Archive for the ‘Pakistan’ Category

There is a remarkable statistic in Jane Mayer’s superb piece [abstract] on the Predator war in The New Yorker:

It appears to have taken sixteen missile strikes, and fourteen months, before the C.I.A. succeeded in killing [Baitullah Mehsud]. During this hunt, between two hundred and seven and three hundred and twenty-one additional people were killed, depending on which news accounts you rely upon.

Remember, this took place under the best of circumstances, with friendly governments in both Islamabad and Kabul, a steady flow of human intelligence from the ground, and 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. With all the talk of a classic COIN campaign in Afghanistan not being worth the cost, and of resorting to a cheaper off-shore CT option instead, it’s easy to forget what it actually takes to kill a guy with a flying robot. And it’s not only the man-hours and the innocents incinerated — it’s also the inevitable moral damage to a war-fighting nation’s psyche. What else is a suicide bomber who targets an army patrol and kills 10 bystanders but a drone sent from afar by a deft operator¹ to carry out an assassination? Scott Horton sums up the dilemma:

Saying ‘no’ to predator drones would not serve the nation’s security interests. But reconsidering the troubling deviations from American traditions of civilian-military control over weapons systems and accountability for their use is an imperative.

See also:

Revenge of the Drones (appendix 1) — New America Foundation
Analysis: A look at US airstrikes in Pakistan through September 2009 — The Long War Journal
Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan (2001-2007) — United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan

¹Amir is a fifteen-year old boy who was born in Pakistan to a family from Gardez. He has spent half of his life in Pakistan and the other half in Gardez. He is uneducated and spent only two days in a madrassah when his father asked him to leave and start working with him. He was greatly influenced by a local mullah (religious leader) who told him to go to Kabul to kill the ‘Angrez’. […] He claims that the Gardez mullah gave him 200 Afghanis and told him that he is in fact giving him heaven. The mullah told the boy that jihad is farz, required against the foreigners that have come to occupy Afghanistan and if he manages to kill a foreigner, he would go to heaven.

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Ahmed Rashid:

[…] Pakistan is far less resilient than it was a few years ago. Even as Pakistani officials bluntly criticize Holbrooke for linking Afghanistan and Pakistan in his ‘AfPak’ strategy, some Pakistanis already see a chronic ‘Afghanization’ of their nation. Current realities include a collapse of law and order in parts of the country, state institutions riddled with corruption and ineffectiveness, a justice system that cannot deliver, a crashing economy with severe joblessness, increasing ethnic tensions and a strong separatist movement in Baluchistan province.

However, the real fear is that under such enormous external and internal pressures, there are no guarantees that the army will stay committed to a democratic system. More so, the military may not remain as united as it has been for the past six decades. What many Pakistanis fear and constantly talk about is not a traditional generals’ coup that may end democracy, but a colonels’ coup that could bring in a pro-Islamist and anti-Western coterie of officers linked to Islamic groups that would then negotiate a compromise with the Pakistan Taliban. That could put Pakistan’s nuclear weapons into the wrong hands. Neither a partial U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan nor a strategy of only using drones to target al-Qaeda could hope to handle such a regional catastrophe.

And a complete American departure would seal the region’s fate.

There it is. I have yet to hear of anyone with more than superficial knowledge of Central and South Asia who doesn’t have the same nightmares. A change of course is urgently needed, yet so bad — so meaningless and nasty — has the debate over Afghanistan become that I’m seriously considering shutting off comments for this post simply because the mere thought of the inevitable, ill-informed and America-centric blather about COIN this and CT that and the safe haven myth and yadda yadda yadda makes my stomach turn.

Then again, fuck it — fire away, what do I care.

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You gotta be kidding me:

As government forces pressed ahead with the Waziristan offensive, the military called on the NATO troops in Afghanistan to seal the border ‘to prevent cross-border movement and flow of weapons.’

Pakistan Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC) Chairman General Tariq Majid made the call during talks with Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup. […]

Majid called for ‘synchronisation of effort on both sides and sharing of real-time intelligence with reference to the ongoing operations,’ an army statement issued late on Tuesday said.

