Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Dot Dot Dot: Taking Everyone’s Favorite Metaphor For Failure Out For A Spin

Monday, December 28th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

In the wake of the attempted terrorist attack on a Amsterdam-to-Detroit airliner, the WaPo’s editorial page breaks out my favorite way that the burden of failure is transferred from actual people to abstract concepts: “Connecting the dots.” From the editorial:

THE THWARTED Christmas Day airplane bombing raises three causes for alarm. First, it illustrates a screening system that remains porous enough to let a suspect board with the same explosive shoe-bomber Richard Reid attempted to use in 2001

Okay, I’ll give him that one, but it’s not exactly like it was unknown that the TSA is a complete disaster. Since 9/11, reporters and government types alike have repeatedly defeated the TSA’s security and gotten everything from box-cutters to guns to mock explosives aboard airplanes. So color me unsurprised.

Second, it exposes a terrorism bureaucracy too clumsy to catapult the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, at least to a higher level of preflight scrutiny after his father came forward with warnings that he might pose a danger.”

That may have something to do with the fact that both the no-fly list and the “extra attention” list are literally swamped with hundreds of thousands of names, ninety percent of whom seem to be on there for no apparent reason. This is thanks to a system called TIDEMART that literally runs off of a laptop in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) and NSA data-mining run amok. Add in an element of political intimidation (scores of antiwar activists found themselves on one of the lists during the Bush Administration) and you have the recipe for a system that may be worse than not having one at all.

And his father did warn the US Embassy in Lagos that his son had been radicalized, which did get him on the increased scrutiny list. Why no more than that you ask? Well, two reasons: One, the CTC and NSA are absolutely flooded with vague warnings from all over the world that may or may not be the real deal, which basically reduces it to going with the odds-on favorite. Two, despite the fact that pretty much every CIA officer in the world using official cover poses as a Foreign Service embassy official, the striped-pants set from the State Department and the spooks from Langley are generally at each others’ throats. Then you add in the disdain that the FBI, which is responsible for domestic counterterrorism, has for the CIA (the saying is, “FBI catches bank robbers; CIA robs banks”) and it is yet again a recipe for disaster.

Expect to hear about “breaking information stovepipes” (my second favorite in terms of blaming abstract concepts) and “not just moving boxes around on a chart” when moving the boxes into an arrangement that makes a lick of sense would probably be a good idea.

Third, if it is true that the suspect received explosives training from al-Qaeda in Yemen, the incident underscores the emergence of that troubled nation as a training ground for terrorists.

This is the kind of thing that makes my blood boil. Yemen is not “emerging” as a training ground for terrorists, Al Qaeda has been there at least since bin Laden was kicked out of the Sudan and moved to Afghanistan in the Nineties. Yemen acted as sort of a regional command center for AQ Central in the Persian Gulf, given that the ruling council was in a Central Asian country on the far side of Iran.

I mean, Yemen had a direct role in 9/11. Two of the hijackers came to America from Yemen; one actually returned there and came back during preparations for the hijackings. In fact, the best example of not “connecting the dots” before 9/11 involves Yemen. It goes like this: The NSA was actually tapping the communications of the Yemen command center, and identified those two future hijackers as AQ and on their way to America. The NSA told the CTC, but the call was taken by an FBI agent seconded to the Agency, who told his CIA boss, who for reasons unknown sat on the information.

At least this explains our targeted strikes in Yemen recently..

No screening system can be foolproof, and every system must balance security against the need to allow an acceptably free flow of travel. But the system apparently failed in the case of Mr. Abdulmutallab in significant part because available technologies were not employed. The explosive PETN, pentaerythritol tetranitrate, that Mr. Abdulmutallab allegedly carried would not be found through normal X-rays or metal detectors. However, it is detectable by bomb-sniffing dogs, by “sniffer” technology that blows particles off travelers, or by swabbing passengers for traces of explosives; full-body imaging might also have been helpful.

This is a whole bunch of words that can be boiled down to this: If someone in Lagos or Amsterdam had put the guy through a bomb sniffer, this would never have happened. Period.

