brutality gave India good cause for intervening, is not likely to change the current threat assessment of those in power, especially in the military.  So the point remains:  Washington policymakers have to deal with rather than dismiss Islamabad’s fears.

Update on Roxana Saberi

saberiRoxana Saberi

For readers interested in the ongoing case of Roxana Saberi, an American journalist imprisoned in Iran on highly dubious charges, this sad story will get you up to date.  After having given unofficial indications that she would be released shortly, the Iranian government sentenced Saberi to 8 years in prison on April 18.  She is now apparently 5 days into a hunger strike.  Trita Parsi runs down some informed speculation about the relationship between the upcoming Iranian elections, the U.S.-Iran situation, and Saberi’s arrest here.

Please keep Roxana in your thoughts and prayers.   Evin prison is bad news, and she doesn’t belong there.

The Problem with the EU in Afghanistan

President Barack Obama, like President George W. Bush before him, has gone hat-in-hand to the Europeans to request (beg?) for more troops for Afghanistan.  Alas, the European governments gave him the back of their collective hand:  they may like President Obama more than his predecessor, but that doesn’t mean they, or their peoples, want to do any more in Afghanistan.

But then, it’s not clear that getting more European troops would help much.  Reports the (Australia) Herald Sun:

When asked by the Britons to attack Afghan rebels, the commander of a [Czech] special operations unit (SOG) said “we’re not going to, it’s dangerous,” then ordered his men to get in trucks and return to the base.

On another occasion, an SOG commander decided that the task the Britons had set ran counter to the unit’s mission.

Yet another time, a commander said he could not help as his soldiers were on vacation.

“I find it hard to recover from the news I get about this unit. It harms the reputation of the army,” Czech Defence Minister Vlasta Parkanova told the daily.

Some help.

Obviously, some European troops, including Czechs, fight hard and well.  But most of the countries deploy their forces to ensure that they don’t have to fight.  NATO provides precious few benefits for America in Europe or elsewhere.  After 60 years, the U.S. should leave NATO to the Europeans.

Does Transparency Inspire Terrorism?

The debate over the Obama administration’s release of the torture memos took an important turn during the past week, as reflected in discussions on the Sunday morning shows.

The economy was the lead story on Fox News Sunday, but in the second segment Chris Wallace led his questioning of Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) as follows:

The Pentagon now says that it’s going to release hundreds of photos of alleged abuse of detainees by U.S. personnel - this, after, of course, the release of the interrogation memos. Senator Bond, how serious is the threat of a backlash in the Middle East and the recruitment of more terrorists, possibly endangering U.S. soldiers in that part of the world?

Revelation! The idea that abusive practices on the part of the United States would draw people to the side of its enemies.

In the media, most of the debate up to now has centered on the tactical question of whether torture works, and to some degree the moral dimension. (Here’s David Rittgers on the former and Chris Preble on the latter.)

There’s an ineluctable conclusion from understanding that torture drives recruitment which endangers our soldiers: It is strategic error to engage in abusive practices. Abuse on the part of the United States adds heads to the hydra.

But wait. Wallace’s question may imply that it is release of the photos - not commission of the underlying offenses - that risks causing a backlash. This cannot be.

Given the governments they’ve long experienced, people in the Muslim and Arab worlds will generally assume the worst from what they know - and assume that even more than what they know is being hidden. Transparency about U.S. abuses cuts against that narrative and confuses the story that the United States is an abuser akin to the governments Arabs and Muslims have known.

Abusive practices create backlash against the United States. Transparency about abuses after the fact will dispel backlash and muddy the terrorist narrative about the United States and its role in the Middle East.

As the question turns to prosecution of wrongdoing by U.S. officials, such as lawyers who warped the law beyond recognition to justify torture, transparent application of the rule of law in this area would further disrupt a terrorist narrative about the United States.

Solving Our Problem in Pakistan

Pakistan has nuclear weapons, an active jihadist movement, a weak civilian government, a history of backing the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a military focused on fighting another American ally, India.  Pakistan probably is harder than Iraq to “fix.”

Unfortunately, the gulf between the U.S. and Pakistani governments is vast.  Starting with the respective assessments of the greatest regional threat, Gen. David Petraeus has given Islamabad some unwanted advice.  Reports AP News:

The United States is urging Pakistan’s military to focus more on the Taliban and extremists advancing inside their borders instead of the nation’s longtime enemy — India.

The top U.S. commander in the region told Congress Friday that extremists already inside Pakistan pose the greatest threat to that nation.

Gen. David Petraeus (pet-TRAY’-uhs) was asking a House Appropriations subcommittee for funding to help the Pakistani military root out and stop insurgents, saying he wants Pakistani leaders to realize they need to learn how to fight internal extremists.

Petraeus called India a “conventional threat” that should no longer be Pakistan’s top military focus.

Gen. Petraeus is obviously right, from America’s standpoint.  But try explaining that to Pakistan, which has fought and lost three wars with India.  Indeed, Pakistan was dismembered in one of those conflicts, leading to the creation of Bangladesh.