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Some great stuff I don’t have time to comment on right now (am putting the finishing touches on a story about a Finnish ISAF soldier wounded by friendly fire in 2006):

  • In the September issue of the CTC Sentinel, Anne Stenersen examines why the Afghan Taliban are unlikely to attack targets in the West. Food for thought: “It should be noted that the Afghan Taliban leadership has not officially denounced al-Qa`ida or its activities, and they have stated that al-Qa`ida and other foreign Muslims are welcome to join their fight in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it appears that the Afghan Taliban leaders themselves do not wish to be associated with al-Qa`ida’s global jihadist strategy.”
  • “Clearly, defending Afghanistan will not eradicate a terrorist network based in Pakistan”, Bruce Hoffman writes in The National Interest. “But failing to defend Afghanistan will almost certainly give al-Qaeda new momentum and greater freedom of action.”
  • “It’s disappointing to see someone with his expertise, access to resources and more importantly influence, put out factually incorrect material”, writes Leah Farrall and proceeds to tear apart Hoffman’s argument. Hoffman responds, but Farrall stands her ground. Way to go!

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I’ve been a fan of Steve Coll’s ever since we both covered South Asia in the early 90s, so needless to say, I feel somewhat… what’s that nice English word… vindicated by this:

The United States has a deep interest in the emergence of a stable, modernizing, economically integrated, peaceful South Asia—by which I mean the region that is centered on India, but which also encompasses Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Afghanistan.


The Taliban are a backward-looking threat to the near-term stability of South Asia—in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and, as the Mumbai attacks demonstrated, occasionally in India. The United States has an interest in preventing the Taliban from destabilizing South Asia by acquiring influence in nuclear-armed Pakistan or by provoking a war between India and Pakistan, two still-insecure nuclear powers.

You might recall that I put forward, to much ridicule, pretty much the same argument for stabilising Afghanistan a few weeks back in my post “9/11, American Myopia and Nuclear War”. Now, I have no doubt Coll will be crucified by the “anti-war” crowd as a gutless stooge of the military-industrial complex just as I did, and since this torch-and-pitchfork mob is basically illiterate¹, the fact that he wrote Ghost Wars will probably be held against him. Even so, it’s nice to know I’m not alone.

¹In the immortal words of one blogger I confronted via email: “None of these [objections to the war] require extensive knowledge of Afghanistan.  Nothing I’ve written implies that I am an area expert — or even especially knowledgeable — about Afghanistan.  Nothing I’ve written requires that.”

[UPDATE: And heeere we go: “… the real question for these people is not how they would do it […] but how many people would they kill to achieve it…” “… the dark abyss of their souls…” “…to them the killing doesn’t matter, they would kill everyone…” Wow — I thought you guys were predictable, but this is… wow.]

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In his FP article ”Doubting Afghanistan”, Bernard Finel puts forward 10 questions he believes one must be able to “convincingly answer” to make “a compelling case” for bolstering the Western military commitment in Afghanistan.

To be precise, there are seven questions and three strawmen. And some of the questions come close to being… well, outright inane, like the one that asks (I’m paraphrasing), “How come the Taliban would be hostile to Pakistan now, when they weren’t from 1996 to 2001?” Also, even though the “anti-war” folks seem to be under the impression that they don’t have to make their case with solid arguments and irrefutable facts like us “pro-war” folks do, it would be immeasurably easier for me to take Finel seriously if he would’ve found the time to answer his own questions.

Still, given the current state of the Afghanistan debate, where mobs carrying torches and pitchforks and murmuring “Kill the warmonger!” have overpowered people who actually know what they’re talking about, it’s refreshing to see someone trying to advance the discussion in a civilised manner. So, for what it’s worth, here goes:

(1) Why does the possibility that al Qaeda might establish a sanctuary in Afghanistan justify a multi-year commitment of American forces, while the reality of an al Qaeda sanctuary in Pakistan justifies nothing more than financial support to the Pakistani government and occasional Predator strikes?

Pakistan is a country; Afghanistan is an ungoverned space. Pakistan as a state just turned 62; Afghanistan as a state is a work in progress. Pakistan has a government, a judiciary, a working parliamentary system and a battle-tested army with a long tradition as the country’s most cohesive institution. Afghanistan used to have many of the same but now has only a semblance of government with little authority outside the capital, and an army that has yet to find its feet. Pakistan is perfectly capable of fighting its own enemies if it chooses to; it needs help, not an occupation. Afghanistan, even in its present rudimentary form, would cease to exist without a significant foreign commitment and would revert back to its pre-2001 state as a jihadi sanctuary.

