Archive for the ‘Pakistan’ Category

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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Pakistanis oppose American drone strikes but want to see the Taleban crushed militarily, hate their president and would rather have his opponent in power, and think the biggest threat to their country is… the United States.

This, and other interesting stuff, in the new Al Jazeera/Gallup Pakistan Survey.

[h/t NightWatch.]

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For reasons beyond me, Atlantic-Community.org asked me to take part in their expert survey on EU policy towards Pakistan. I hardly qualify as an “international expert”, but in case you’re interested, here’s what I wrote them:

How does Pakistan’s instability impact EU security concerns?

I believe the extent of Pakistan’s political instability is somewhat exaggerated. The Pakistani state is generally more robust and popular opinion in the country more anti-extremist than we in the West think. That being said, even if a sudden collapse of the state is unlikely, prolonged armed conflict in the tribal areas will have a slowly destabilising effect on the fragile Pakistani democracy. If the democratic institutions prove unable to withstand the pressures and Pakistan once again reverts to military rule, it will have an immediate effect on EU security concerns, as Pakistan’s generals have a history of supporting extremists to further their own agenda.

What should be the guiding principles of the European Union’s foreign policy in the region?

Bolstering democracy, good governance, economic development and human rights. War fighting — including counterinsurgency and counterterrorism — is already being taken care of by our partner across the Atlantic.

How could/should the EU’s policy vis-à-vis Pakistan complement US policy in the region?

According to President Barack Obama, the core U.S. goal in the region is “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” The recent change of American ISAF commanders in Kabul also points to a change in strategy from classic counterinsurgency / nation building to a more narrowly focused and kinetic approach. While a simultanious “civilian surge” has been promised, it is doubtful whether the U.S. at this time is capable or even willing to invest more in building the Afghan state. This is clearly where the EU should step up its efforts. Also, as the future of a non-Taliban Afghanistan hinges on fully capable security forces, the shortcomings in police training need to be taken seriously and addressed without delay. (The same applies to Pakistan — as the police there are on the frontlines in the fight against the militants, help is urgently needed.)

[Click here for the whole shebang. Péter’s answers are here.]

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In Triage, the new CNAS report on Afghanistan and Pakistan authored by Andrew Exum, Nathaniel Fick, Ahmed Humayun and David Kilcullen, the word ‘Taliban’ is used 69 times. For example:

The Taliban is pursuing a strategy of exhaustion designed to bleed away public support in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe for continued Western engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan.


In Afghanistan, Taliban influence has displaced government control in large sections of the country, while the government and the coalition have been unable or unwilling to guarantee security for the people.


Taliban control is increasing along with civilian casualties. According to one estimate, the Taliban have a ‘heavy presence’ across approximately three-quarters of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts, up from one-half only one year ago.


Until the coalition and the Afghan government are able to do so, the Taliban will maintain and expand their control, compelling and persuading the people of Afghanistan to resist the government and the coalition.

My question is this: if these bad guys are so important as to warrant being mentioned 69 times, how come not one word in the 36-page report is devoted to defining who they actually are?

The answer, of course, is that such a definition would’ve exposed a fundamental flaw in the strategy the authors propose. While a group called ‘the Taliban’ does indeed exist, CNAS has chosen to use the term to denote all non-AQ opposition to the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition. This misidentifies a wide range of forces currently destabilising Afghanistan, and frankly, I’m at a loss as to why guys with this much combined brainpower didn’t bother to sort out the mess.

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Finally, something to applaud:

Pakistan’s government agreed on Monday to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry as chief justice to defuse a political crisis and end a street agitation that was threatening to turn into violent confrontation.

Iraq provides the cloud for the silver lining:

In Anbar Province, six former Camp Bucca detainees were on their way home on Friday when local police officers abducted and killed them in revenge for their days as insurgents, according to relatives of the victims.

In Wasit Province, a hard-line new police chief appointed by the prime minister has been transferring corrupt policemen out of the area, but local political opponents say that is the reason the local murder rate seems to have doubled.

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