Juan Cole takes a critical look at Obama's Afghanistan War strategy in Obama's domino theorySalon 03/30/09. His analysis raises several important questions.
One is the question of the stability of the central government of Pakistan. The Obama administration's rhetoric about Pakistan and that of many supporters of the war make Pakistan sound like a borderline failed state. In his announcement of his war strategy on March 27, Obama talked about Pakistan as follows:
It's been more than seven years since the Taliban was removed from power, yet war rages on, and insurgents control parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. ...
The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan. In the nearly eight years since 9/11, al Qaeda and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier. This almost certainly includes al Qaeda's leadership: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. They have used this mountainous terrain as a safe haven to hide, to train terrorists, to communicate with followers, to plot attacks, and to send fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world. ...
The people of Pakistan want the same things that we want: an end to terror, access to basic services, the opportunity to live their dreams, and the security that can only come with the rule of law. The single greatest threat to that future comes from al Qaeda and their extremist allies, and that is why we must stand together.
The terrorists within Pakistan's borders are not simply enemies of America or Afghanistan -- they are a grave and urgent danger to the people of Pakistan. Al Qaeda and other violent extremists have killed several thousand Pakistanis since 9/11. They've killed many Pakistani soldiers and police. They assassinated Benazir Bhutto. They've blown up buildings, derailed foreign investment, and threatened the stability of the state. So make no mistake: al Qaeda and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within.
It's important for the American people to understand that Pakistan needs our help in going after al Qaeda. This is no simple task. The tribal regions are vast, they are rugged, and they are often ungoverned. And that's why we must focus our military assistance on the tools, training and support that Pakistan needs to root out the terrorists. And after years of mixed results, we will not, and cannot, provide a blank check.
Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders. And we will insist that action be taken -- one way or another -- when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets. ...
Al Qaeda's offers the people of Pakistan nothing but destruction.
Are Islamic extremists, specifically the groups the US government describes as "Taliban" and "Al Qa'ida" really a critical threat to the Pakistani government? Cole is dubious:
While the emergence of "Pakistani Taliban" in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is a blow to Pakistan's security, they have just been defeated in one of the seven major tribal agencies, Bajaur, by a concerted and months-long campaign of the highly professional and well-equipped Pakistani army. United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates replied last summer to the idea that al-Qaida is regrouping in Pakistan and forms a new and vital threat to the West: "Actually, I don't agree with that assessment, because when al-Qaida was in Afghanistan, they had the partnership of a government. They had ready access to international communications, ready access to travel, and so on. Their circumstances in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and on the Pakistani side of the border are much more primitive. And it's much more difficult for them to move around, much more difficult for them to communicate."
As for a threat to Pakistan, the FATA areas are smaller than Connecticut, with a total population of a little over 3 million, while Pakistan itself is bigger than Texas, with a population more than half that of the entire United States. A few thousand Pashtun tribesmen cannot take over Pakistan, nor can they "kill" it. The Pakistani public just forced a military dictator out of office and forced the reinstatement of the Supreme Court, which oversees secular law. Over three-quarters of Pakistanis said in a poll last summer that they had an unfavorable view of the Taliban, and a recent poll found that 90 percent of them worried about terrorism. To be sure, Pakistanis are on the whole highly opposed to the U.S. military presence in the region, and most outside the tribal areas object to U.S. Predator drone strikes on Pakistani territory. The danger is that the U.S. strikes may make the radicals seem victims of Western imperialism and so sympathetic to the Pakistani public.
... Pashtun tribes in northwestern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan have a long history of dissidence, feuding and rebellion, which is now being branded Talibanism and configured as a dire menace to the Western way of life. Obama has added yet another domino theory to the history of Washington's justifications for massive military interventions in Asia. When a policymaker gets the rationale for action wrong, he is at particular risk of falling into mission creep and stubborn commitment to a doomed and unnecessary enterprise. [my emphasis]
Yesterday I heard the first hour or so of a lecture by one of Pakistan's leading journalists, Hamid Mir of Geo News. He talked about the nature of those Pashtun frontier areas and said that the Pakistani government really has very little actual presence in those areas. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border, based on the Durand Line drawn by the British, doesn't function as a border in the normal sense of the word, according to Mir. The Pashtun tribes in that area are used to passing back and forth across it. He also said that no visa is required for travel from Pakistan to Afghanistan, except for journalists. Part of his point was that it's misleading to talk about that area being a "safe haven" for fighters from Afghanistan. Because to most of the people in those areas, there really is no border in the normal sense of the word. But his description of the ways in which the frontier badlands are isolated from the politics of the rest of Pakistan is also consistent with Cole's.
The notion of Pakistan being in imminent danger of being overthrown by Salafi (Al Qa'ida-style) extremists is sound pretty unlikely to me. The United States has a clear interest in finding Osama bin Laden and the remnants of his organization. But it's hard to avoid the impression that the Obama administration is indulging in a significant "threat inflation" around the Afghanistan War.
