November 29, 2011

Pakistan - part of the problem, not the solution

U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter

The recent attack on two Pakistani border posts by NATO (read: American) combat aircraft and the political fallout it has generated highlights the fragile relationship between the United States and Pakistan. This incident comes at a time when the earlier damage to the relationship caused by the American special operations forces raid that killed Usamah bin Ladin was beginning to fade.

As expected, there are conflicting reports about exactly what happened. NATO and Afghan forces claim that artillery was fired at them from the vicinity of the two Pakistani border posts. The Pakistanis, of course, deny this claim. One senior Pakistani officer went so far to make the ludicrous claim that this may have been a deliberate attack on the part of NATO.

I have to assume that there was artillery fire from the Pakistani side of the border. The question is who conducted the fire - was it Pakistani troops or members of the Taliban using Pakistani territory as a safe haven, knowing that NATO and Afghan forces cannot legally follow them or attack them in Pakistan? The Americans responded, as they should have, with overwhelming firepower.

The thought that it may have been Pakistani artillery is not out of the question - the Pakistani army and intelligence services are full of Taliban (and al-Qa'idah) sympathizers. More likely, though, the fire was from Afghan Taliban fighters operating right under the nose of the Pakistani troops who have rarely intervened to prevent the Afghan Taliban from using Pakistani territory. Note that the Pakistanis have taken action against the Pakistani Taliban, but often ignore at best - and support at worst - the Afghan Taliban.

The relationship between the United States and Pakistan can hardly be called an alliance. Much of that is due to the fact that Pakistan is hardly a viable country. It is yet another country cobbled together in the waning days of the British Empire. It has disparate ethnic groups that have not truly reconciled themselves into being a nation. One of these groups is the Pushtuns, the same group that comprises the largest ethnic group across the border - an artificial construct diving the Pushtuns - in Afghanistan.

I have always wondered about Pakistan and other countries in the region whose borders were drawn by failed European colonialists, where the loyalties of many of the tribal and ethnic groups lie. Are the Pushtuns of Pakistan more loyal to the government in Islamabad or to their blood relatives on either side of an imaginary line drawn by a foreign power? Will the Pushtuns of Afghanistan take up arms against the Pushtuns in Pakistan based on orders issued by a multi-ethnic government in Kabul?

The Pakistanis have retaliated for the incident by demanding that the CIA leave a Pakistani air base in Baluchistan from which the controversial - and highly effective - Predator armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operation is conducted. I am not sure that will really happen. If you look at the targets killed by the UAVs, the program benefits Pakistan more than the United States. Since the attacks are launched from Pakistani soil against targets also on Pakistani soil, the targets must be approved by the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. Therefore, all of the militants killed by American UAV-launched missiles are actually those that the Pakistanis want dead, almost exclusively Pakistani Taliban members. It is the militants that appear on both the Pakistani and American lists that are targeted. Why would the ISI halt an operation that furthers its interests at almost no cost to them?

The targets who are missing from the UAV program targets are the al-Qa'idah and Afghan Taliban militants that the United States wants dead - but the Pakistanis may not. The ISI is manned by officers who were responsible for the creation of the Taliban and by officers who were at least sympathetic to Usamah bin Ladin. There are some analysts (me included) who believe that the ISI was also protecting bin Ladin, necessitating the unilateral American special operations raid on the bin Ladin compound in Abbottabad, a city full of retired Pakistani military and intelligence officers and home to the country's military academy. Most of the analysts I speak with believe that the Pakistanis are either complicit or incompetent in the bin Ladin case. I am not sure which is more palatable.

Pakistan has tried, with some success, to manipulate the United States because it believes that the Americans need Pakistan to prosecute the war on al-Qa'idah. That may have been the case in 2001, but much less so today. This is where I take exception with the Obama Administration's policy on the war on Afghanistan, as I did with the Bush Administration as well. The war in Afghanistan was launched to attack and destroy al-Qa'idah. That objective, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, was met that same year. The remnants of al-Qa'idah fled to Pakistan, and later Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia. Operations against al-Qa'idah in Pakistan were impossible - after all, the Pakistanis or elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence services were providing support to al-Qa'idah.

For whatever reason, the United States embarked on a nation-building exercise in Afghanistan which of necessity included military operations against the Taliban. Until that time, the Taliban had never been a threat to the United States. At some point, America was engaged in a war against a group that had not threatened the United States in a country that has no national security interest to the United States. The enemy - al-Qa'idah - had mostly fled to Pakistan.

At best, Pakistan made virtually no effort to take on the al-Qa'idah Organization (tanzim al-qa'idah). At worst, the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments either actively or passively supported the terrorist group. The group's leader was found living in a compound virtually in the Pakistani government's backyard almost 10 years later.

Bottom line for me: the United States should no longer be engaged in military operations in Afghanistan. Our mission there should have ended with the removal of the Taliban government and the flight of the al-Qa'idah vermin to Pakistan. Our attention should then have shifted to Pakistan. Our attempts to ally with Pakistan have failed - we are doing their bidding in their war against the Pakistani Taliban while they continue to support the Afghan Taliban and any remaining elements of al-Qa'idah.

The Pakistanis are not part of the solution - they are part of the problem.