Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

03 June 2009


[For a note on Pakistan’s huge potential for good, click here.]

In his delusion, Dubya thought the central front in his “war on terror” was Iraq. As candidate, President Obama said it was Afghanistan. It is neither. It is Pakistan.

Why Pakistan? Because Al Qaeda is there. So is bin Laden, if still alive. Zawahiri is also undoubtedly there, and he’s smarter, healthier and probably more dangerous than bin Laden ever was. The Taliban are also there.

That’s also where the Islamic nukes are. If Al Qaeda or the Taliban get their hands on a working nuke, the world will change for the foreseeable future. It might not be New York or D.C. that goes; we Americans have always been a peripheral concern of Islamic extremists. It might be Cairo, because Egypt’s persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood started the whole movement off. Or (because Mecca and Medina are sacred) it might be Riyadh, as the Saudi Royal Family is first on Al Qaeda’s list. No one will be safe if unaccountable fanatics get nukes, let alone them who sit in the fanatics’ most immediate cross-hairs.

That’s why Pakistan’s tribal areas are so important. They are just like Afghanistan before 9/11: they are ungoverned areas that serve as safe havens for terrorists and extremists.

But while the safe havens are ungoverned, the rest of Pakistan is not. It’s a moderate, democratic Islamic nation of 173 million people with a strong sense of sovereignty and a (perhaps false) self-assurance instilled by British colonizers. It has a weak but functioning democracy and a strong, well-organized military ready to step in again if democracy falters. One way or another, Pakistan is not about to tolerate heavy-handed intervention by outsiders until (perhaps) it is too late for intervention to do any good.

Thus the first thing to understand about Pakistan is that it is neither Afghanistan or Iraq. Afghanistan was an ungoverned no-man’s land immediately after 9/11. It was a relatively easy place for us to step in and make our own rules. Iraq was similar. It suffered an enormous power vacuum after we deposed Saddam, and we were there, on the ground, in force (although not enough force to prevent temporary catastrophe). In contrast, Pakistan is a fully functioning state jealous of its sovereignty, with a few areas within its borders that have been ungoverned for decades.

Nearly three decades ago, in his book Among the Believers, an Islamic Journey, the great writer V.S. Naipaul described the problems of ungoverned Baluchistan, which lies just southwest of the critical border areas. Since then, not much has changed in the ungoverned areas besides Al Qaeda’s largely failed attempt to infiltrate their ancient cultures. Pakistan is a unique nation, and analogies just don’t apply.

The second thing to understand about Pakistan is a consequence of the first. The more we storm in like Rambo with all guns blazing, the less progress we will make. Not only will we alienate the local population whom our excessive firepower maims. We will also alienate the vast majority of peaceful, democratic Pakistanis—including moderate Muslims—who can’t understand why a Western nation (which reminds them of the British who let Kashmir be divided) is coming half way around the world to invade their country, destroy their homes and kill innocent civilians (even if by accident).

So the best way to work in Pakistan is to work with the Pakistanis and through Pakistan’s government, as slow and frustrating as doing so may be. If we do anything directly, it should be as covert and subtle as possible and with the explicit or tacit approval of Pakistan’s authorities.

Beyond these two rather obvious points, nothing about Pakistan is easy. Until their recent invasion of the Swat Valley, it has not even been easy to convince Pakistani authorities that the Taliban and Al Qaeda pose real threats. The authorities seemed to say the right words only for international consumption (and to insure the continued flow of American aid).

There are historical reasons for that attitude. For decades the central government’s writ has barely run to places like the northwestern tribal areas and Baluchistan, and the state has not crumbled. Lacking our formal structure of federalism, Punjabi-dominated Pakistan nevertheless has tolerated great autonomy in non-Punjabi areas, with considerable success. Those areas are backward but until recently haven’t caused much trouble. Convincing Pakistanis that their residents have become mortal threats has been a bit like convincing Americans to believe the same about Cajuns in Louisiana. The first reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

As for the Taliban’s recent success, it is one thing to terrorize simple peasants and residents of an erstwhile resort in the Swat Valley. It is quite another thing to take on the dominant ethnic group (Punjabis) in their stronghold in Islamabad, where they presumably have a high degree of social, political, military and police organization.