Enlisting Pakistan more fully in combating the Taliban and al Qaeda will require recognizing, not dismissing, Islamabad’s other security concerns.  Squaring the circle won’t be easy.  But doing so will require more creative diplomacy and less preemptive demands, more regional cooperation and less military escalation.

Limiting the TSA’s Use of “Strip Search Machines”

I wrote here in February about the push and pull over “strip search machines,” also known as “whole-body imaging” and “millimeter wave scanning.”

The question is joined: How do you maintain privacy with a technology that’s fundamentally intrusive? Maybe by using it less. This week, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a bill to limit the use of whole-body imaging.

H.R. 2027, the Aircraft Passenger Whole-Body Imaging Limitations Act of 2009, would place several limits:

  • Whole-body imaging could not be the sole or primary method of screening a passenger, and it could only be used as a follow-up to other methods like metal detection.
  • Passengers would have the right to opt for a pat-down search instead of whole-body imaging.
  • Passengers subject to whole-body imaging would have to be provided information about the technology and the images it generates, on privacy policies, and the right to have the pat-down search instead.
  • Images of passengers generated by whole-body imaging technology could not be stored, transferred, shared, or copied in any form after the passenger has passed through the security system.

Most of these protections are already TSA policy, but agency policies are relatively easy to change compared to federal law. Without limitations like this, these machines are on the natural, mission-creepy path to becoming mandatory.

Rules, of course, were made to be broken, and it’s only a matter of time — federal law or not — before TSA agents without proper supervision find a way to capture images contrary to policy. (Agent in secure area guides Hollywood starlet to strip search machine, sends SMS message to image reviewer, who takes camera-phone snap. TMZ devotes a week to the story, and the ensuing investigation reveals that this has been happening at airports throughout the country to hundreds of women travelers.)

So this bill is a step forward, but from a very backwards position. Ultimately, as I wrote before, the solution is to return responsibility for security to the airlines and airports, who are most interested in and capable of balancing all the factors that go into safe travel, including passengers’ privacy, comfort, and peace of mind.

Withdrawing from Afghanistan

Oh, the war in Afghanistan. The more I learn, the more I’m convinced that we need to get out.

As I described the situation to my Cato colleague Chris Preble, for lack of a better analogy, the Afghanistan–Pakistan border is like a balloon: pushing down on one side forces elements to move to another — it doesn’t eliminate the threat.

The fate of Pakistan — a nuclear-armed Muslim-majority country plagued by a powerful jihadist insurgency — will matter more to regional and global stability than economic and political developments in Afghanistan. But if our attempts to stabilize Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan, where does that leave us? Like A.I.G., is Afghanistan too big to fail? No.

President Obama earlier this month issued a wide-ranging strategic review of the war and the region, and declared “the core goal of the U.S. must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” But al Qaeda, as we very well know, is a loosely connected and decentralized network with cells in over 60 countries. Amassing tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops in one country — or any country — is unnecessary.

Until Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, changes priorities, this is a stalemate and we are throwing soldiers into a conflict because policymakers fear that, if we leave, it will get worse. Sound familiar?

The only military role necessary in Afghanistan is trainers and assistance for the Afghan military, police, and special forces tasked with discrete operations against specific targets. The bulk of the combat forces can and should be withdrawn.

As for Pakistan’s impulsive act of gallantry in Buner this week, that’s certainly welcome news. But Mukhtar Khan, a Pakistani freelance journalist whom I’ve talked to on numerous occasions, records here that last year in Buner, a lashkar (tribal militia) successfully beat back the Taliban’s incursions.

Thanks to the Swat Valley peace deal between pro-Taliban TNSM founder Sufi Mohammad and the Pakistani government, militants have spilled back into Buner, killing policemen and terrorizing locals. What’s especially troubling this time around is that the spread from Swat into Buner brings militants closer to Mardan and Swabi, which leads directly to the four-lane motorway running from Peshawar to Islamabad. (I took the picture above when I was on the motorway to Peshawar last August.)

Overall, I’m not optimistic that the Pakistani government’s effort in Buner changes the grand scheme of things. Unless the intervention is coupled with a comprehensive shift in Pakistan’s strategic priorities, which means a move away from allowing its territory to act as a de facto sanctuary for militants undermining U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, then these sporadic raids tell us nothing about their leaders’ overall commitment to tackling terrorism.

For instance, Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently ordered the release of hard-line cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz on bail. Aziz was a leading figure from the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) massacre of July 2007 and faces several charges, including aiding militants. For an idea of how pervasive militant sympathies go, when the Islamist political party Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islami was in power in North-West Frontier Province, a Pakistani territory adjacent to the ungoverned tribal areas, its leaders proselytized in mosques about the need for jihad in Afghanistan. In addition, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, was killed in Iraq, their parliament observed a two-minute moment of silence.

If leaders within Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments are serious about combating extremism, it will take more than periodic military moves into restive areas. We will not know for the next several months whether they have abandoned their lackadaisical attitude toward extremism.