There is also the small matter of whether punitive strikes work at all. In Afghanistan, they certainly haven’t. According to newly declassified U.S. government documents, the Clinton administration’s cruise missile strikes on terrorist training camps in 1998 most likely backfired, helping to forge a tighter alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Similarly, American Predator attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas, even if successful in eliminating some Taliban and al-Qaeda brass, have caused resentment throughout the country and have only served to help the jihadi cause.

(2) Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan inevitable without a significant American presence on the ground?  Or might some other form of aid to the Karzai regime be sufficient to stave off that eventuality?

Indeed — Kabul would fall, and no amount of arms or assistance would stop it from happening. In fact, Finel himself has already made the case:

[…] In many ways we underestimate the Taliban. This is an extraordinary movement. It rose from a regional militia to control of 90% of Afghanistan within two years from 1994 to 1996. And while Pakistani intelligence aided at the margins, there is no reason to believe that the Taliban was either wholly or even largely a Pakistani creation. It was a real movement that was very, very savvy in terms of creating a public image and co-opting local elites in Afghanistan.

Even more impressive to me is that the organization is still alive and still under much of the same senior leadership. How many groups have been able to survive a military defeat and being forced out of power with as much cohesion as has the Taliban? I have not researched the issue systematically, but the cohesion of the Taliban post-2001 and its resurgence since 2004 is, I think, close to unprecedented.

Absolutely. The Taliban would fight, cajole, threaten and betray their way from the South to Kabul and all the way to the far North in a succession of events that would look much like Najibullah’s downfall in 1992. Once the Karzai government crumbled from within, foreign assistance would be to no avail.

Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Taliban that would rule Afghanistan after the foreign troops departed would be fundamentally different from the movement that was in power from 1996 to 2001. The new regime would include “non-Taliban” elements closely allied with al-Qaeda, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and his “more dynamic and worldly” son Sirajuddin, and the politically ambitious Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, listed by the UN as an “al-Qaeda associate”. I have met both Haqqani and Hekmatyar and see absolutely no reason to assume that this coalition of Pashtun nationalists, local Islamists and international jihadis would somehow be more rational or benign than its predecessor.

(3) What precisely is the nature of the risk a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would pose to the stability of Pakistan? From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, and yet by most indications, Pakistan was under less threat from Islamist radicals then than now. What has changed to make Afghanistan now the lynchpin on which the stability of Pakistan rests?

This must be a trick question, because the answer is, well, kind of obvious: From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban had good friends in Islamabad. Pakistan supported the movement from its inception and continued to do so well after 9/11, despite Musharraf publicly distancing himself from radical Islamists. On the other hand, an anti-extremist, Western-leaning civilian government, such as the present one in Pakistan, is a natural enemy of the Taliban.

The question isn’t totally irrelevant, though. As Thomas Rid has noted, “There is no simple causal relation between chaos or stability in Afghanistan and chaos and stability in Pakistan.” Still, one can quite reasonably assume that it would be in the strategic interests of a new Taliban government in Kabul to seek a return to the pre-2001 status quo. Obviously, the Afghan Taliban would not march on Islamabad or attempt a coup. But they would be able to contribute to the continuing instability in Pakistan by aiding and assisting the local Taliban. The key player in this cross-border effort would be the Haqqani network (see above), which traditionally has operated on both sides of the Durand Line.

Meanwhile, the re-Talibanisation of Afghanistan would give an immense boost to the powerful pro-extremist elements within the Pakistani army and intelligence service, making it difficult for the weak civilian government to resist a return to the old Pakistani doctrine of “defense in depth”. This is an important yet overlooked point: Instability in Pakistan does not require a jihadi takeover or even a military coup. A much more immediate concern is the strengthening of competing centres of power, such as the ISI, at the expense of the fledgling democratic institutions — in short, a situation, much like Benazir Bhutto’s and Nawaz Sharif’s failed cracks at running Pakistan in the 90s, where the outside world (including India) has no idea who is in charge. As Ahmed Rashid warns in his thoughtful Washington Post op-ed, “Today the Islamabad government is divided between civilians and the military, and as the civilians show themselves more inept, the army’s power is once again ascendant.”