Again, think of our own country. Suppose someone warned that the folks from Appalachia had become militant and were moving on New York City. Would you believe them? Would you be worried? I don’t mean to say that this analogy is strong, but that’s probably the mindset. The first reaction was disbelief, based on decades of peaceful co-existence with loosely governed local tribes and warlords.

How did we break through the disbelief? Maybe General Petraeus huddled in a room with Pakistan’s military and intelligence leaders and put on a slide show from Iraq. Maybe he told them,
“You folks have lots of ethnic groups who’ve gotten along for decades. Besides the Kurds, Iraq had only two big ones: Sunni and Shiite. Until recently, you’ve had virtually no trouble with inter-ethnic discord or religious extremism. Neither did Iraq during Saddam’s brutal rule.”

“But look what happened. See the Golden Mosque at Samarra destroyed. See the marketplaces blasted. See Baghdad’s ethnic neighborhoods cleansed, bloodied and walled off. See the revenge killings, the blood, gore and bodies. See the count of dead and wounded.”

“This is not an accident. It’s the result of a deliberate strategy. This is what Al Qaeda and the Taliban do. This is how they operate. It begins with beheading policemen and tribal leaders and escalates from there. If you don’t wise up, pictures like these could be coming from Islamabad and Rawalpindi in a year or two. Even if there’s only a small chance of that happening, you’ve got to take action now.”
Maybe we put on such a slide show, and maybe Pakistan’s leaders finally got it. Their huge military operation in the Swat Valley is far from an assured success, but it’s not a token effort either.

Besides the strong skepticism of Pakistan’s leaders, there’s another big problem. Pakistan’s intelligence service, called the ISI, is far too provincial and misfocused. It might be better named the Kashmir Grievance Society. It may work adequately in the big Punjab cities; after all, the Pakistanis gave us Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. But if the ISI had even halfway decent intelligence in non-Punjabi areas we wouldn’t be in the fix we’re in.

So one part of our and Pakistan’s problem is turning the ISI into a real intelligence service capable of operating effectively outside the Punjab. That’s not going to be easy, but we and the Pakistanis have to try. The alternative is giving a whole bunch of clueless Americans total-immersion courses in local dialects and letting their foreign complexions and foreign accents paint targets on their backs while they inadvertently stir up trouble violating Pakistani sovereignty and local cultural norms. That’s a recipe for disaster. What we need is good intelligence in the difficult areas, which (for the foreseeable future) only the Pakistanis can provide.

How is Pakistan’s current military-colonial invasion of the Swat Valley going to work out? We all hope it succeeds. But will the locals see the invading Punjabis as any different from the British and other invaders going back to Alexander the Great? Only time will tell.

There is little chance of long-term success unless the Pakistani military adopts the same kind of intelligent, forward-leaning anti-insurgency strategy that General Petraeus used to pull our irons out of the fire in Iraq. Pakistan’s military, which is heavily bureaucratized and focused on fighting major wars with India, is going to have to morph into a quick learner.

Taking the Valley from remaining Taliban forces after the civilians have fled probably won’t be hard. But who’s going to keep the Taliban from exchanging their black turbans for white, slipping right back in, and whispering in locals’ ears, “Those damn Punjabis blew up your house and killed your brother while he was fleeing!”

Petraean “clear, hold and build” tactics could work in the Valley as they did in Iraq. But it will take time and good intelligence to gain the locals’ trust and root out the bad guys.

It would be better if, after clearing the Valley, Pakistani forces had intelligence good enough to keep the bad guys from returning in the first place. But that sort of intelligence is unlikely, and the many paths back through the mountains are hard to police. It may be a year or two before the Pakistani military gains enough public trust and has enough intelligence just to clear, hold and build. We’ve got to be patient and hope our advice is heard.

What about our drones? Are they helping our hurting? As a persuasive piece in the New York Times argued recently, what they give in Taliban and Al Qaeda body counts, they take away in resentment and anger over “collateral damage.” Our current drones are just too big, too expensive (at $10 million a pop) and too loaded with firepower for this mission. (So are our manned aircraft, as recently admitted military mistakes that produced nasty “collateral damage” to civilians show.)

