Monday, April 06, 2009

Af-Pak, where Barack will need all his baracka

When Mr Obama won office, The Onion, a satirical magazine, greeted his victory with the headline “Black man given nation’s worst job”. Watching Mr Obama’s progress around Europe this week, this seemed a reasonable summary of the situation. The new American president faces an economic disaster at home, a stalemated war in Afghanistan, unpredictable adversaries in places such as North Korea, and largely unhelpful allies in Europe. This week Mr Obama cemented the impression that he is an unusually gifted and intelligent politician. But that does not mean he will succeed. It could just be that he is the right man at the wrong time. Gideon Rachman - Financial Times
David Seaton's News Links
There seems to be a sidereal distance between official statements about American objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan and any reality based assessment on the possibility of achieving those objectives.

What is now called "Af-Pak"is in danger of becoming the mother of all tar babies, if it isn't already.

From the point of view of clear thinking, calling Iraq the "bad" war and Afghanistan the "good" war is on the order of "do you still beat your wife?" What could be said is that Iraq is Switzerland compared to Af-Pak and that even after being criminally mauled by the USA, before too many years have past Iraq will go back to being one of the most modern and prosperous countries in the Middle East. Af-Pak is the disaster that was waiting to happen... that happened.

At the heart of it all is America's refusal to give true value to history and culture... those of others and perhaps even of its own. As if history were like the film, "Groundhog Day", where every day was a totally fresh chance till you finally got it right. As those other Utopians the Soviets learned, Allah appears to have created Afghanistan specifically to humiliate those who have been eager to "take up the white man's burden".

A few days ago the veteran journalist H.D.S. Greenway wrote one of the most pithy illustrations of the mission's essential hopelessness entitled "Westernizing Afghanistan". Here are some excerpts:
Nearly 30 years ago I was taken to a refugee camp on Pakistan's Northwest frontier called "Kerala." It was named after an Afghan village whence most of the refugees had come.(...) An informer had told the Kabul government that the village was hiding insurgents, and when the government forces with their Russian advisers came many of the men of the village were lined up and shot. It was April 1979. Most of the villagers fled across the border to Pakistan. The Kerala incident interested me because of what the refugees said about their grievances against their government. What they objected to most was the government trying to force reforms on them - reforms such as secular institutions that the villagers saw as a threat to religion, and the education of girls. I thought to myself, how ironic. The Communists are trying to modernize the country much as we might do, but the people resist sudden change. I wrote in my notes: "The lesson seems to be, whether you are a Communist or the Shah of Iran, you force reforms and modernization down the throats of traditional and deeply religious peasants only at your peril." (...) Three decades have passed since then, and today it is the United States, not the Soviet Union, that is bogged down fighting Afghans who have a different vision of how society should be organized.(...) in a society so steeped in a contrary tradition, is it up to us to tell Afghans what customs they can or can't keep? Is the goal of westernizing Afghanistan sustainable? Is it realistic? Is it worth dying for?
The situation in Pakistan seems even nastier and more adhesive and, through American meddling, now is inseparable from the historically intractable swamp of Afghanistan.

Here is how the New York Times lays it out:
President Obama’s strategy of offering Pakistan a partnership to defeat the insurgency here calls for a virtual remaking of this nation’s institutions and even of the national psyche, an ambitious agenda that Pakistan’s politicians and people appear unprepared to take up. Officially, Pakistan’s government welcomed Mr. Obama’s strategy, with its hefty infusions of American money, hailing it as a “positive change.” But as the Obama administration tries to bring Pakistanis to its side, large parts of the public, the political class and the military have brushed off the plan, rebuffing the idea that the threat from Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which Washington calls a common enemy, is so urgent.(...) Some analysts here and in Washington are already putting forward apocalyptic timetables for the country. “We are running out of time to help Pakistan change its present course toward increasing economic and political instability, and even ultimate failure,” said a recent report by a task force of the Atlantic Council that was led by former Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The report, released in February, gave the Pakistani government 6 to 12 months before things went from bad to dangerous. A specialist in guerrilla warfare, David Kilcullen, who advised Gen. David H. Petraeus when General Petraeus was the American commander in Iraq, offered a more dire assessment. Pakistan could be facing internal collapse within six months, he said.
Immanuel Wallerstein wrote this about "Obama's war" a few days ago:
In short, the "clear and focused goal" that Obama proposes - "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future" - will probably be further than ever from accomplishment. The question is what can Obama do then? He can "stay the course" (shades of Rumsfeld in Iraq), constantly escalate the troop commitment, while changing the local political leadership (shades of Kennedy/Johnson and Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam), or he can turn tail and pull out (as the United States finally did in Vietnam). He is not going to be cheered for any of these choices. I have the impression that Obama thinks that his speech left him some wiggle room. I think he will find out rather how few choices he will have that are palatable. I think therefore he made a big, probably irreparable, mistake.
What to do?

