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Posts Tagged ‘Afghan War’

A Gun To His Own Head: How Pervez Musharraf Played America

Monday, February 9th, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

“Pakistan now negotiates with its allies and friends by pointing a gun to its own head,” an anonymous diplomat is quoted as saying in Stephen Cohen’s The Idea of Pakistan, and there is probably not a more pithy and accurate perception of America’s relationship with the turbulent Muslim nation and its former generalissimo, the wily and unpredictable Pervez Musharraf. For seven-plus years Pakistan has been one of America’s key strategic allies in the “War on Terror,”, and from 9/11 until his resignation as president on 18 August 2008, Musharraf ruthlessly pursued what he perceived to be his own nation’s interests while paying naught but lip service to his benefactors in Washington. The severity of the situation is little-known outside of political circles, but the consequences could be catastrophic (and possible apocalyptic) for the entire region between Kazakhstan and India.

Understanding why Musharraf acted the way he did is impossible without first grasping the two most important factors in his political life: the military and the disputed region of Kashmir. The military and its attendant secret police, the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate, have run Pakistan virtually since its inception, even when civilian governments were putatively in charge.  And unlike the “Deep State” Turkish military, which turns the Ankara government’s rudder in a more secular direction when radical Islam occasionally pops up, the Pakistani armed forces rely on the support of a coalition of Islamist political parties.  The fact that the army and ISI are popularly perceived (in America at any rate) as the secular bulwark against the rising tide of Islamic extremism is probably the most successful propaganda operation of the 21st Century, because nothing could be further from the truth.

This Is How He Balled

The answer to Musharraf’s support for violent extremists inside his own country lies in Kashmir, the majority-Muslim province straddling the border between Pakistan and India. Every single political issue in Pakistan must be seen through the lens of Kashmir, from their terse nuclear standoff with India to the ISI’s active support of the Taliban. Indeed, Musharraf first gained international prominence in the late Nineties as the general who recklessly started the Kargil War in Kashmir, which came within a hair’s-breadth of leading to atomic winter over South Asia, and cemented his reputation as both an ardent nationalist and being capricious and unpredictable

When questioned about why Pakistan had done a total one-eighty on their relationship with America following 9/11, Musharraf simply replied, “Our national interest has changed.” But it hadn’t changed that much. Cracking down on radical Islamist terrorists was a total nonstarter for the self-styled Chief Executive: His own intelligence service had basically created and put the Taliban into power, and his power base was very keen to continue the proxy war in Kashmir with extremist groups in the south.  So after the requisite bowing and scraping to the Bush Administration before and during the Afghan War, Musharraf freely allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters to cross the border into the hinterlands of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. At the same time, he was assuring Washington and the world that he was sealing off the escape routes, which was ludicrous on its face, because an actual border between Afghanistan and Pakistan only existed in the mind of a long-dead Englishman named Durand.

The general played the game very shrewdly: The Islamist-dominated ISI assisted the CIA in hunting down AQ operatives south of the borderlands, for which Musharraf received billions of dollars in aid and military support, a good portion of which ended up financing the Taliban for its insurgency in Afghanistan, all the while denying that they existed in FATA at all. Almost every single time before he met with Americans, Afghanis or the United Nations, there would always be a much-hyped “crackdown on insurgents” to allow him to keep face. It was also a good excuse to disappear or jail nationalist Baloch and Sindhi rebels who were giving his regime a headache in the southwest.

All Fall Down

Of course, while Musharraf happy-talked the international community, the Islamists were pursuing totally different interests. Mullah Omar set up his Taliban shura (ruling council) in the city of Quetta, with no government interference as long as he kept it a non-Arab, non-AQ organization, at least officially.  These rules did not apply to FATA; Al Qaeda led the efforts to “Talibanize” the Pashtun border regions from South Waziristan to the North-West Frontier Province. Eventually, they forged links with the Kashmir groups and even the nationalist insurgencies that were not explicitly Islamist. Islamic extremism in Pakistan had become, in the words of journalist Ahmed Rashid, a “multilayered terrorist cake,” starting with the Talibanized Pashtun tribesmen in FATA, who provided a bolthole and logistics; the Afghan Taliban who settled there after the war; Sunni militants from the Middle East, Central Asia, Chechnya and Kashmir who wanted to be where the jihad was; and finally the Arabs, from Al Qaeda’s shura (bin Laden et al.) to those trusted to protect them.

