Thursday, November 13, 2008

Afghanistan and Friends

There's all sorts of mad darkness in the Afghanistan War. I'm totally, dismally, unsurprised how little MSM coverage the consequences of the war in that part of the world has received. I'm going to try to give an update here, which is basically as impossible a task as winning a land-war in Asia (glad we're not trying to do that) because I'm not going to recap five-thousand years of tribal history. But anyway, I'll give a status snapshot and then talk about options moving forward and what Obama seems to be thinking about in terms of strategy. Also, for a terrific analysis of this epic-fail clusterfuck, watch Frontline - The War Briefing (hat-tip to Ike). The first segment is posted below.


George Bush's policy towards Pakistan included billions of dollars in aide and pressure to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Waziristan. The Pakistani government - now led by the late Benazir Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari - is weak and its military intelligence agency, the ISI, harbors Taliban sympathies. Pushing the Pakistanis too hard, or continuing cross-border raids into Pakistan, delegitimizes the government further and fuels nationalist sentiments. If the government in Pakistan fails, it is likely the Taliban-friendly ISI would fill the vacuum and control the country's arsenal of 50+ nuclear weapons.

Fleshing Things Out:

The people Don Rumsfeld scoffed at for not being "good targets" for his smart bombs - the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the tribal warriors along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border - are bloodletting the United States.

Neither Alexander the Great, the British Empire, nor the Soviet Union have ever been able to quell the people that inhabit the border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Wrote former CIA chief in Pakistan, Milt Bearden, in the International Herald Tribune in March of 2004: "The Pashtuns... have lived on their lands without interruption or major migration for about 20,000 years. They know their neighborhood very well, and their men have been armed to the teeth since the first bow was strung. Their ancient code involves a commitment to hospitality, revenge and the honor of the tribe."
In Pakistan, North and South Waziristan constitute the majority of the territory in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. There are about 750,000 Waziri living in North and South Waziristan. After the initial coalition invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda remnants fell back across the Pakistani border to Waziristan where, as outsiders and not native Waziris, they were less than welcome. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda murdered Waziri leaders who resisted their presence and now reside comfortably in the tribal area. Waziristan is now a base of operations for supplying fighters in Afghanistan and carrying out attacks in Pakistan.

Today, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are moving not only toward the Afghan capitol, Kabul, where there was a suicide attack today, but also into Peshawar - a city of three million that governs the tribal regions of Pakistan and is a quick jaunt through the woods from the capitol, Islamabad. It was in Peshawar that an American aide worker was assassinated the other day. Attacks against the Pakistani government, as well as coalition troops in Afghanistan, are increasing. In September a suicide bomber detonated a massive truck bomb outside the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, killing 53 people, shortly before government heads were to meet there.
Moving Forward:

Though Iraq gets all the attention and is sapping money from our treasury more quickly, Afghanistan is by far the harder war to win. Sucks, huh?

The $10 billion Musharraf received from Bush was meant to train Pakistani troops in counter-insurgency warfare. Instead, Musharraf used it to equip his army for a war with India, Pakistan's mortal enemy. The result is a military that may be suited for fighting the Nazis in Europe, but gets beat to a pulp by the cave-dwelling guerillas in Waziristan.

A continuation of the Bush policies will end in the collapse of the Pakistani government and a much larger problem than the one we have on our hands now. Had John McCain been elected, that outcome would have been assured. But it is certainly still a possibility with a President Obama.

Just a few days before the election, Obama said on MSNBC (not for the first time, I don't think), “the most important thing we’re going to have to do with respect to Afghanistan is actually deal with Pakistan. And we’ve got to work with the newly elected government there (Pakistan) in a coherent way that says, terrorism is now a threat to you. Extremism is a threat to you. We should — try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they (Pakistan) can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.”

India flipped out at the suggestion of this and told Obama to back off. India and Pakistan have had back-channel discussions on Kashmir lately and been less bellicose towards one another. I think it's possible Pakistan's government - meaning the Zardari contingent - would be happy to have Kashmir, and thus India, off their mind. But convincing the ISI is another matter. The ISI have collaborated openly with the Taliban and actually prefer that they are in control in Afghanistan as a guard against India. When Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, allowed India to open embassies across the country, the ISI reacted by helping the Taliban bomb the Indian embassy in Kabul.

I think the real heart of this matter is the relationship between, and ability to project force by, the ISI and the Pakistani government. We can, and should, send aid to Pakistan that winds up paying for a hospital instead of a tank. But if the ISI is able to undermine Zardari at every step, collaborate with Taliban when helpful, and stand in a position to scoop up power if Zardari falls, then we'll never make any progress.

Every empire that has gotten itself tangled up in Waziristan and its tribal population has had to give up or died trying to win. I don't see any reason why we should expect a better outcome. Except we can't really afford to lose in this region. Iraq may not have had a single WMD, but Pakistan has fifty.

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