(4) The escalation of our commitment to Afghanistan is intimately connected to the acceptance of population-centric counter-insurgency theory popularized by General Petraeus in Iraq.  How does this sort of campaign actually contribute to the long-term stabilization of Afghanistan? And if the goal is simply to dampen the insurgency to create space for a political process to occur, why is there any reason to assume that the Afghan government would be able to utilize this space more effectively than from early 2002 to early 2005 when there was only limited Taliban activity in the country?

This is the first of Finel’s strawmen. I see no such “intimate connection”. In fact, I have repeatedly argued that the U.S. COIN campaign in Iraq has yet to prove its worth, and that even if it did, it would be a fool’s errand to try to transplant any of the lessons into Afghanistan. I certainly don’t see any Surge-like plan to “dampen the insurgency to create space for a political process to occur”. All I can see right now is an effort by various actors, including the U.S. and NATO, to formulate a working Afghan strategy. To be sure, it will most likely include elements of the “Petraeus-popularised” population-centric way of war, but to what extent, we simply do not know.

In any case, to say that no political process occurred in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2005 is a pretty sweeping dismissal of a whole bunch of stuff the Afghans are rightly proud of. Sure, the international community made a mess of it, but Afghanistan did have relatively successful elections and took other steps in the right direction.

(5) Is it possible to conceive a political process in Afghanistan that will provide lasting stability that does not require some negotiations with the Taliban? And if not, what sorts of concessions might be acceptable given the stated American interests in the country?

Yes. With time and perseverance, by protecting the population and making its life better little by little, and by exploiting any cracks in the insurgency, it is possible to make the Taliban irrelevant as a military threat, forcing some elements to join the political process and marginalising the rest. Factors outside the control of the international community may also contribute to this kind of shift: strategic overreach, with the Taliban attempting a truly national, multiethnic insurgency, and fracturing in the process; or, following some violent excess, a local uproar that transforms into a wider anti-Taliban movement.

This meme about negotiating with the Taliban is curious – okay bizarre – and needs to be put to rest. At the very least, Finel and his fellow “realists” (I’m using quotes because I fail to see what any of this has to do with actual realism) should read Christian Bleuer’s cautionary tale of how an attempt to strike a deal with the Taliban would end.

(6) Many proponents of escalation in Afghanistan highlight the American moral obligation to the Afghan people, in particular to Afghan women certain to be oppressed by a Taliban resurgence and the large number of men and women who have worked with American forces who would likely be targeted for retribution. What is the nature of this moral obligation? It is absolute? Are there steps we could take to mitigate the consequences short of providing a permanent guarantee of human rights in the country?

Another strawman. Who are these “many proponents”? And where on earth would this “moral obligation” stem from? I don’t get it – is Finel suggesting this is a serious pro-war argument that needs defending?

(7) Many of the steps we are encouraging the Afghans to undertake imply tremendous long-term costs. Increasing the size and capabilities of the Afghan army, institutionalize government control and services over the whole of the country, rooting out corruption and drug trafficking are all costly measures. How will the Afghan government pay for all these commitments in the future? Will the United States be required to continue to fund Afghan government operations to the tune of several billion dollars annually indefinitely? Are we, in short, encouraging a gap between increased Afghan government obligations and likely Afghan government revenues?

In his “alternative strategy for Afghanistan”, Finel proposes:

[…] We should offer the Afghan government a wide range of assistance as we depart and after.  This should include generous development and military aid, offers to continue to train Afghan forces, mechanisms to share intelligence, diplomatic support, and even potentially some commitment of air power.

Whoa — slow down there, hoss. Surely committing oneself to propping up an unpopular and failing regime for years to come would be just as expensive as “funding Afghan government commitments” mentioned above? Seriously — why is keeping a comatose government alive by infusions of cash and guns preferable to trying to make the government work better now that we’re still physically present to make sure our contributions don’t go to waste?

(8) What is the difference between the likely future risk posed by Afghanistan versus that posed by Somalia or other states with active violent Islamist movements?

The difference is that although a spillover of extremism from Somalia may pose a risk to Kenyan stability, there are no regional flashpoints for the jihadis to exploit, and try as I might, I can’t find two nuclear-armed rivals in the neighbourhood, either. In short, no matter how much terrorism it exports, a failed state in the Horn of Africa does not increase the risk of nuclear war.