The episode also serves as another sobering reminder that eliminating Afghanistan as a haven for terrorist planning is necessary but not sufficient. Yemen will be “a fertile ground for the training and recruitment of Islamist militant groups for the foreseeable future,” Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine warned in a report last month for the Center for a New American Security.

Al Qaeda is in more than eighty countries, including every Sunni-ruled country in the Middle East, multiple countries in Africa, the Philippines, you name it. In spite of the fact that no one seems to know or care about it, Operation Enduring Freedom (the initial attack on Afghanistan) also included a Philippines component, with Special Forces pursuing and eliminating members of Jamaat al-Islamyiah, an AQ offshoot. So, again, color me less than surprised.

Hopefully this will be the final kick in the ass that will spark some serious intelligence and counterterrorism reform, but Your Humble Author remains doubtful. If 9/11 couldn’t do it, what can?

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Everybody Loves David: Another Exciting Capitol Hill Hearing

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

General Petraeus goes to Washington:

The chief of the regional U.S. Central Command told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “additional mission force elements” would be sent to Afghanistan in the spring, but he declined to provide details in an open congressional hearing.

Although such “elements” have not been publicly discussed in the administration’s strategy announcements, counterterrorism efforts — missiles fired at specific insurgent targets from unmanned aircraft and bombs from manned planes, as well the use of Special Forces units and intelligence surveillance — are expected to increase along with the deployment of 30,000 more U.S. ground troops.

Off top, it’s nice to see someone talking about counterterrorism in Afghanistan rather than counterinsurgency.  Most folks think they are the same thing, and they are most definitely not.

The “additional elements” are almost certainly Special Forces and Special Operations teams that will spend a good portion of their time hunting Al Qaeda chiefs in the Pakistani borderlands. Throw in some more Predators and CIA paramilitary spooks for good measure. And here’s why:

The use of air attacks in Afghanistan has been curtailed in recent months as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander there, sought to avoid civilian casualties. But as described by Petraeus, the new concentration on pushing the Taliban out of population centers will allow more robust action against fighters in the countryside.

U.S. drone attacks have been used extensively against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan, although their frequency has diminished recently as the Pakistani military has been engaged in a ground assault in South Waziristan. Obama has warned Pakistan that it must step up its effort in that region and others along the border it shares with Afghanistan or risk an escalation of U.S. activity.

The Pakistani offensive in South Waziristan, which is where the Al Qaeda ruling council most likely resides, is a joke, we most likely cut back drone strikes to avoid accidentally killing a Pakistani soldier and sparking a diplomatic incident.  Pakistan’s army is a conventional force that is geared entirely towards a land war with India, so we’re talking armor, mechanized infantry and lots and lots of artillery.

They are not cut out to fight insurgents in extremely mountainous terrain. They have engaged the Pashtun tribes several times over the years since 9/11 and managed to lose decisively to ragtag tribal militias. So this is either a public relations stunt to keep American aid flowing, or they think they can get the anti-Pakistani Taliban faction that has been giving them so much trouble in the Swat Valley, because they’ve been known to kick it with Al Qaeda from time to time.

These are not the same Taliban who are attacking us in Afghanistan. The leaders of the major Afghan factions like Haqqani, Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are good friends with the Pakistani military and secret police.

Senators sharply questioned the officials about remarks Tuesday by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said he anticipated a U.S. combat presence in his country for five more years — about the same timeline Obama described, beginning with an initial troop escalation that started in the summer and leading to a withdrawal that would start in July 2011, depending on Afghan capabilities. Karzai said he envisioned U.S. funding for Afghanistan’s own security forces to continue for 15 years, a cost that Petraeus estimated would total about $10 billion a year.

Noting that Karzai’s timeline would extend to 2024, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) noted that “we’re talking about $150 billion just on the security side,” for Afghan forces alone, “before we get to the development side.”

You have to admire Karzai’s cojones for just blatantly coming out and saying it, when most politicians would deny such a long-term commitment would happen despite the fact that they knew it was inevitable.  Not to mention that American-funded security for a decade or so is probably the only thing that would keep the Pakistanis from killing him (they’ve already tried twice). They see Karzai as pro-India (which he is) and the shady way he bounced pro-Pakistan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah out of the election has probably made them ever less happy.