This is what I think.

I think the USA would actually do better with the Taliban themselves than with Karzai or any other leader that the USA could pull out of a hat. Let them run the country or at least the Pashtun part of it. In their fanatical narrow mindedness they seem not to steal as much as the "good" Afghans.

How could this possibly work?

First there should be clear, limited and hopefully achievable objectives with
believable carrots and believable sticks.

What could they be.

To begin with, convince the Taliban with sweet reasonableness not to allow foreign extremists to plan terror attacks against western targets from Afghan soil in exchange for not having their clans indiscriminately wiped out at leisure from the air. They have direct experience of this and they surely would like it to stop. This can be done without western soldiers on the ground. That would be the stick. I don't think any other would be needed.

What about the carrots?

Offer to build the gas pipelines across Afghanistan which are of major interest to NATO and the EU, pay the Taliban protection money for their cooperation and encourage them to wet their beaks in all the construction projects. Once completed the pipe lines will give the country a steady, legitimate income.

Create an international consortium with EU, Japan and China and including the IMF, the WHO and the WTO to purchase the entire annual opium crop of Afghanistan for worldwide, legal medical use. Create another consortium of the neighboring countries to supervise this legal trade. Let them wet their beaks in all the associated projects, so that they discourage smuggling of illegal opium across their frontiers. This will also give the Afghanistan a steady, legitimate income and cut off funding for mischief.

Prosperity might just make them all a bit less bloody minded.

Now for Pakistan.

The first thing to remember is that the Pakistan army, which basically runs the country still considers - and will always consider - India, not Afghanistan the major threat. Therefore if Pakistan's cooperation is desired don't let Afghanistan be a pawn in the struggle between India and Pakistan. Any India-weighted shift in America's foreign policy dooms any Af-Pak strategy to failure.

Settle the Kashmir question. Pressure India to allow the inhabitants of Kashmir to decide their future in a UN supervised referendum. Support the results.

America's efforts should not be directed toward the internal social questions of Pakistan, but should be directed toward bringing peaceful relations between the India and Pakistan

The US should not make any speculative alliances against any of the countries in the region and should not attempt to play India against Pakistan or China or any of them against Iran.

The object should be to defuse the entire area. Getting involved in local religious, geopolitical and social disputes is constantly re-lighting the fuse.

And of course, in order to make any progress at all in dealing with extremist Islam anywhere in the world, it is essential that the United States be more evenhanded in dealing with Israel and the Palestinians so that Muslims anywhere in the world who might be well disposed to the USA are not made to feel like damn fools or quislings. The United States should not allow Israel to drag it off a geopolitical cliff... if it hasn't been permanently dragged off it already.

Of course, any real prospect of peace with the Muslim world will set off all of AIPAC's alarm bells, with all that entails.

Do I think any of this will ever happen?

Perhaps but probably only when it is too late. DS


bailey alexander said...

Interesting ideas, certainly more creative than I could provide...but I wonder...

I've been a Maltese resident for 4 years even though I haven't lived here full time until now. We understand the place, had a biz here, many Maltese friends, all trilingual and amazingly resilient as so many have had a go at them over their 7,000 history.

But there are some non Maltese, westerners, friends of ours, that have a deep understanding of history, have lived and worked on multiple continents and feel quite strongly that if any 'peace' is to be had, where the east will meet the west, it will happen here, in Malta.
It's Semitic, 97% catholic but a 'gateway' of sorts to the middle east/africa....'specially their specific 'bond' with Libya, which we're exploring also...just a perception.

forensic econmist said...

Good post, David. My feeling is that one of the biggest disasters of the 20th century was the creation of religious based states - namely Pakistan and Israel. The Indian subcontinent had never been divided to my knowledge on religious lines. Once it was, politicians on both sides stirred up the masses by defining themselves as not whatever was on the other side of the line.

It would very much be in India's interest to give up Kashmir for the sake of peace. (or for Pakistan to give it up, if that is what the Kashmiris want) However, too many politicians gain and maintain power by keeping the antagonism up.

My solution would be to break up Afghanistan on lines of language - let the Tajik speaking area become part of Tajikistan, the Dari speaking area part of Iran, and the Pashto speaking area an independent Pashtunistan. The Pakistanis could get rid of their Pashtuns by letting Waziristan join Pashtunistan.

My perception is that the majority of Pakistanis - Punjabis and Sindhis - practice a form a Islam influence by Hinduism, that includes worship of saints and relics. The purists consider these not be Moslem at all. The only reason the purists get any sympathy with the Punjabis is that the purists are also guerilla fighters against India.

Unfortunately, rationality breaking out does not seem the most likely solution.