Thursday, April 07, 2011

Anatol Lieven on Pakistan and on the Afghanistan War

I heard a presentation yesterday at UC-Berkeley by Anatol Lieven, a former journalist who covered Pakistan extensively who is now Professor of War Studies at King's College in London. He has spent time fairly recently in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, which has been the scene of conflict between the Pakistani Army and the Pakistani Taliban.

I asked him what he thought from his research was the current state of Bin Laden's original Al Qa'ida organization. His picture is that there's no much left of Bin Laden's group in the sense of a cohesive, command-and-control type organization. He said that while it would be a great morale booster for the West to kill or capture Bin Laden or his deputy Zawahiri, that it would not likely make much difference in terms of the actual terrorism threat for the United States.

He sees the terrorism threat from radical jihadists as being a loosely connected network of groups, some of which use the name "Al Qa'ida" (like Al Qa'ida in the Magreb) and may have had some direct connection to Bin Laden's group at some point, and others of which are radical Salafi jihadists with similar ideas but no direct connection to the original group. He said that some of the connections between such groups are like nodes in a computer network, with others are more diffuse like (he used a literally cosmic example) intergalactic gases clumping here and there.

But he also told an interesting story about a group of Baluch smugglers who got busted in Pakistan within the relatively recent past. This was a group who had worked closely with Bin Laden's Al Qa'ida smuggling Qa'ida fighters back and forth across the Afghan-Pakistan border. It emerged that they were smuggling a variety of international fighters into Afghanistan to work with the Afghan Taliban, including a group of Muslim doctors from Russia. (I believe he said Russia and not the former Soviet Union.) Lieven concludes from this that some remnant of Bin Laden's group is using that loose international network to act as personnel "headhunters" for the Afghan Taliban. But he stressed that this was not in the sense of a centralized organization with officals like a "station chief in Karachi" or whatever. But rather a dispersed network where word gets passed along that the Afghan Taliban is looking for certain kinds of specialists, like medical personnel and they arrange for them to be smuggled in.

His picture of the current relationship between the Pakistani army and intelligence with Pakistani jihadist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) that concentrate on the Kashmir issue is that they have a basic deal. They refrain from attacks in Western countries, which is particularly good for Britain, because a lot of the Pakistani immigrants to Britain come from the Punjab region near Kashmir and a lot of them are very sympathetic to LET. And mostly they have to refrain from attacks on India at the moment, after the huge Mumbai incident, with the promise they'll get to hit India again in the future. But they pretty much have a green light to help the Afghan Taliban against NATO and the Karzai government. Including the occasional target with special connection to India.

He stressed how much Pakistanis see the Afghanistan War in the context of the India-Pakistan conflict, with the current Afghan government being seen as pro-Indian. This is something that seems to only occasionally peek into American commentary on the war, so far as I've noticed. And this is a big part of what makes US-Pakistani relationship chronically troubled.

Lieven mentioned that the Pakistani elite tend to have a very Western orientation in terms of speaking English and sending their kids to Western universities and also in terms of their conception of property, etc. But he also said that many Pakistani officials would like to dump the current unsatisfying alliance with the US altogether and become an even closer ally to China.

He told about one factor I hadn't heard at all before. He said that it was common among Pashtun families (I took it he meant mainly in Pakistan) to send one son from the family to serve with the Pakistani Army and another to serve with the Afghanistan Taliban. When one of the two groups comes around looking for the son on the other side, the family can say, oh, that son's a bum and drug addict and a loser, but our good, sensible son is on *your* side.

He also said that the US military's perception that a lot of Afghan Taliban flee "across the border" to Pakistan is mistaken. What often happens, and what happened a lot in 2001-2, was that they simply go home and bury their weapons and wait to see how the military tide turns.

Lieven said that in his conversations with American military officials, they don't have a clear idea of what winning would mean. But they are haunted by their perceptions of Vietnam, which represents a clear idea of what losing would mean, the image of the helicopter on the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon in 1975 being a dramatic example. This is an interesting observation, because to hear official Pentagon spokespeople tell it, our armed forces haven't lost a single battle since probably Custer's Last Stand. And, more specifically, there is a widespread assumption in the officer corps that US *won* the Vietnam War militarily but that our victorious generals were stabbed in the back by the weak-kneed politicians and gutless civilians back home. (Though obviously not all versions are expressed that crassly.)

Lieven also says in that connection that the Pentagon right now tends to view an exit view a general peace agreement with the Taliban as being a kind of unacceptable defeat. He thinks the reports we hear of negotiations with the Taliban represents what he says was a similar approach by the Soviets to make one-off deals with individual commanders. But he thinks the Pentagon is pretty dead set against any general agreement with the Afghan Taliban. He said we shouldn't underestimate the Pentagon's determination to fight on for years to avoid what they see as a humiliating defeat.

Which tells me that if it's left up to our generals, we'll never stop fighting in Afghanistan. That seems to have been the case in Iraq, too; McCain's promise in 2008 of 100 year's war in Iraq reflected something like that attitude. But in Iraq's case, the pro-Iranian government in Baghdad eventually insisted on a status-of-force agreement that pulls out remaining US combat troops this year. And I'm already seeing some reports that the Pentagon is trying to find a way around that.

Lieven also said that it's his sense that the Pentagon is very cautious about any idea of going into Pakistan in a ground war. Which he thinks is a very appropriate caution. He has the sense that sending US ground troops into Pakistan on a large scale would probably wreck the US position completely in the Muslim world. He thinks that the operatives that the US has on the ground there now are "hostages to fate," as the Raymond Davis case illustrated so dramatically this year.

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