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Strategy and War in Pakistan and Afghanistan

Strategy and War in Pakistan and Afghanistan

By Ahsan Butt

On the heels of today’s devastating attack in Lahore, which killed 45 people and injured about one hundred, we were treated to a front page article in the NYT that would be of interest to many Pakistanis. The article describes the Obama administration’s efforts to cajole the Pakistan government and military to "do more". In essence, the message that has been delivered is: do the job, or get out of the way. The administration has explicitly threatened drone strikes in Quetta and boots on the ground in FATA if Pakistan doesn’t act against those actors that threaten Afghanistan and allied forces, but not Pakistan directly. On cue, the NYT editorial page joins in the fun, and urges Pakistani military and civilian leaders to realize that this war is for the nation’s survival, and that more must be done in confronting the so-called Afghan Taliban. Well, I love a good lecture from the NYT any time I can get one, so I’m grateful for that. But let’s deal with some of the questions that this set of events has engendered.

1. What exactly will it take for opinion-makers and decision-makers in the West to draw a connection between their strategies and the enormous physical toll on Pakistan? To be clear, I am not arguing for or against particular strategies. What am I arguing for is a comprehensive evaluation of the implications of various theories of war and conflict. The NYT and Obama administration both have a theory of this war, and that’s fine; everybody does, and who’s to say, prima facie, who’s right and who’s wrong? But surely — surely — there should be some allusion to what Pakistanis are going through right now? Some signal that the some two and half thousand deaths in the last two years, the nearly five hundred dead in the last two months, somehow, some way, factor into the calculus?

The NYT editorial comes close, when discussing why the military doesn’t strike against the Taliban in Balochistan when it says "In part, they are hesitating because of legitimate fears of retaliation." But why, pray tell, are these fears legitimate? Doesn’t the NYT bear some responsibility for educating its readers to explain what real retaliation looks like? Real numbers, perhaps? This is not a minor quibble, though it may look like it is to outsiders because I am picking apart at a sentence or two in an entire editorial. The central point remains that people simply have no clue about the lives lost in this war in Pakistan. So let me help you with that:

There are no candlelight vigils, no Facebook groups, and no Fareed Zakaria specials for Pakistani victims of militant violence. To some extent, this is the result of image problems. Pakistan is a "bad actor" in the international system, and as such, deserves little sympathy. After all, wasn’t it Pakistan itself that gave rise to these groups in the first place? Indeed it was. But it is a strange moral and strategic compass that blames women and children shopping at Moon Market for the sins of GHQ and the ISI.

2. Do people understand that Balochistan is an entire problem unto itself? Newsflash, brainiacs at the NYT editorial board: there has been a low level civil war simmering in Balochistan since 2004. This follows the medium level civil war in Balochistan in the mid 1970s. Both times, the military went in, and both times, as the Pakistani military is wont to do, there wasn’t a great deal of demonstrated concern for collateral damage.

The people of Balochistan have been denied basic political and economic rights, both by the central government and their nationalist so-called leaders for fifty years now. The last month has seen significant developments in this conflict, with the center — in the hands of the PPP — presenting a reform package aimed at placating Balochi nationalism, without much success (at least at this early juncture). If you opened a Pakistani newspaper in the last thirty days, you would know this. It has dominated the news, even more so than the Taliban war.

Why do I bring this up? Because launching drone strikes in Balochistan, and the inevitable civilian casualties that will result, will exacerbate this problem in very serious and predictable ways. I feel stupid even writing this. But apparently it is needed.

Here’s how it will play out: Balochi grievances will congeal into both an anti-Pakistan narrative and an anti-anti-Taliban one. The storyline will be that the state has sold out Balochi land to foreign forces, when it wasn’t even theirs to sell. Balochistan has long chafed under the hard-nosed attitude of Pakistani central governments, both military and civilian, toward provincial autonomy and federalism. Can you imagine how it will react if and when Pakistan gives the go-ahead for American drones to strike in Quetta? Or even less ambitiously, can you imagine the military making a foray into Balochistan again? At this time?

