What To Do In Pakistan

By , 2 May, 2009, 1 Comment

As the war in Pakistan rages, there have been many pundits offering ways forward. Each of them gets us halfway to a solution, but in the end, none of them has an adequate plan. In this rather long post (advance apologies), I’ll try to cobble together the best of each school.


To begin with, let me summarize the situation. In Afghanistan, groups with Iranian/Persian roots make up almost 80% of the population, with the others each having 2% or 5% shares. The ethnic power balance is clear. It’s governed, ineptly, by an unpopular U.S. puppet and being challenged/revolted against by a more popular insurgency of tribal leaders, i.e. the erstwhile Taliban government. Over the years, many of those leaders have moved over the border into western Pakistan. In Pakistan, the ethnic situation is more complex, with all the major provinces corresponding, roughly, to a different ethnic group and language. In the area bordering Afghanistan, the majority of the population belongs to the same ethnic group–the Pashtuns–who dominate Afghanistan. Indeed, many in the 1940s thought that region should have been part of Afghanistan anyway. Instead, Pakistan negotiated for the territory but agreed to give the Pashtuns there some semi-autonomy, continuing the borders laid out by the Brits in the 1890s. So over the years, as the Taliban and other Pashtun refugees have come over the border, they have some semi-autonomy when it came to organizing and recruiting: the result is a copycat movement, the Pakistan-Taliban, affiliated but not officially tied to the guys we are fighting in Kabul.

For many years, Pakistan hands and Pakistani political elites assumed that the unofficial alliance meant that any radicals trained in this lawless border region had their eye on Kabul anyway. So long as their enemies were Russians or Americans in Afghanistan, Islamabad did not care. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military/intelligence units were quite happy to have these radicals training in their backyard in the hope of turning some of them east to fight India. It never occurred to authorities, or they chose to block out the possibility, that the Pakistan-Taliban was also a class movement of the disenfranchised and downtrodden who would turn on social elites in Islamabad directly. Instead, they insisted that if the US had not bungled the first and second Afghan wars (which we did), there would be no Pakistan-Taliban, and that if the US withdrew, the Pakistan-Taliban would just go back to being harmless country bumpkins that Islamabad could ignore. What Pakistani elites have learned, the hard way, these last few years is that the Pakistan-Taliban have it out for them too, that this is not just America’s war but Pakistan’s war too. So long as vast class inequities and social injustices exist, not only in the tribal regions but across the country, the Pakistan-Taliban will be able to expand eastwards.

Nicholas Schmidle seems to recognize as much, which is why he proposes directing the Obama administration’s development aid towards the regions in the south and east where the radicals are likely to recruit next. But he also proposes directing all our military funds there, to keep the Taliban out of the non-Pashtun regions, essentially writing off the western half of the country:
While development projects in South Waziristan are futile at this point in terms of building confidence in the state, they may still accomplish that goal in the villages and towns of Punjab, and even down in Karachi. Since these places are the next battlegrounds between the Taliban and the Pakistani state, U.S. funds could also be diverted to train the Punjab police, who will probably become embroiled in the insurgency over the coming months. Moreover, U.S. military advisers may be able to secure a more prominent role working with the Punjab police than with, say, the units stationed along the Afghan border, where some suspect that the Pakistani intelligence agencies are still backing certain aspects of the insurgency.
Indeed, Schmidle believes Washington should help Islamabad get back to the strategy of the last fifty years, containing the Taliban in the western half of the country and allowing televised images of their misdeeds towards women and children to discredit their recruiting efforts elsewhere. [Never mind the moral implications of writing off Pashtun women for political ploys]. Like Islamabad politicians who refused in years past to confront the radicals, Schmidle reminds us that confronting them will make Pashtuns angry and that helps Taliban recruiters:
Ignore the tribal areas, NWFP, and regions already under Taliban control. The Taliban cannot be defeated militarily, as the Americans have learned in Afghanistan. You kill one of them and immediately create 10 or 20 or 50 more.
Schmidle is right to point out that the Pashtun population of both Afghanistan and Pakistan have proved impossible to defeat in battle since Alexander the Great’s time, but that does not mean it is in Pakistan’s interest to allow radicalism to fester in the region now that its target is as much Islamabad as Kabul. Moreover, bracketing off the Pashtun provinces would make it easier for all the other ethnic groups to start clamoring for semi-autonomy too–Schmidle seems to harbor the delusion that the “rest of Pakistan” outside the tribal areas is all one Punjabi mass, when in fact, Pakistan’s federation is a very delicate and somewhat insecure one between many ethnic groups. It would destroy, not save, Pakistan to take a policy towards the insurgency that justifies ethnic partitions.