(9) How significant is the assumption that regardless of the strategic logic for American involvement, we will likely remain because an attack on the United States emanating from Afghanistan would be a disaster for any incumbent president’s political standing? In other words, must we plan to remain in Afghanistan because of strategic risks or understandable domestic political risks?

Oh boy – the strawmen just keeep on comin’. While we’re at it, how about this: “How significant is the assumption, shared by many in the United States and Europe, that the Taliban are the personification of evil? In other words, must we plan to remain in Afghanistan because of theological considerations?”

(10) How significant is the fact that the “big three” — Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mullah Omar — remain at large and that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan might allow them to return? If all three were to die, would that change the calculus about American interests in Afghanistan?

You mean if by some miracle a Predator would get them all at once? Okay, supposing it did happen, I’m sure it would be a devastating blow to both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. However, in the more likely event of all three dying in the space of, say, a year, I really don’t think it would make that much of a dent to the motivations of those left behind. And I don’t see how it would change the calculus about American interests in Afghanistan. After all, the idea according to the White Paper is to deny the jihadis a sanctuary, not just to effect a change in their leadership, right? However, knowing the mounting political pressure Obama faces over this war, the death of the “big three” might very well provide the U.S. the excuse it has been looking for to extricate itself from that godawful mess called Afghanistan.

By all accounts, Finel’s is a keen strategic intellect, and his blog is among the finest around. But his “10 questions” betray a surprisingly poor command of Central and South Asian history. And for a man who has suggested that should the Taliban return to power, the West should — wait for it — “credibly communicate our commitment to again remove them from power if they in any way tolerate the establishment of anti-American terrorist networks on their soil”, he is awfully quick to call other people’s writing inane. I mean, who’s daydreaming here? In a convoluted but widely syndicated rebuttal of an argument Josh Foust and I have made – namely, that Afghanistan as a failed state would destabilise a region with two nuclear powers, and that this should be a factor in the West’s strategic considerations – Finel conveniently forgets that no one has suggested this is the only rationale for a foreign military presence in Afghanistan but merely a facet, albeit an important one, of the larger picture.

There is an even more fundamental flaw in Finel’s thinking (and that of his fellow “realists”, including Marc Lynch and Stephen Walt): using anti-war arguments to advocate withdrawal. While these arguments – aid and assistance from afar instead of hands-on reconstruction inside the country; targeted killing of the enemy’s top echelon instead of boots on the ground, etc. – might make a reasonable case against an invasion, they make little sense in a case for pulling out. For example, one could easily oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq by arguing that the Iraqis themselves would take care of Saddam in due course; but once the war started and the forces of sectarian and ethnic hatred were unleashed, only naifs and retards cynics continued to advocate a swift departure and “letting Iraqis handle things”. Similarly, “losing face” or “damaging one’s image” might be ridiculous arguments for attacking a country, but to dismiss them out of hand as arguments against withdrawal, as Lynch has done, shows an alarming lack of understanding for the dynamics of armed conflict. To withdraw 100,000 troops (and, consequently, most civilian personnel) from a country after nine years of international effort, without resolving the conflict in any way or even agreeing on an end state, carries its own set of enormous problems, none of which Finel et al. address. By invading a country you become part of the equation, and like it or not, things won’t just go back to how they were if you suddenly decide to bring the troops home. There is a reason it’s called a footprint: if you pull the boot out carelessly, a vacuum will form, and the departing power will have little control over who or what fills it.

This is why I don’t like these military interventions: sooner or later, the international community becomes obsessed with some other thing and loses interest, and some dork guy will say it’s okay to leave now because nothing bad will happen, and he will be joined by other dorks guys, all of whom eagerly supported the war when it was still “good”, until finally, facing elections and shrinking budgets, the leaders who took us there decide it’s time to cut and run, and no one will be listening to the expert sitting in the corner puffing on his pipe and muttering that the next catastrophe is already in the making.

[UPDATE: I have emailed the following note to Bernard Finel:

Dr. Finel,

since I don’t seem to be able to log in to your blog, I wonder if you could kindly post the following as a comment:

First of all, apologies for the naifs, retards and dorks. I am unfortunately prone to this, while at the same time eagerly pointing out ad hominems when other people use them — admittedly not a very admirable personality trait.