The jihadists, as per usual, weren’t very grateful, still viewing Musharraf as a secular apostate leader along the lines of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Despite his largesse towards jihadists in general, there were two assassination attempts against him in 2003, one of which was narrowly foiled by American-supplied signal jammers. This did not derail his long-term strategy of mostly talk and some ceremonial action, despite the irony of the fact his intelligence service and military were assisting the same people trying to kill him. Any criticism of his weak counterterrorism policies was itself countered with the “devil you know” argument: Better a man like Musharraf in charge, then an unknown quantity, and if he was pushed too hard, his regime would collapse.

By 2006, the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda had reconstituted their strength to the point that they launched an all-out offensive in southern Afghanistan, focusing on the city of Kandahar and the opium-rich Hemland Province. While they were repulsed in the end, and it was a significant tactical defeat by any measure, it was a propaganda coup on par with Tet that shocked both the global media and the Afghans into realizing that the Taliban was much more powerful, and much more of a threat, than the conventional wisdom held them to be. Musharraf, pushed into action by White House pressure and world opinion, moved the Pakistani military (what little he was willing to spare from the Indian border) into the borderlands, but met with very little success. The Taliban continued to strike into Afghanistan and then retreat across the borderlands, and the occasional Hellfire missile strike from a Predator or Special Forces team crossing into Pakistan was not going to make much of a difference.

Lawyers > Guns And Money

It was few months later that Musharraf made the first serious mistake that eventually led to his downfall: He spat in the eye of the legal profession. On 13 March 2007, he suspended the Chief Justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court on the traditional Third World charge of Attempted Judicial Enforcement In A Banana Republic. A dangerously honest Court might have prevented Musharraf from winning the upcoming presidential election in which he hoped to legitimize his rule. Across the country, lawyers and judges formed a protest group, Judicial Activism, boycotting all court proceedings and rallying in the streets of Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and even fundamentalist Quetta. Four months later, amid these massive protests, the Chief Justice was reinstated.

The Chief Executive knew that his grip on power was slipping away; shortly after his legal woes, the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) incident occurred. The week-long siege, organized by Talibanized students who had declared an alternate sharia-based legal system, showed the world that Islamists were much more powerful in Pakistan than had been believed. Musharraf himself was now besieged on all sides, with the legal system calling for his resignation as army chief, Chief Executive or both, and the return of his two mortal political enemies, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, all the while trying to win the upcoming presidential election

Still, on 28 September 2007, Pervez Musharraf was elected President of Pakistan by plebiscite. Several days later, he stepped down as head of the armed forces, appointing his right hand man. But hopes for a return to normalcy were dashed when he declared a state of emergency in November, suspending the Constitution, putting the Supreme Court under house arrest and taking control of the media outlets. Unrest was further intensified by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, whom he had deposed as prime minister in the 1999 coup, about a week before general elections were to be held. The elections were delayed until March.

Musharraf spoke of “an era of democracy” and putting Pakistan “on the track of development,” but the 2008 elections destroyed any authority he had left. The Pakistan People’s Party of the martyred Bhutto and Sharif’s Pakistani Muslim League-N combined to win sixty-three percent of the votes, putting their coalition in the governmental driver’s seat. Under threat of impeachment by the new government, President Musharraf resigned his position after only five months of legitimate rule, replaced by Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari.

The Perfect Storm

In the final analysis, Musharraf’s rule from the start of the “War on Terror” until his resignation can only be deemed a failure, not just for American interests but for Pakistani ones also. Secure in the tribal hinterlands, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have not only reconstituted, but have spun off a Pakistani Taliban franchise and forged close links with the Kashmiri terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba. Lashkar and the Taliban, once fully-owned subsidiaries of the ISI and the military, have turned on their former masters with a vengeance, vowing to destroy the secular apostate government. The recent Mumbai attacks may signal that they are attempting to provoke a full-out war with India to accomplish this, which could very easily turn into a nuclear exchange.