Cole was been critical of Obama's position on this war during the Presidential campaign, for instance in Obama is saying the wrong things about Afghanistan Salon 07/23/08. Cole's description of the badlands of western Pakistan seem to be in line with Mir's observations about the isolation of the region:
Pakistan, a country of 165 million people, is composed of six major ethnic groups, one of them the Pashtuns of the northwest. The Pakistani Taliban are largely drawn from this group. The more settled Pashtun population is centered in the North-West Frontier province, with its capital at Peshawar. Between the NWFP and Afghanistan are badlands administered rather as Native American reservations are in the U.S., called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, with a population of some 3 million. These areas abut Pashtun provinces of Afghanistan, also a multiethnic society, but one in which Pashtuns are a plurality.
The tribal Pashtuns of the FATA no man's land, a third of which is classified as "inaccessible" by the Pakistani government, have sometimes given shelter to al-Qaida or Afghan Taliban militants. Some of the Pashtun tribesmen themselves have turned militant, and have been responsible for suicide bombings at police checkpoints inside Pakistan. They are also accused of attacking targets across the border in Afghanistan and of giving refuge to Afghan Taliban who conduct cross-border raids.
The governor of the North-West Frontier province, Owais Ghani, immediately spoke out against Obama, saying that the senator's remarks had the effect of undermining the new civilian government elected last February. Ghani warned that a U.S. incursion into the northwestern tribal areas would have "disastrous" consequences for the globe.
The governor underlined that a "war on terrorism" policy depended on popular support for it, and that such support was being leeched away by U.S. strikes on the Pakistan side of the border and by statements such as Obama's. A recent American attack mistakenly killed Pakistani troops who had been sent to fight the Pakistani Taliban at American insistence. The Pakistani public was furious. Ghani complained, "Candidate Obama gave these statements; I come out openly and say such statements undermine support, don't do it."
The NWFP governor is responsible for Pakistani counterinsurgency efforts in his province and in the neighboring tribal regions. He is well thought of in Pakistan because of his successes in Baluchistan province, which he governed for five years prior to January of this year, where he combined political negotiations with militants and targeted military action when he felt it necessary. He firmly subordinated the military strategy to civilian politics and negotiations. That is, Ghani is a politician with long experience in dealing with tribal insurgencies. [my emphasis]
Another problem on which Cole touches, closely related to the claimed threat of "Taliban" takeovers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is the question of just who are the present-day "Taliban"?
The truth is, it's almost impossible to tell from the meager information we get through our media, which is distracted by other urgent matters such as Michele Obama's fashion sense. But this makes it all the more disturbing that Obama initiated a new strategy for this war without a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the situation. Cole argues that only a portion of the fighters coded by the American press as "Taliban" are someone directly related to the old Afghan Taliban regime of Mullah Omar. Is that true? And, if so, are these groups capable of seizing power in either country? Are they more or less compatible with US interests than the original Taliban?
Another issue is the air strikes on Pakistani villages, and Afghan villages as well. As Cole points out in both articles cited here, even Pakistanis outside the tribal areas get upset when the United States blows up civilian noncombatants in their country. That shouldn't be a hard concept to grasp. The same is true in Afghanistan.
And there is little doubt that many of those air strikes, which are presented to the public as more-or-less targeted assassinations, are killing civilian noncombatants. Mir said that he had personally investigated 11 drone strikes in Pakistan. In only two did he find evidence that anyone involved with the Taliban had been killed, and those were only low-level participants.
Another problematic matter to me is the stability of the Afghan government. I've been assuming for years that it's barely hanging on because of the persistent reports that it effectively controls only the capital city of Kabul.
But Hamid Karzai's government is into its seventh year now. And by previous Afghan standards, that's a pretty enduring incumbency. There's also the fact that power in Afghanistan has always tended to be heavily vested in regional warlords, a structure which the Cheney-Bush strategy heavily reinforced. So the absence of a strong central government there doesn't necessarily equal stability or vulnerability to insurgent takeovers. While Cole's argument on the stability of the Karzai government hasn't convinced me, not least because of chronic problems in building up the Afghan armed forces, it's not something I'm willing to ignore at this point.
Pakistan's long-term conflict with India over Kashmir is inevitably connected with the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation, although American press analyses of the area normally give it little if any attention. As long as that conflict is essentially frozen as it is now, Pakistan is going to want a friendly government in Kabul. And they view the Karzai government as "pro-India". Pakistan is never going to fully cooperate with the US-NATO-Afghan counterinsurgency efforts as long as that's the case.
Then we have a new, intransigent government in Israel. This is going to complicate the United States' dealings with the Muslim world. Especially with an escalating war lead by the US in Afghanistan. Ever more so if the war keeps expanding into Pakistan. The Obama administration doesn't seem to be looking at the fact that a protracted American war is a problem in itself. Their pronouncement on this war strike me as though they were written for this time of the year in 2002. Instead of in 2009, when we're into our eighth year of war in Afghanistan.