As for my use of the words ‘inane’ and ‘ridiculous’, they were meant as humorous references to your own characterisation of some of my blog posts and those of Josh Foust.

But again, I shouldn’t take my exasperation out on someone who is actually trying to build a civilised argument as opposed to just spewing paranoid accusations as some do.

Regarding the strawmen, you have a point: I tackled your questions in the larger context of ISAF, not just the American debate. The mistake was mine, though I have to wonder why you would want to restrict the discussion to what is, after all, just one contributing country. Sure, the U.S. contribution has been sizeable, but Afghanistan is by no means solely America’s war. I would also like to point out that until 2007, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and, in fact, interest in the country was negligible given your vast resources and the importance of this theatre. I think this fact gets easily lost in the debate: has the U.S. contribution to Afghanistan since 2001 actually been adequate?

You’re correct in saying that my arguments are mostly just assertions. But so are yours. This is the nature of the debate — we’re not talking about what is, but what will or might be, if this or that happens. All we can do is extrapolate and hope for the best.

From my point of view, the bottom line regarding Western military interventions in third world countries is this: Either leave them be, or prepare to finish what you started. There’s no middle ground.

Best regards


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Matthew Yglesias thinks I’m overestimating the Taliban:

Seriously, however high ‘toppling the Pakistani government’ may be on the Taliban to-do list, it’s still, you know, hard. Indeed, it’s worth emphasizing that on both sides of the border there are actual human beings living and fighting against the Taliban who would continue to resist Taliban domination of their countries even if the United States didn’t lift a finger to help them. It’s important not to confuse the difficulty the U.S., Karzai, Pakistan, etc. have with dislodging the Pakistan from their home base with the idea that the Taliban is some kind of all-powerful super-army capable of easily overrunning Islamabad or the Panjshir Valley.

Matthew. Dude. Lemme tell you a story, hmmkay?

There was a time, back when you were, um, on fifth grade, when this weird bunch of black-turbaned madrassa students driving fancy Toyota pickups appeared out of nowhere in Southern Afghanistan. Even those of us who had been covering Afghanistan for some time went like, whoa, WTF is this now? But the country at the time was in pretty bad shape — you know, bodies on the streets and stuff — so we thought, first of all, these guys ain’t gonna last, and second, even if they did, is that really so bad, seeing as they were kind of bringing order to a crazy situation? Next thing we knew, they’d taken this butthole-of-the-world sort of town called Kandahar (pronounced like ‘Pandahar’ but with a ‘k’). We said okay, that was easy ’cause that’s their home turf, but from now on it’s uphill and getting steeper. Yeah, well. A year later they were in Herat, and then Kabul fell. And then they started striking all these deals with local honchos in places where there weren’t even any of those majority Pashtun people, and one morning we woke up and the bastards were all over Mazar-e-Sharif. They weren’t supposed to. They were supposed to be just this ragtag bunch of redneck zealots. I mean, hell, it was supposed to be, you know, hard to take over Afghanistan. But just ’cause you think nothing bad’s gonna happen doesn’t mean it won’t.

So, dude, most of us kinda spent the 90s underestimating the Taliban. We were wrong so many times a dork like yours truly couldn’t even count that far. These hillbillies turned out to be pretty awesome at manipulating other bad guys to join them and making the rest really really pissed off at each other, and they weren’t too bad at waging war, either. And when they were done, we were, like, whoa, what just happened?

Oh, and then there were these other yahoos called al-Qaeda (pronounced ‘Al Cayda’, like a mobster or something). But that’s another story.


