The Writing on the Wall for Obama’s ‘Af-Pak’ Vietnam

May 13, 2009

There was something almost painful about watching President Barack Obama last week reprising a track from his predecessor’s Greatest Hits when he hosted the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Just like Bush, Obama invited us to suspend well-grounded disbelief and imagine that Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari have the intent, much less the capability, to wage a successful war against the Taliban. Then again, there had been something painful even earlier about watching Obama proclaim Afghanistan as “the right war” and expanding the U.S. footprint there, reprising the Soviet experience of maintaining an islet of modernity in the capital while the countryside burns.

It requires a spectacular leap of faith in a kind of superheroic American exceptionalism to imagine that the invasion of Afghanistan that occurred in November 2001 will end any differently from any previous invasion of that country. And it takes an elaborate exercise in self-delusion to avoid recognizing that the Taliban crisis in Pakistan is an effect of the war in Afghanistan, rather than a cause — and that Pakistan’s turmoil is unlikely to end before the U.S. winds down its campaign next door.

The Obama Administration has linked the fate of its campaign in Afghanistan to its efforts to persuade Pakistan to fight the Taliban on its own soil. That was always a risky bet. Pakistan’s military swung into action last week — in its own inimitable way, relying on artillery as a counterinsurgency weapon, with predictable “collateral damage” and massive displacement of civilians — following weeks of hysteria in Washington about the country falling to the Taliban, nukes and all. That was nonsense, of course, and you’d have expected better from a Secretary of State who had once chided her President for his “inexperience” than to be babbling about the Taliban’s gains in Pakistan as representing a “mortal threat” to global security, demanding that the Pakistani army go to war on its own soil.

As I wrote last week,

The generals don’t share Clinton’s view of the Taliban as some sort of external force invading territory the Pakistani military is obliged to protect; on the contrary, odious though it may be to the country’s established political class and to the urban population that lives in the 21st century, the movement appears to be rooted in Pakistan’s social fabric. The Taliban’s recent advances have been accomplished in no small part through recruiting locals to its cause by exploiting long-standing resentment toward the venal local judicial and administrative authorities that prop up a feudal social order.

The military may also be more sanguine about the Taliban than Washington has been because the generals tend to view the country’s political establishment, most directly challenged by the militants’ gains, as corrupt and self-serving. The army, rather than the relatively weak political institutions, is the spine of the Pakistani state, and democracy has never been seen as a precondition to its survival. If the turmoil in civil society reaches a boiling point, the military, however reluctant its current leadership may be to seize power, can be reliably expected to take the political reins.

What’s more, if the Taliban’s goal were to seize state power rather than local control, it would have little hope of doing so. The insurgency is largely confined to ethnic Pashtuns, who comprise little more than 15% of the population. It is unlikely to find significant resonance in the major cities such as Islamabad and Lahore — though an influx into Karachi of people displaced by the fighting in the tribal areas has swelled that city’s Pashtun population, which has in turn raised communal tensions there. While the Taliban is reported to have made some inroads in southern Punjab and has linked up with small militant groups based in the province, it remains a minor presence in those parts of the country where the majority of Pakistanis live. Even in the most generous assessments of their fighting strength, they are very lightly armed and outnumbered by the army by a ratio of more than 50 to 1.

Still, the army is reluctant to launch an all-out campaign against the militants, not least because of a widely held perception in Pakistan that the Taliban’s rise is a product of America’s unpopular war in Afghanistan. There’s little support in the public — or within the ranks of the military — for deploying the military in a sustained civil war against the militants. Many in Pakistan were convinced that the Taliban had exceeded their bounds in Buner and Swat and needed to be pushed back — but not necessarily crushed. Whereas U.S. officials warn of the Taliban as an “existential” threat to Pakistan, the country’s own military continues to reserve that status for India, against which the vast bulk of its armed forces remain arrayed.