Peter Lee at China Matters has a better grasp on the history of Islamabad’s policy towards the radicals, what he appropriately dubs “desperate duplicity.” He argues that Islamabad is still operating under the assumption that the Taliban are just after Afghanistan and moreover, that Islamabad believes the Taliban will win that war. In other words, they are deliberately fighting a half-hearted battle against the Pakistan-Taliban on the assumption that when the Afghan-Taliban beat Uncle Sam, all the Pakistan-Taliban will go over the border and leave Islamabad alone:
But I believe Pakistan believes that there’s no foreseeable way that Afghanistan can get turned around…it wants to ensure the failure of an aggressive anti-Taliban effort in its Pashtun areas…while praying that the West’s Afghan adventure will die a quick and merciful death and relieve the pressure on Pakistan’s west…
Lee is right that this is the calculation Islamabad and the Pakistani military are making and that America will have to make them take on the militants directly, but he seems to endorse the calculation’s key assumption:
The Taliban has its eye on the prize—Kabul. Not Islamabad.
But in fact, as the Pakistani government learned after trying to negotiate a Schmidle-style truce with the Taliban, they have their eye on Islamabad now too. Moreover, Lee is wrong to suggest that the way the Taliban can be stopped on the route to Kabul is by sheer military force (see Schmidle, above).

Instead, what needs to happen is as follows:
1. America should agree to give up its unmanned drone attacks on Western Pakistan. They are likely a violation of sovereignty principles since A. the current government says they don’t want them and B. the previous government, if it did give a secret pass to the Bushies to do this, did so during a period of martial law that has since been declared unconstitutional.
2. In exchange for demilitarizing the region, the Pakistani government should insist on a full scale law enforcement operation there, treating the militants like an organized crime network, issuing warrants, searching homes and bringing people to actual trials. It helps that the Zardari government finally restored its judges so there are courts to take them to. Like Schmidle advises, we should be drumming down the military war on the border, but contrary to his proposal we should be increasing the political power of Islamabad over the border region.
3. America should help train and finance new police, not military, brigades to do this work, and they should be ethnically mixed brigades, not just Punjabis–a swarm of Punjabis searching Pashtun homes would not be any better in local eyes than the US drones.
4. To train and finance those Pakistani police, America should divert some of the ineffective funds we’re spending in Afghanistan. Instead, our Afghan strategy should follow roughly, the plan laid out by the Cato Institute’s Malou Innocent–small special ops divisions conducting covert missions to target individual terror cells. As Peter Lee points out, Pakistan isn’t thinking seriously about the Taliban because they believe eventually they will all go to the promised land of Afghanistan and establish their reign of misogynistic terror there; America must win the war to make sure that doesn’t happen.
5. Finally, America and Pakistan should both get their acts together on all the long-term development work that everyone agrees has to happen, schools, hospitals, etc, so that the incentive to radicalize goes away. Given that both Zardari and his likely successor, conservative Nawas Sharif have histories of corruption, this puts the onus on the Pakistani press to hold them properly accountable on direct aid funding. Indeed, as Cato’s Innocent told me two months ago, dropping trade and investment barriers between the US and Pakistan (a strategy the Obama administration is open to) might be best.

All together, this would insure that the radicals fail in both Pakistan and Afghanistan now and that the economic incentives for their madness–inequality, hunger, ignorance–do not facilitate a future resurgence. But missing any one of these five component parts, the whole strategy is a nonstarter that neither Washington nor Islamabad can afford.

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1 Response {+}
  • shazia

    very well said, hope people in both capitols listen to you. only correction is that afghanistan is not ethnically homogenous – pashtun,hazara,tajik,uzbek and the political agent policy in frontier was negotiated by the brits after defeat in third afghan war, pak. negotiated accession in return for continuing it

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