Thursday, January 13, 2011

What to do with Pakistan?: Part One

T.X. Hammes has a piece in Foreign Policy this week discussing the White House’s policy review of the war in Afghanistan.  In the report the White House says:

Pakistan is central to our efforts to defeat al-Qa’ida and prevent its return to the region. We seek to secure these interests through continued, robust counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency cooperation and a long-term partnership anchored by our improved understanding of Pakistan’s strategic priorities, increased civilian and military assistance, and expanded public diplomacy.


[T]he denial of extremist safe havens will require greater cooperation with Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan.

It all sounds good, but as Hammes points out, “[T]he government doesn't hint at how the administration will manage in the next four years to finally convince Pakistanis to change their fundamental strategic calculus after nine years of repeatedly failing to do so.”

In fact, I agree with everything that Hammes says in the piece, but it left me wanting.  We’ve heard this before from countless op-eds, articles, and blogs.  The punchline goes like this:
Afghanistan is still a mess.  Karzai is feckless.  We need Pakistan to get on our team.  If we don’t address the Karzai and the Pakistan problems, our policy is adrift.

And then, seemingly whoever is writing just stops.  The analysis ceases and we, the reader, are left adrift to some extent.  I don’t blame them for stopping.  This is the $1 trillion dollar question. How does the United States marginalize Karzai and convince Pakistan to get on our team, while still maintaining a presence in the region that allows us to shape the contours of events?  

Steve Coll give us a maddening account of U.S. involvement and impotence in the region after the the Soviet withdrawal in his seminal Ghost Wars.  (Which I only just recently read making me officially the last person with a passing interest in Afghanistan to have read it)  Having the memory of the book close to mind while reading Hammes account makes me all the more frustrated that we haven’t been able to answer this question yet.

Why is this so hard?  Why is Pakistan so recalcitrant?  The short answer is that it’s a long story.  In brief here’s what happened.  When communists swept to power in Kabul in the late 1970s, Pakistan grew concerned they could be pinched on two sides, but the Afghans to the northwest and Indians to the south-southeast.  Additionally, the socialist agenda implemented after the coup sought to undermine the preeminence of Islam in Afghanistan, particularly in the rural regions where a blend of sharia and Pashtunwali dictated daily interactions between people.

This attack on Islam resonated both in Pakistan and in the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia.  Prompted by the Soviet invasion in 1979 (seeking to prop up their overzealous Afghan clients), aid money began to pour into Islamic charities to cope with the refugees pouring across the Afghan border into Pakistan.  Much of this money was used to build madrases, and the United States expanded its policy of equipping Afghan fighters displaced to Pakistan to return home and fight the Soviets.  These mujaheddin fighters were not a single, cohesive group, but rather a disparate group based on ethnic, tribal, and geographic boundaries.  They had common cause against the Soviets, but with the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989, there was a vacuum created.

What followed was a lengthy and deadly power struggle between former mujaheddin groups.  Pakistan started to play favorites because they wanted a client state in Afghanistan.  They wanted a buffer along that border and they began to back specific Pashtun groups, funneling Gulf state aid money and weapons to these favored groups, while also assisting militarily, but quietly these same groups in their bids to crush rivals.  Because of the struggle’s ability to be identified with a defense of Islam, Arab volunteers began to arrive with the aid money that had been there before.  These Arab volunteers were answering the call of jihad and practiced an Islam that was more severe then the Afghans they came to fight alongside.

Out of this milieu of aid money, armed conflict, and religious fervency arose the Taliban.  While not strictly an immediate client of Pakistan, the group practiced a severe form of Islam, had the military might to crush much of the opposition, and the organizational structure to provide social services that had long been lacking.  Many Afghans in the south of the country didn’t believe in the Islam the Taliban stressed, but the promise of limited social services and the threat of death (literally) for non-compliance led to pacifism.

The whole thing snowballed from there and eventually the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan was littered with every stripe of Islamic group training their soldiers for their specific jihad.  It was easier for Pakistan to support the Taliban, or at least not denounce them, because they seemed to be the strongest group around and, Pakistan calculated, a group they could deal with.  This situation was not totally altered, even after 9/11.  Pakistan held nominal control over its tribal areas.  The government's legitimacy rested on its ability to be positively identified with Islam, and while the personal religious conviction of Pakistan’s leaders would shift with time, the official adherence was paramount.

Where was the U.S. in all of this?  Essentially, exactly where we are now.  We’d fly in, shake some hands, make some requests, the Pakistani would demure or make vague assurances of cooperation, we’d fly out and it’d be business as usual.  The U.S. simply lacked, and I believe still lacks, the operational assets to shape the course of events in AfPak.

Bringing it back full circle, this is the challenge.  An administration will say some nice things about Pakistan.  A high ranking official will fly in, shake some hands, and then we’ll leave.  Hammes is right to criticize this, but what do we do given this situation?  That’s the topic for my next post, when I’ll look at the policy options we have in working with Pakistan.

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