American ignorance concerning Pakistani politics and society is profound. And, in the matter of the “surge” scheduled for Afghanistan for year-end 2008, it may be fatal.
U.S. observers, both on the left and right, view Pakistan primarily through the lens of the war on terror, in terms of Pakistan’s role in pumping military forces into its western frontier in order to help George W. Bush burnish his meager presidential legacy by getting Osama bin Laden’s head on a pike before he leaves office in January 2009; and to assist the West in rescuing its tottering political project in Afghanistan, the Karzai government.
As any responsible observer of Pakistan politics would tell you—all the Pakistani media majors all have English-language outlets—the Pakistanis view things completely differently.
They believe that unremitting American pressure on Pakistan is turning a serious but manageable problem—ethnic and Islamist extremism in the border regions—into an existential crisis that is ripping Pakistan apart.
In the days since Musharraf’s departure, Pakistan has been torn by a series of terrorist attacks, including a coordinated assault on Pakistan’s main armory near Islamabad, which left nearly 100 dead.
The attacks represent a highly persuasive demonstration by Taliban extremists that peace inside Pakistan’s central, urbanized core requires accommodation with the Taliban, and not participation in America’s escalating counter-inurgency campaign in Afghanistan’s east and Pakistan’s frontier provinces.
It is a message that Pakistan’s civilian, military, and intelligence leadership are ready to heed.
But it is a warning that America—including both its political and defense establishment and its two presidential candidates—are determined to disregard in the search for geopolitical advantage, multi-national military support, and votes.
Fatally, the supposed success of the troop surge in Iraq –and the desperate optimism and opportunism an apparent military panacea excites in American politics—is fueling calls for applying the same formula to the intractable Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
However, Afghanistan isn’t Iraq. And, more importantly, Pakistan ain’t Iran.
For Americans infatuated with the apparent success of the surge in Iraq—and its implied vindication of the comforting notion that the scientific application of American military might, brains, and money can succeed in even the most profoundly hostile environment—it is anathema to consider that the relative quiet in Iraq is not attributable to our astounding subtlety in paying off Sunni tribal leaders and malcontents who otherwise would be engaged in a doomed insurgency against U.S. rule and Shi’a domination.
What’s probably standing between us and the continuation of our bloody debacle in Iraq is the fact that Iran has eschewed a strategy of political violence through its Iraqi proxies. Instead, it has decided to outwait the United State and secure its gains through the political ascendancy of the Shi’a.
The Dawa party, obedient clients of the Iranians, have downplayed their military struggle and instead form the backbone of Prime Minister Maliki’s government.
The normally nationalistic and anti-Iranian Shi’a cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr has, thanks to the threats of legal and personal jeopardy deployed by the American occupation, taken up residence in the Iranian holy city of Qom. Under the influence of Iran’s persuasion and perhaps onerous hospitality, al Sadr has apparently decided to discard armed struggle and endorse the political route to power.
Iranian pressure on Iraqi Shi’a forces to stand down is, in my opinion, why the surge has worked. (And it’s also the reason why, despite martial chest-thumping from the Right, an armed attack on Iran by the U.S. or even scorched earth economic sanctions targeting Teheran are unlikely).
American politicians look at the Iraqi surge and, by a flawed analogy, expect that an escalation of three or so brigades into Afghanistan by years’ end will tip the scales in our favor.
Barack Obama, eager to burnish his CINC qualifications by boosting our “good war” in Afghanistan, talks about pouring in troops. John McCain explictly links a troop increase in Afghanistan with the apparent success of the surge.
The analogies, however, founder, when it comes to the issue of the key western neighbor.
Compare and contrast Pakistan’s attitudes toward Afghanistan with Iran’s desire to stabilize Iraq on its currently favorable terms.
According to the U.S. think tank Terror Free Tomorrow (TFT), favorable opinions of Afghanistan are at an anemic 48% level.
Hamid Karzai and his U.S. backed regime simply aren’t very popular in Pakistan. Pakistani distaste for Karzai is eagerly reciprocated by the Afghan government and relations are pretty much in a deep freeze. The Karzai government will always be closer the United States and India, not Pakistan. The route to increased Pakistani influence in Kabul lies through the violent overthrow of the Afghani government by the Taliban, not by ensuring the Karzai regime’s continued survival and success.
The U.S. is responding to Pakistan’s lack of enthusiasm for saving Karzai’s bacon by unilateral military incursions into western Pakistan in order to root out the Taliban havens (and possible bin Laden hidey-holes) that Pakistan’s army and intelligence services have pursued so unenthusiastically.
However, escalating the violence in Pakistan’s border regions looks like a recipe for disaster.
American planners originally hoped that Musharraf’s armies would be the anvil upon which Western forces crushed the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan.
Pakistan is more like a rotten melon that will fly apart under the hammer blows of a U.S. counter-insurgency campaign in west Pakistan.
The political will inside Pakistan to support the U.S. adventure in Afghanistan is virtually non-existent. According to TFT, opposition to the GWOT clocked in at a thumping 72% in June, with “strongly opposed” at 60.4%. At that time, admittedly before the recent wave of Taliban attacks, over 50% of Pakistanis blamed the US for violence inside Pakistan; the Pakistani Taliban were blamed by only 4.2%–behind India and Pakistan’s own ISI!
The salient development in Pakistani politics in the last three months has not been the democratization of Pakistan and an increased or even sustained determination to combat terrorism; it has been the collapse of the political fortunes of two would-be American clients–Pervez Musharraf and the leader of Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, her widower Asif Zardari—and the political ascendancy of Nawaz Sharif of the opposition PML-N, whose conservative, non-aligned policies have resonated with Pakistani voters since his return from exile last November.