Fabius Maximus, who I kindly suggest should breathe into a paper bag next time before posting, directs a payload of snark my way as retaliation for my Alarmist and Inflammatory South Asian Nuclear Armageddon Scenario™.  As a gentle rejoinder, I offer the following:

  1. In the space of just two and half years — that’s 32 months — after India’s second nuclear test and Pakistan carrying out its own in 1998, the two countries were on the brink of nuclear war twice. Both times, in the Kargil War of 1999 and the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, the issue was Kashmir, a conflict greatly exacerbated by the instability in Afghanistan, where many of the pro-Pakistan terrorist groups formed and trained. In short, this is a uniquely dangerous place, and if you think the probability of nuclear war is “well under 1%”, as Fabius does, please visit your local library, and we’ll talk more.
  2. Contrary to what Fabius claims, I’m not declaring anything “to be a reason for war”. I’m merely suggesting we cannot disengage without risking a wider confrontation that may include the use of weapons of mass destruction. A Taliban takeover in Afghanistan would further destabilise Pakistan, possibly prompting a military coup, which in turn would increase the risk of another standoff with India. Even more importantly, a precipitous departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan would lead to rapid loss of Western diplomatic leverage in the region. See Iraq, Republic of.
  3. Pointing out Finland’s ludicrously small contribution to ISAF, something I have frequently criticised, Fabius asks: “What do you mean by ‘we’, Mr. Lindholm?” Well, let’s see. There are 42 countries fighting this war — or “managing the crisis”, as we say in Finland –, so by “we” I could mean a pretty good cross-section of the international community, right? Or, since Finland, Sweden and Norway, together with Germany, are securing ISAF’s northern flank, I could maybe mean “the European Union”, no? Or, hey, with Swedish and Finnish troops now engaged in firefights almost daily in Sar-e-Pol, and being hit with suicide bombers and IEDs in the meantime, could I possibly mean “we Scandinavians”? Alas, with Finland lagging so embarrassingly behind in the number of combat deaths, by “we” I couldn’t possibly mean “we Finns” until we earn our place in Fabius Maximus’s short list of honourable warfighting nations, right?

[Fabius has updated his post with more huffing and puffing. Habibi: You like to say you “don’t understand” my arguments. But I think you understand them all too well; you’re just confusing “not understanding” with “not hearing what one wants to hear”. That’s okay — I get that a lot at home with my 6-year-old. I’m glad, though, that you did get the Onionesque tone of my take on Yglesias’s post. That was my way of saying I think most of the time you guys don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Maybe you’re too young, maybe you don’t study the region enough, who knows. Bottom line: with this issue, I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.]

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Suppose 9/11 never happened.

In Afghanistan, the Taleban celebrate their 13th year in power. In neighbouring Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf or another military dictator is toasting with them, comfortable in the knowledge that his country’s strategic interests are safe. Across the world, high-profile attacks by terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan are met with shock and horror, but no one is suggesting military intervention — after all, in the larger scheme of things this is a mere nuisance.

Then terrorists flying hijacked airplanes strike at the heart of India’s capital Delhi, wiping out the entire parliament and killing the prime minister.

Pakistan denies involvement, but India mobilises. A fighter jet is shot down, a town shelled, an incursion repelled. Both sides issue veiled threats as cries of total war grow louder.

Then terrorists strike again, this time in Mumbai, killing hundreds.

And then, just like that, before the outside world can utter a word, missiles are launched.

Years later, when the costs are counted, it is said, with some pride, that clearing the radioactive ruins of Delhi, Mumbai, Lahore and Islamabad is the greatest undertaking mankind has ever attempted.

If you think this is just an alarmist fantasy, well, what can I say — I don’t. In fact, I think it may be too optimistic. In reality, were the Taleban to return to power in Afghanistan today, they would be immensely more powerful, dedicated and internationalist in their outlook than they were in 2001. After years of jihad alongside al-Qaeda and other international militants, they would not merely allow terrorist organisations to use Afghanistan as a base; they would encourage it. Naturally, toppling the Pakistani government by supporting their Pashtun brethren would be high on the Taleban to-do list, as they would want to see a friendly, ISI-backed general return to power in Islamabad. In turn, they would gladly help in providing him with the terrorist cannon fodder he would need for his covert operations in India.

I respect and admire Stephen Walt, Michael Cohen and Bernard Finel, and I find many of their arguments for scaling down our involvement in Afghanistan seductive. But so far they’ve shown little understanding for the geopolitical dimensions of the conflict. They’re skillful at pointing out false narratives about the terrorist threat to the U.S., yet curiously myopic when it comes to the potentially devastating effects a single terrorist-growing failed state in South Asia can have on that nuclear-armed region.

