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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Untying the Knot in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The PBS show Frontline recently aired a segment entitled The War Briefing that should be required viewing (see #1 for video) or reading (see #2 for transcript) for all Americans. The show is a companion to a prior segment entitled Return of the Taliban which is also worth watching (#3) or reading (#4). The War Briefing provides commentary from numerous reporters including Michael Gordon, Dexter Filkins, Steven Coll and Mary Ann Weaver who have covered the war in Afghanistan since 2001 to the present. It does a great job summarizing the complicated, convoluted and often outright contradictory alliances that produced the sanctuaries exploited by Al Qaeda and continue to thwart the defeat of the Taliban.

If boiled down to the simplest terms possible, the program makes the following points:

1) The Pashtun areas of Pakistan have been unconquerable for hundreds of years due to both the terrain and the tribal history.

2) Inhabitants of the tribal areas no more recognize the arbitrary border drawn by the British between Afghanistan and Pakistan than they do the very countries themselves.

3) The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 may have toppled the Taliban government in Kabul but it could not destroy the Taliban because they retreated to the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan and US forces could not follow and destroy them without destabilizing our .ally. Pakistan.

4) The American invasion of Iraq refocused the vast majority of American resources and intelligence on Iraq and left the hunt for Bin Laden and the rest of Al Qaeda to Pakistan.

5) Pakistan received billions in American aid to .fight Al Qaeda. but Pakistan's security service (the ISS) not-so-secretly supported (and still supports) the Taliban because the Pashtun members of the Taliban are thought to be allied with Pakistan against India, Pakistan's bitter enemy.

6) The Pakistani government (not just the departed General Musharraf) despises the current Afghan government under Hamid Karzai because of his perceived ties to pro-Indian policies and players so Pakistan is likely to continue giving lip service to the American "war on terror" while taking our money and actively supporting the very Taliban forces that are killing Americans in Afghanistan.

Probably the most worrisome point raised in the entire show is that Pakistan's support for the Islamic extremist Taliban as a check against perceived pro-Indian forces in its neighbor Afghanistan is likely to come back and bite Pakistan HARD. The same Islamic extremists it thinks are serving Pakistan's purposes in Afghanistan are now plotting to overthrow the Pakistani government. To date, Pakistan has maintained some semblance of a secular, somewhat democratic government by military leaders staging coups when the fundamentalist influences became too strong. Now, it may be too late.

As Steven Coll states, "They have gradually come down from the hills into settled territory in Pakistan. They control territory not just in a military sense. They also are administering territory and right now, they are in control of this territory and they are not about to hand it over to Pakistan."

As reporter Dexter Filkins put it, "The war is coming home to the Pakistani government. For years, they've had this relationship with the fighters and the Taliban in the tribal areas. They thought they could control them. It turns out they can't. They're out of control. Frankenstein has gotten off the table."

Finally, author Mary Ann Weaver states, "This is now a full fledged insurgency. You have individual Pashtun Pakistani tribal leaders rising up and revolting against the central government. Pakistan is in danger of becoming a failed state with fifty-plus nuclear weapons."

The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

I wonder how many times America will have to learn this lesson the hard way. We launched a needless war in Iraq to remove a WMD threat that didn't exist from a tyrant who at least kept fundamentalist threats in check. In doing so, we failed to appreciate the difficulty of securing a lasting solution to the original problem, spent thousands of lives and billions of dollars on that needless battle and provided aid to an ally which was providing aid to forces killing Americans and planning to topple the ally providing the aid. A strategic "three-fer" failure --- wrong on a primary goal (Iraq), wrong by directly impairing our effort on a legitimate primary goal (stabilizing Afghanistan), and wrong by aiding Pakistan which used has materially hampered our effort in Afghanistan while jeopardizing its own stability and increasing the danger of loose nukes --- ACTUAL nukes, not fantasy nukes.

The strategic thinking in the United States has been so abysmal for the last eight years that this geopolitical blunder is just one of three cataclysmic holes dug over the past eight years. Untangling the knot of bad strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan alone will require previously unheard of levels of insight, courage, and resources. Untangling that knot while trying to stage an exit from Iraq and trying to prevent an economic collapse will be a feat worthy of a spot on Mount Rushmore.


#1) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/warbriefing/view/

#2) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/warbriefing/etc/tapes.html (transcript will eventually be available here)

#3) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/taliban/view/

#4) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/taliban/etc/script.html