Almost a year ago, I suggested that we need small, cheap drones, costing no more than $5,000 each, that are agile enough to take a single target’s picture and then take him out. Until we have them, we should reserve Predators for bin Laden and Zawahiri alone.

So there is no magic bullet, and it’s going to be a long, hard slog. The good news is that the Pakistanis can and will do most of the hard work, unless they invite us in, which is unlikely. The bad news is that we must sit on the sidelines, give training and assistance, and watch and wait. It’ll be a bit like rooting for the home team when your life is at stake. Although the part of the war in Pakistan is going to cost us a lot of money, it shouldn’t cost many American lives.

In any event, Pakistan is far from Vietnam or Iraq. It’s a somewhat chaotic but modern, functioning democracy with a strong British culture laid over ancient tribal societies. The vast majority of its people don’t want to be ruled by religious or any other extremists. Any country where lawyers march in the streets en masse (with popular support!) to challenge a dictator and restore the supreme court is basically in tune with our culture.

We can work with the Pakistanis if we are patient. In the meantime, we must do all we can to strengthen their democracy, divert them from their senseless feud with India, help them develop and regain control of their tribal areas, and goad them into following India’s path of rapid economic development. In short, we have to engage in nation building, not as colonial master, but as a helpful and sympathetic partner whose patience and wisdom are as strong as its arms.

Patience has never been our strong suit, but we don’t have any other attractive options. Rambo tactics in Pakistan will only make things worse.

P.S. Pakistan’s Potential

Like the British before us, we Americans have the unfortunate tendency of viewing foreign cultures through the narrow lens of our immediate needs. We look at them and ask, “What can they do for us today?” What we should be asking is, “What can they become?”

Pakistan has the potential of becoming a major force for economic development, moderation and democracy in Southwest Asia and the Islamic world. It can be a bigger, stronger Turkey.

There are four reasons why this is so. The first is Pakistan’s huge population, 173 million. In comparison, Russia’s population today is probably about 150 million, and Japan’s is less than 128 million. Yet Japan nearly beat us in World War II and has the world’s second largest national economy. It’s people, not land mass, that matter.

Although Pakistan’s cities are crowded and chaotic and parts of its countryside only loosely governed, it has a high level of civilization by any measure. Like India’s, its indigenous and independent development of atomic weapons showed unusual skill in science and engineering. Its weapons are not duds like North Korea’s. This technological skill is the second reason for Pakistan’s huge potential.

The third is its high level of political and legal culture. Where else in the so-called third world, besides India, would you find lawyers marching in the streets, successfully, to remove a dictator and restore the rule of law? And let us not forget that, but for assassins’ bombs and bullets, Benazir Bhutto—a woman!—would be the prime minister of this majority-Islamic nation.

That brings me to the fourth point: Islam in Pakistan. With its strong overlay of British culture, Pakistan is a secular Islamic society. There are elements of extremism, mostly outside the Punjab. But Pakistan’s Islam has the potential of becoming something like France’s Catholicism: a non-militant cultural and moral force whose sharp edges a sophisticated and well-educated population rounds off. Pakistan can show the world the positive side of Islam.

Moderate Islam in Pakistan also can serve as source of cultural cohesion, promoting harmony among Pakistan’s multiple ethnic groups, especially outside the Punjab. It can give Pakistan a social edge over India, which has conflicting religions among its multiple ethnic minorities. And owing to Islam’s influence, Pakistan has no caste system to overcome.

So, if Pakistan can be persuaded to drop its obsessive feud with India and focus on peaceful economic development, it can become a beacon of light in a part of the world that has seen little of it recently. Not coincidentally, it can provide an important counterweight to the influence of Iran, whether or not Iran becomes a nuclear power.

The conclusion that follows is that our relationship with Pakistan should be one of our most important in the region, if not the world, quite apart from our immediate need to capture bin Laden and Zawahiri and take down Al Qaeda Central.

In the long run, Pakistan’s peaceful, moderate and democratic development may be as important to us and to the world as India’s. Even in the near term, Turkey need not be the only example of a moderate Islamic democracy. Therefore Pakistan should be among the first of the Islamic allies for progress of which the President spoke today.


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