America’s prospects in Pakistan are even bleaker, from the standpoint of terrorism. Through our willful blindness concerning Musharraf and our bafflingly counterproductive actions, we have turned a semi-stable, secular military dictatorship into a country whose government is on the brink of dissolution, thanks to a homegrown Islamist movement assisted by sympathizers in military/intelligence circles; where the president and the majority party are the ones who funded the Afghan Taliban movement in the first place; where Al Qaeda has reconstituted to pre-9/11 strength and has rebuilt its training-camp network and leadership. And while the average person had little idea that any of these events were occurring, the Bush Administration and both the State and Defense Departments were well aware of these developments and turned a blind eye to them..

In short, Pakistan makes Iran, with its ruthless but pragmatic mullahs attempting to build a nuclear weapon, look like Canada in comparison. Pakistan has become the nightmare nexus we have been warned about since 9/11: nuclear weapons, a government on the verge of an Islamist revolution, and terrorist groups working unchecked inside its borders

Pride Before The Fall: Expanding Nation Building Efforts In Afghanistan

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

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by Tommy Brown

Apparently, we have decided to double down our bet on building a “new democratic” Afghanistan. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. From Newsweek International:

The U.S. has some 33,000 troops in Afghanistan battling a resurgent Taliban, but Obama is expected to send up to 30,000 more this year as his administration shifts its focus from the war in Iraq to Afghanistan.

Speaking in Pakistan, NATO’s Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the new troops will take the fight to “places where it was not, or insufficiently, possible up till now.”

Scheffer said other NATO allies should also boost troop levels in Afghanistan if possible, but also increase the number of civilian experts to help with reconstruction and development in a country brought to its knees by decades of war.

“I do see the need for the military surge President Obama is proposing, but it should be met with a civilian surge,” he told reporters. “Let us not be under the illusion that extra U.S. force (alone) will do the trick.”

Now, I’m not happy at all with the whole idea of an Afghanistan surge, which is basically pointless and counterproductive. But to attempt to try to form Afghanistan into some kind of pluralistic Western democracy not only tops the stupidity meter, it causes it to explode. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with MEDCAPS (medical civic action programs, where the natives are given free medical care by our military) or Provincial Reconstruction Teams as long as American troops are in-country, to help tamp down the inevitable explosion. But the fact is, and always has been, that the Afghans, whether Pashtun, Uzbek, Kazakh or whatever, are probably the most antiauthoritarian people on Earth. They are not down with the whole good governance ideal, outside of being a good warlord for your people. The idea of a central Afghani government, even before the Soviet War, was always more theoretical than actual.

So the idea of a creating a democratic Afghanistan is sheer folly at best. President Karzai is basically the mayor of Kabul and the Afghan National Army is loyal to him, not to the country. The minute we pull our troops out, there will be a big throwdown between the major warlords and the Karzai government to see who gets to run the nicest parts of the country. It will be settled the traditional Afghan way, with one warlord emerging on top after killing his rivals to the throne. This is going to happen no matter what, and there’s really no point in delaying it with American lives. Really, if we were smart, we would let Karzai eliminate his rivals before we leave, to give him a better shot at staying El Presidente.

Now, I’m sure this idea will be met with a hue and cry about how Afghanistan is the real war and we need to finish it. The fact remains, though, that as long as the Taliban and Al Qaeda have contiguous safe haven in the Pakistani border regions and the Afghan government is a bunch of competing warlords whose allegiances shift with the wind, they are basically untouchable. And the real fact of the matter is, with David Petraeus taking over the Afghan occupation as well, it is pretty much a guarantee that he is going to cut a deal with the Taliban to force a wedge between them and Al Qaeda, just like he did with the Sunni Arabs and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in Iraq.

And it’s not just a good idea, it’s a great idea. The Taliban harbored AQ before 9/11, but having bad house guests is no reason to kill people for almost a decade, and it’s pretty much a guarantee that if they would retake southern Afghanistan, they will not be building any camps there (because they already have plenty in Pakistan). And for those filled with moral outrage about brokering a truce with the Taliban, if we can deal with the secular Sunnis in Iraq (read: former Ba’athists) against the Islamists, we can deal with the Talis.