Get a clue, NYT.

3. Are the Obama administration’s ultimatums empty threats? I have to say, upon reading the news article for the first time, that’s what I thought. Why? Because surely they know that they cannot do either of the things they are threatening to do if Pakistan does not comply. They can’t use drones without the explicit permission of the Pakistani government; that much is clear from the carefully calibrated ways in which the policy first got underway under the Bush-Musharraf partnership, and expanded considerably under the Obama-Zardari partnership. And they can’t use Special Ops without risking considerable blowback from the Pakistani military especially; the last time it happened, the military leadership let them know in no uncertain terms that it was not on.

So if they can’t do it, why would they threaten to do it? That was my logic the first time I read the piece. And then I sat back, and reflected. And it dawned on me that looking at the credibility of the threat is probably the wrong prism with which to analyze it.

No, what matters more here is the content of the threat: two very big sticks. The Obama administration has seriously broken with the Bush team on this in a significant way. The threats are louder and more ominous, but the sweet talk is gentler and more wide-ranging. While the Bushies generally cared only about the military status quo in the country, we hear time and again from this administration the potential of a broader strategic partnership. The NYT editorial even referenced Obama’s promises of "what one aide described as a partnership of "unlimited potential" in which Washington would consider any proposal Islamabad puts on the table." Such promises lack the credibility of the threats above, perhaps even more so, but they do an adequate job of conveying a sense of urgency that was, I daresay, absent from the Americans before. Bigger sticks, yes, but also bigger carrots. The logic, I think, is that by raising the stakes of a bad strategic choice by the Pakistani military, you increase the likelihood of a good strategic choice.

Of course, all this assumes that this is a choice, which brings me to…

4. Is the Pakistan military not going after the Afghan Taliban because of a lack of willingness or a lack of ability? I’ve talked about this at length before, but it’s not immediately clear to me why the military is not going after the Afghan Taliban at this point in time. The Americans seem to think it’s because they don’t want to and that they don’t consider them a threat; to the contrary, the Americans believe that the Pakistani military thinks of the Afghan Taliban as a strategic ally in its rivalry with India. And certainly, there is little evidence disproving this hypothesis.

On the other hand, it is an hypothesis that is not falsifiable, at least right now. That is because assuming the military even wanted to, it couldn’t do so. They are mired in a whack-a-mole war right now, jumping from Swat to the wider Malakand division to the northern areas of FATA (Bajaur, Khyber) to South Waziristan. All these operations have been undertaken against sworn enemies of the Pakistani state and groups involved in the killing of Pakistani civilians. In other words, they have their hands full with anti-Pakistan groups, rendering action against anti-US/NATO groups basically impossible. So as things stand, we simply cannot know if this is a matter of intentions or a matter of capabilities.

One piece of idle speculation: why are we so sure that the Pakistani military cannot turn against the Afghan Taliban for now, and then cultivate them later? To be clear, I am not arguing for this position by any stretch. But I do think we need to consider the military’s incentives here.

Consider that the American theory of the military’s goals is that they (the military) want an ally in post NATO Afghanistan, and thus are not acting against the Afghan Taliban right now. But why does that ally have to be this particular incarnation of the Afghan Taliban? Is it not at least plausible that if the Pakistani military leadership really did want to exert influence in Afghanistan through a local proxy, that they could cultivate that proxy at a later time? It’s not as if they don’t have the practice or know-how; hell, they’ve been doing it for nearly twenty years. Why not go after the Afghan Taliban now, satisfy the Americans, and then make a new Afghan Taliban in 2012 to make everyone’s lives miserable?

Make no mistake, such a strategy would make everyone’s lives miserable — both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. But that’s my view, one of a poor pathetic liberal who doesn’t understand the world and the way it works. The Pakistani military could, and probably would, see things differently. So why does everybody assume a logic on behalf of the military that may not hold?

(Ahsan Butt is a PhD student in political science at the University of Chicago and contributes to the blog Five Rupees, where this was originally published. )

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