For example, Finel writes:

[…] The Taliban — if it did seize power, which is no sure thing — would likely find itself starved for resources to maintain itself in power.  Indeed, it is probably as likely that efforts to retain control would drain resources currently devoted to the campaign in Pakistan.  This may be one reason, by the way, why Pakistan was under less threat from Islamist radicals from 1996 to 2001 when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan then in the years since.

Actually, no. Pakistan was under no threat from the Taleban or its own Islamists because it supported them. Power-hungry generals and clueless civilians had been pampering the extreme fringe for years to bolster their domestic support and control Afghanistan. A toxic swamp of radicalism, self-interest and megalomania had formed in what is now called “AfPak”, and from this sludge grew terrorist organisations with global ambitions. Without access to the training grounds of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s intelligence service would’ve found it difficult to build the militant armies it sent to invade Indian-controlled Kashmir in the early 90s; and without Kashmir in flames, the nuclear close-calls of 1999 and 2001 never would have happened.

Do we need 101,000 soldiers in Afghanistan to prevent Pakistan and India from going to war? Yes — for lack of a better alternative. We need them there simply because we cannot pull them out. We cannot withdraw, we cannot scale down, and we certainly cannot turn the war into a counter-terrorist operation. Without our involvement the Taleban would be back in Kabul. Worse still, we wouldn’t have had the accompanying diplomatic efforts that have already prevented at least one regional flare-up, after Mumbai.

Further reading:

Peter Bergen: How Realistic is Walt’s Realism?
Stephen Biddle: Is It Worth It?
Paul Cruikshank: A Different Take on the “Safe Haven” Myth
John Mueller: How Dangerous Are the Taliban?

[UPDATE: Bernard Finel proposes an alternative strategy. More later.]

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In a rare bit of good news, President Asif Ali Zardari today announced Pakistan would allow political activity in the violent Pashtun tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

In other news, the head of Zardari’s party was recently witnessed honing his oratorial skills:

[h/t: The Pakistan Policy Blog.]

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Everyone and their neighbour seems to be linking to Shaun Gregory’s article in the CTC Sentinel about nuclear security in Pakistan, so let me pitch in. First, here’s the passage that’s giving us the creeps:

A series of attacks on nuclear weapons facilities has also occurred. These have included an attack on the nuclear missile storage facility at Sargodha on November 1, 2007, an attack on Pakistan’s nuclear airbase at Kamra by a suicide bomber on December 10, 2007, and perhaps most significantly the August 20, 2008 attack when Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers blew up several entry points to one of the armament complexes at the Wah cantonment, considered one of Pakistan’s main nuclear weapons assembly sites.

Notice those teeny-tiny numbers dotting Gregory’s prose? They’re called footnotes. If you look at the equivalent numbers at the bottom of the page, you will notice that, in fact, it’s not the writer himself who has come up with this information but… whoa, some other dude called Bill Roggio. Here’s what Roggio writes (no doubt referencing the Pakistani media although not crediting them):

Two days after an al Qaeda suicide bomber killed eight in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, a suicide bomber drove his motorcycle into a bus at an air base in Sargodha in the province of Punjab.

Okay, so we have a guy blowing up an airforce bus. Is that an “attack on a nuclear weapons facility”? Not sure? Let’s look up the other Roggio piece Gregory is paraphrasing. Titled “Al Qaeda, Taliban targeting Pakistani nuclear sites”, the article opens with a bang:

After a closer look at the bases struck inside Pakistan since August, at least two more strikes occurred either on or near nuclear weapons storage facilities, based on open source information on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programs. Since August 2007, there have been two suicide attacks at or near the Sargodha Air Force Base, a nuclear weapons and missile storage facility in central Punjab province. Other attacks in Punjab and the Northwest Frontier Province may be aimed at facilities providing regional security for Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Jeez… but wait. What kind of attacks, exactly? Let’s follow Roggio’s links… Oops — they just lead to more Roggio stuff.

In the end, all we have is a list of military facilities “at or near which” some sort of terrorist attacks have occurred and that are somehow, maybe, kinda, linked to Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Even if we forget the fact that almost every military base in Pakistan can be said to be part of the country’s nuke complex, and that military bases are traditional terrorist targets whether they have some secret mission or not, this all sounds a little tenuous, wouldn’t you say? Not according to Gregory, who sums up with a gasp: “The significance of these events is difficult to overstate.”

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