The military launched its current offensive both to satisfy its patron in Washington, and also in response to growing alarm in Pakistan’s urban middle classes at the Taliban’s excesses, and apparent intention to expand its writ. But the operation already appears to be following a familiar pattern: Anger at the Taliban will quickly give way to revulsion at the military operation to dislodge the militants in Swat, which has now — together with similar operations in Bajaur Agency, has turned 1 million Pakistanis into refugees in their own country. (The Islamists — not the Taliban, but groups associated with the likes of Lashkar e-Toiba, authors of the Mumbai massacre — have typically done a far better job than the state of caring for Pakistanis rendered destitute by catastrophes…)

That’s why Nawaz Sharif, the most popular politician in Pakistan right now, is not exactly full-throated in his endorsement of the military campaign, although is indicating sufficient support to convince Washington that he deserves U.S. backing to replace Zardari.

As public opinion turns against the current offensive, it will be blamed on America. The Taliban fighters in Swat will be driven out of the towns and into the hills and back into the Tribal Areas, which will allow for a new truce — the subtext of which will be that the Pakistani Taliban, should they want to wage war, should do so over the border in support of their Pashtun brethren in Afghanistan. (That, after all, is a point of consensus between them and the military establishment.)

The current military campaign is designed to enforce a limit on the Taliban’s reach within Pakistan, confining it to the movement’s heartland — which is in a northwestern part of the country which has always been beyond the government’s control.

The fallout from the operation, though, is likely to be an intensified terror campaign in the cities (where the Taliban can’t launch an insurrection, but can blow things up), and expanded hostility towards the U.S. which various Islamist forces will exploit. And Pakistan’s military will be no more likely to act against Taliban activities in Afghanistan than they are now.

The majority of Pakistanis are hostile to the Pakistani Taliban — which while aligned, is organizationally distinct from the Afghan Taliban, even though the latter operates on both sides of a border never recognized by the Pashtuns — but they see it as a problem stirred up by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistanis don’t blame the Taliban
for the U.S. drone strikes that kill Pakistani civilians. I suspect they won’t blame the Taliban for the civilian suffering inflicted in the battle to retake Swat. While they may loathe the Taliban, their loathing for the United States is even greater — as Anatole Lieven recently noted. He found that the best-educated and most cosmopolitan yuppies he met in Pakistan believe that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by Washington and Israel. So, ordinary Pakistanis and the commanders of the military believe the Taliban uprising on their soil will dissipate once the U.S. leaves Afghanistan — Pakistan’s military, in other words, has an incentive to see the U.S. go home.

Pakistanis have every reason to expect that the U.S. will sooner or later tire of spinning its wheels in the Hindu Kush, and their outlook is based on that assumption. That’s why the Pakistani military establishment continues to back the Afghan Taliban, which represents its interests in its strategic competition with India for influence in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai, for his part, appears to recognize the limits on U.S. involvement, too, breaking sharply with the U.S. and maneuvering to remain in power, with some very unsavory allies, even as Washington has been trying to ease him out. Karzai, too, expects the U.S. to leave some time soon, and is jumping into bed with various warlords to hedge his bets against going the way of Najibullah, the president left in place by the departing Soviets who was unceremoniously lynched in the streets of Kabul by the Taliban.

Sure, the U.S. has now appointed a hard-charging Special Forces general to lead its mission in Afghanistan. Perhaps, as a result, they will be able to strike more blows at the Taliban, but they’re unlikely to alter the overall outcome of the war. In fact, you could make a speculative case that appointing Stanley McChrystal, whose resume highlights include the capture of Saddam Hussein and the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, Washington may be looking for a “bring me the head of Osama bin Laden” scenario to create a pretext for beginning to dramatically scale back the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. But that would be a wild hunch.

In the interim, amid rising political chaos and social unrest spurred by ethnic tension and economic hardship, Pakistan’s generals may, once again, feel compelled to take charge of the political space in a new coup, and install a technocratic government charged with managing the impact of the economic crisis outside of the self-destructive party political competition that bedevils Pakistani governance, while enforcing security itself. But that’s unlikely to alter the equation in favor of Pakistan acting on Washington’s demands. On the contrary, the Pakistanis are simply treading water, doing the minimum necessary to keep U.S. aid flowing, and waiting for the Americans to leave Afghanistan.

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