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

17 October 2009

A Turning in Waziristan

    “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”  William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act V, Scene II.
That deathless line has a simple but vital message for military commanders and their Commander-in-Chief: stay current. Don’t fight the last war or the last battle in the current war. Know what’s happening now and respond quickly and cleverly.

Two stories on last night’s Lehrer New Hour brought all this to mind. In the first, Margaret Warner interviewed Bruce Riedel (pronounced “Rye-DELL”), a former CIA officer with over thirty years’ experience.

Riedel had had the unique experience of helping Afghans defeat the Soviets in the seventies and fight the Taliban now. He was articulate and forceful—a man who had made up his mind. The brief he presented for a “surge” in Afghanistan was undistinguished; almost anyone with his point of view could have done as good a job.

But Riedel did say one extraordinary thing. Rarely in history, he said, does a single nation get to fight the same war from opposite sides. “Our” side won in the seventies, he pointed out, because the Afghan insurgents that we supported then had had safe haven in Pakistan. Now we face the same insurmountable obstacle from the other side: both Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents have safe haven in Pakistan.

Riedel’s insight is self-evidently valid. We can’t “win” in Afghanistan—and certainly can’t defeat the insurgency—if it can sneak over the border, survive and regroup despite our best efforts.

But on the very same newscast something else was happening, too. A week-long string of Taliban-mounted or Taliban-sponsored attacks in Pakistan continued unabated with a devastating assault on a police station in Peshawar.

What does this spate of attacks mean? Some may think it means that General McChrystal was right, that the situation in Pakistan is growing more perilous more quickly than even he anticipated. But McChrystal was describing the situation in Afghanistan, not Pakistan. No one—not even he—could predict how the Waziri Taliban would react to the death of its leader Baitullah Mehsud in a drone attack.

Some might think that the spate of the attacks shows Pakistan’s weakness before a rising insurgency. Some might even fear the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Possible, but highly doubtful. A strengthening democracy of 180 million people, which not long ago was a benign military dictatorship, is not so easily defeated.

No, as bloody and terrible as it has been, the recent spate of Taliban attacks is the first big break in our favor in a long, long time. The Pakistani Taliban (or at least the part of it now controlled by Hakimullah Mehsud) have vastly overplayed their hand and made a key strategic blunder. What they have done is analogous to the overreaching by Al Qaeda in Iraq that led to the Sunni Awakening and the success of our not-so-big “surge” there.

As Riedel so sagely noted, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is the Taliban’s strongest fortification. Although only an invisible abstraction, it has been stronger than a wall of steel. Pakistan’s military won’t cross it because the Afghans don’t trust them (with good reason), and we are there. We and the Afghans won’t cross it in the other direction for fear of violating Pakistani sovereignty. This state of affairs has allowed the Taliban, although just a ragged insurgency, to pursue a “divide and conquer” strategy in the border areas against two much larger, stronger adversaries.

That’s why we have been trying, mostly in vain, to persuade the Pakistani military to attack the Taliban on their side of the border for eight long years. Now the young Mehsud appears to have given us our strongest arguments ever.

The explosions he has caused in Pakistan’s crowded cities are already having three beneficial (for us) effects. First, the resulting pointless carnage is deeply alienating the vast majority of Pakistan’s peaceful, democratic population. Second, it is turning moderate and even some radical Muslims away from the Taliban’s cause. It’s one thing to dream of the purity and simplicity of Islamic law and a re-risen, benign worldwide Caliphate. It’s quite another to witness the blood and guts of your co-workers, friends and family strewn about the street. The Taliban’s methods provide better propaganda against them than any we could concoct.

Last but most important, the recent spate of attacks is turning the most crucial battle—the one inside Pakistan’s military and intelligence services—in our favor. Arguing that the Taliban are useful allies, let alone “friends,” of Pakistan is no longer tenable. The blood and guts on the ground—plus that fact that most Taliban are Pashtun, while most highly-placed Pakistani soldiers and spies are Punjabi—makes the job of Taliban sympathizers inside Pakistani councils all but impossible.

Hakimullah Mehsud gives every indication of being a poor leader. He is brash, impulsive, and heedless of the veil of secrecy that has allowed his movement to survive for nearly a decade after defeat. Overconfidence is poison in military conflict, and Hakimullah appears to have lots of it. He seems to have done all he can not to avert, but to provoke, a massive incursion by the Pakistani military into Waziristan, just like the recent successful foray into the Swat Valley.

The fight in Waziristan will not be as easy. The Mehsud Taliban faction reportedly has 5,000 hardened fighters under arms. Others may join them against “foreign invaders” in the form of Punjabi Pakistanis. But it is doubtful that they can mount a successful defense against a determined, full-scale Pakistani military assault. And if they flee, they will be much easier to pick off from the air while on the run. If this happens, the invisible fortification that the Taliban have enjoyed for eight years may fall, and with it any serious chances for a Taliban victory in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, the outcome is still in doubt. But whatever ultimately happens there, a victory of Al Qaeda is extremely unlikely. What changed the picture irrevocably was not just our “surge”—which might well have failed under other circumstances—but Al Qaeda’s strategic blunder, which drove the Sunni Awakening.

Just so in Afghanistan, a brash, new, untested leader of Waziristan’s Taliban has made a grave strategic blunder. That die is cast; there is no going back. He can’t restore the hundreds killed and maimed, nor can he calm the outrage of those whose lives he ruined. We need only await the natural results of his folly.

Our Commander in Chief should exploit this “divinity” to the fullest. The reasons for giving General McChrystal the troops he asked for are no longer just political and tactical: (1) our 2010 elections, (2) a chance of negotiating with neighbors and “reconcilable” Taliban from a position of strength, and (3) the need to give our forces time to adapt to a change in strategy.

Now we have a clear strategic opening to exploit. In fact, the President might consider giving McChrystal more troops than requested for a credible anti-insurgency force in Afghanistan. Additional troops, acting in cooperation with the Pakistanis, might help crush the Waziristan Taliban movement in joint action from both sides. Since that movement appears to be the Taliban’s stronghold, a quicker victory than anyone now expects might follow.

Footnote: It is unclear whether Hakimullah Mehsud, the Waziri Taliban’s current leader, is the son of the Baitullah Mehsud, its late leader. Separate photographs of the two suggest a family resemblance, but the late leader was reportedly killed while visiting one of his wives for the purpose of making a male baby as heir.

That story might well be Taliban disinformation. The current leader’s brash and desperate reaction might be a son’s spastic attempt to avenge his father’s death. In fact, the strategic blunder resembles our own spastic invasion of Iraq, in the middle of our “war” against the Taliban, motivated partly by Dubya’s desire to avenge a much earlier attempt on his father’s life. Shakespearean tragedies continue to this day.


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