The general elections in Pakistan in February delivered a clear mandate for removal of Musharraf and the restoration of the judiciary that Musharraf had dismissed in a clumsy attempt to secure his illegal re-election as president last November.
Asif Zardari, head of the main opposition force, the PPP, hopelessly bungled the political endgame and squandered his political capital because he was more interested in executing the political deal that Benazir Bhutto had made with Washington—by which the PPP would act as a political fig-leaf for the terminally unpopular Musharraf and make active Pakistan participation in the anti-Taliban campaign more palatable to the general populace—than he was in following the unambiguous mandate to remove Musharraf.
Six months of ignoble gyrations by the PPP with American connivance on behalf of Musharraf followed, leaving the field of principled opposition leader completely clear for Nawaz Sharif, who unequivocally called for Musharraf’s removal and the restoration of the judiciary (and, in a popular move, withdrew his people from the cabinet while continuing to support the PPP government in parliamentary votes).
As a result, Sharif is now by far the most popular political figure in Pakistan, clocking in at a favorability rating of 86%—a fact that is apparently unreported in the West (though not unknown to readers of China Matters) because Sharif also represents the majority strain in Pakistani popular opinion opposed to Pakistan’s participation in the U.S. led War on Terror.
Zardari’s increasingly risible attempts to straddle the roles of U.S. client and popular leader came to head with the disastrous visit to the United States of his hand-picked prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gillani.
In order to demonstrate that Pakistan’s newly-minted civilian government was eager and able to do Washington’s bidding in the War on Terror, Gillani announced that the notoriously independent (and pro-Taliban) Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was now subject to control by the cabinet—an assertion he was forced to retract within hours.
Observing the collapse of the credibility of his government, Zardari apparently decided to get in step with popular opinion and neutralize Sharif’s appeal by jumping on the dump-Musharraf bandwagon. In contrast to his previous dilatory behavior, Zardari was able to orchestrate the departure of Musharraf in little more than a week.
U.S. political meddling has yielded the usual unimpressive results. As planned, the civilian Pakistani government was split and discredited thanks to Zardari’s maneuvering. But instead of insuring Musharraf’s survival by allowing him to score political points off of a weakened civilian government, the policy led to Musharraf’s political demise.
When the PPP decided to recover its lost political ground by ousting Musharraf, it left Washington with the worst of both worlds: Musharraf gone and the civilian government too divided and unpopular to act as an effective client.
Since Musharraf’s departure, the pressures on Zardari have only intensified.
Nawaz Sharif has threatened a de jure withdrawal from the ruling coalition if Zardari does not reinstate the judiciary; and the bloody Taliban attacks have served notice that the survival of Pakistan’s civilian government, indeed its civil society, may depend on decoupling its tribal policy from the military campaign the U.S. is escalating in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan.
According to Taliban-watcher Syed Saleem Shahzad , the PPP-led civilian government is attempting to remain in Washington’s good graces—and establish itself, post-Musharraf, as America’s indispensable man in Islamabad—by declaring all-out war on militants (despite the TFT finding in June that 58% of Pakistanis wanted the government to negotiate with the Pakistan Taliban) and agreeing to a planned NATO center in Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Provinces, that will direct Pakistan’s anti-Taliban operations inside Pakistan.
It remains to be seen whether the Pakistan’s government and Pakistani public opinion will support escalated anti-Taliban operations—under US direction!—in the face of unrelenting Taliban attacks against Pakistani assets inside the heartland, the fundamental unpopularity of the U.S.-led GWOT, and Nawaz Sharif standing in the wings ready to assume the mantle of Pakistan’s leader and provide an alternative to the close U.S.-Pakistan relationship that a majority of Pakistanis regard as catastrophic.
As Western forces surge into Afghanistan in an effort to defeat the burgeoning Taliban insurgency by assaulting its havens in Pakistan, expect the Pakistani Taliban to retaliate—against Pakistan, in the Pakistani heartland—in order to demonstrate to Pakistani opinion the unacceptably high costs of providing material support to an unpopular American strategy.
Inside the Pakistan elite, the case for disengaging from the U.S. war on terror will be made forcefully by the ISI, which has never abandoned its support for the Taliban—or its desire for a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul.
There has been one piece of disturbing news that implies that the ISI might be ready to take matters into its own hands and assist the Taliban in to redirecting Pakistani security policy—the ISI’s alleged complicity in the terror bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 8, 2008.
The U.S. government has been in the forefront in providing intelligence linking the ISI to the attack, no doubt a sobering reminder to Islamabad that the Bush administration has a pronounced pro-Indian tilt that no amount of enthusiastic water-carrying by Pakistan on Afghan security is likely to reverse.
Karzai’s ties to India as a counterweight to Pakistan have been a source of irritation to the ISI. But orchestrating the bombing of India’s embassy might not have been a reckless act of brinksmanship; it may have been a deliberate provocation.
If Karzai indignantly broke off relations with Pakistan, and India responded to the bombing with understandable anger, then Pakistan’s army would be free to abandon the thankless project of cooperating with NATO forces in the bloody, border-straddling counter-insurgency campaign in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Instead, while Karzai floundered to his doom, the Pakistani army could do what it does best: deploying its divisions in a conventional order of battle in Pakistan’s east facing India and engage in the crowd-pleasing ritualized hostility that has secured the army’s place in the center of national esteem—and fattened its budget—for the last sixty years.
So, a surge into Afghanistan, instead of adding an emollient sheen to waters already smoothed by an interested regional power, might instead apply a highly flammable coating of gasoline to all of South Asia—with the Taliban and the ISI both eager to throw a match.