The only way I could ever buy that the Afghan surge is a good idea is if it will be run along the lines of the Iraqi surge: Giving the American military the upper hand, however briefly, to have a better bargaining position with the locals. A surge for that purpose would be worth the cost; one simply to expand our nation-building presence is unacceptable. Pakistan is the real issue, the real central front of the “War on Terror,” and the sooner people realize it the better off we’ll be.<–>

Mike Vickers’ War

Monday, September 1st, 2008

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From Newsweek on the successful rescue of hostages in Columbia:

But Colombia’s dramatic shift in strategy over the last two years also has much to do with a quiet U.S. effort to school allies in counterinsurgency and Special-Operations tactics. Even the strategy of infiltration used against the FARC—a turncoat guerrilla working with the Colombian military was key to the hostage ruse—is one that has been promoted inside the Pentagon against Al Qaeda and other terror groups. While U.S. officials stress that every insurgency and terror group presents unique challenges, similar principles are being applied in Iraq’s Anbar province and now by the new Pakistani government in its Taliban- and Qaeda-infested tribal regions.

American-style counterinsurgency, in other words, is going global. “Colombia has done a really masterful job,” says Michael Vickers, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of Defense for Special Operations. Vickers gives Uribe’s government “the lion’s share” of the credit for the hostage ruse and anti-FARC strategy in general. But he acknowledges that “the Colombians are very close partners of ours and we’ve provided the training and other things.”

Mike Vickers, of course, has achieved some notoriety due to the book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War, wherein he was recruited by borderline-renegade CIA officer Gust Avrakotos to be the logistical brains behind supplying the mujahideen during the Afghan-Soviet War. Even though he was a junior officer at Langley, he had been a noncom and an officer in the Special Forces and ended up being responsible for the largest covert action program in American history, coordinating the fractuous muj insurgency and about a dozen foreign governments, with a budget in excess of two billion dollars. By all accounts, Vickers is without doubt an absolute genius at counterinsurgency. Having him as the coordinator for special ops and low-intensity conflicts is a Very Good Thing.

The story behind the story is that Colombia is just one example of a grand counterinsurgency strategy that is occurring all over the world, from Pakistan to Djibouti to the Philippines. Small teams of  American SF operators are teaching the indigenous armed forces how to fight the dirty, asymmetrical “small wars” of the twenty-first century, while at the same time providing civil services to the population in a hearts-and-minds campaign. Despite the much-publicized setbacks in stabilizing and building a competent military in Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, in many other countries incredibly small numbers of American soldiers are revolutionizing how Third World militaries combat terrorism and insurgencies.

It always amazes me that so many people are ignorant of the fact that the Afghan War was fought and won by a few hundred Special Forces soldiers, CIA paramilitary officers and Air Force close air support controllers acting in concert with the native anti-Taliban forces, not the thousands of conventional troops responsible for SASO (security and stability operations, or “nation building”) that arrived afterwards. Despite the constant media hullabaloo about “a new kind of war,” the fact that the first American war of this century was prosecuted by a handful of men leading Uzbek and Pashtun guerillas on horseback seems to have slipped under the national radar.

The downside to this strategy is that it basically replicates how the British Empire functioned in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, which raises the hackles of conservative isolationists and liberal internationalists alike. The British always liked to control their vassal states by proxy, like the “Arab facade” of the Hashemite kings that ruled large swaths of the Middle East after World War One, with military and colonial “advisors” directing the native governments.

Our strategy is certainly much less heavy-handed than the often-brutal English, but it may be much more effective due to an emerging fact in the globalized world: As many Third World countries are transitioning from repressive regimes to weak, unstable democracies, the politicians come and go, voted out of office or overthrown in coups, but the people responsible for the military and security apparatuses stay in power behind the scenes for years and years. Indeed, in most developing nations and failed states, the military is the only stable institution in the whole country, which means a little training and advice from the finest military in the history of time goes a long, long way.

The American public seems to be happy to pretend that this country has not been relentlessly expansionistic throughout its entire history, but at the same time demand the constant economic expansion that in today’s world almost always comes at the expense of weaker countries. This cognitive dissonance, allowing for a “soft imperialism” while pretending it doesn’t exist, is perhaps the most dangerous issue facing the United States in an increasingly multipolar world, as it prevents any meaningful discussion of our role in the world.


by Tommy Brown

“The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.”

-Niccolo Machiavelli

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