Petraeus also provided additional details on plans to “reintegrate” Taliban fighters into Afghan society or security forces with monetary and other incentives. He described a new Force Reintegration Cell, headed by a retired British general who held the same job under Petraeus when the latter was the U.S. commander in Iraq, that will identify insurgents likely to switch sides if provided the right incentives.

This is the part that is going to drive both sides of the political spectrum insane, because the Taliban has been conflated with Al Qaeda for so long. I’ve said it before, but how long do you have to kill people for their government having bad house guests? It’s been almost a decade; they’ve most likely learned their lesson. Of course the strategy is sound, every counterinsurgency ends with political negotiations, but try explaining that to your average American.

Those who cannot be reintegrated “can be killed, captured or run off,” Petraeus said. But the idea, he said, was to make individual fighters “part of the solution instead of part of the problem.” U.S. commanders in Afghanistan said Wednesday that they are funding a raise in Afghan military pay — from $180 a month to about $240 for an entry-level soldier, along with other tangible benefits — to compete with the Taliban, which offers up to $300 a month.

Word. Good ideas.

The strategy also includes development of “community defense” forces, tapping local leaders to defend their territory in conjunction with coalition and Afghan forces. That effort has long been pushed by the U.S. Special Forces Command, which has argued that the extremely localized nature of Afghan culture should be matched by a localized U.S. approach.

“It’s a village-by-village, valley-by-valley effort,” Petraeus said, “and we’re using some of our best Special Forces teams right now to really experiment with this.”

This puts the American Special Forces in the role they are best at: Force multiplication and foreign internal defense. Though most people see them as elite hunter-killer teams (and there’s no doubt that they are),  a Special Forces A-Team of just twelve men can raise, train and command a company-sized unit of militia fighters. They are experts at turning a bunch of ragtag native fighters into a disciplined and effective fighting unit. Foreign internal defense (FID) is milspeak for fighting an insurgency inside a “host nation.”

And why are we just trying this now eight years later you ask? Well, it’s simple: It’s office politics. The Cold Warriors who trained to fight the Soviets in Europe that now run the Army have a reflexive distrust of the individual branches’ Special Operations Forces and especially the Special Operations Command, which covers the whole world and thus don’t fall under the authority of the individual theater commander where they are operating at.

Why? It could be resistance from generals who were lieutenants either during Vietnam or in the immediate aftermath and swore never to fight another counterinsurgency. It could be that the Army is a crazily massive bureaucracy (you would not believe the amount of typing and filing it takes to kill people in significant numbers all across the word) and turning it to a new direction is a painfully slow process. It could be that they don’t believe in the COIN mission and think there’s a better way

It’s most likely a combination of all three. Eventually, though, they need to accept the fact that unconventional warfare is the Next Big Thing, and that the combination of Special Operations units, SF operators, close air support and indigenous fighters can accomplish with less than a thousand soldiers and airmen what it used to take a massive conventional force to do.

If one looks at history, every occupation of Afghanistan has been a disaster, but punitive strikes have worked multiple times: Get in, kill a bunch of people, and depart posthaste. One would think the ghost of William Macnaughten would hover over our politicians’ shoulders in this debate, but how many do you think knew who he was or what he did?

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Making Headway Against AQ? A Suspiciously Timely Article From The Washington Post

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

By Tommy Brown

An article about efforts against Al Qaeda in AfPak that makes my spider-sense tingle, from the WaPo:

U.S. and international intelligence officials say that improved recruitment of spies inside the al-Qaeda network, along with increased use of targeted airstrikes and enhanced assistance from cooperative governments, has significantly reduced the terrorist organization’s effectiveness.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said that the combined advances have led to the deaths of more than a dozen senior figures in al-Qaeda and allied groups in Pakistan and elsewhere over the past year, most of them in 2009. Officials described Osama bin Laden and his main lieutenants as isolated and unable to coordinate high-profile attacks.
A convenient time for an article to come out extolling the success we are having against Al Qaeda, no? Here’s my problem with just these two paragraphs: First off,  this sounds exactly like what the Bush White House said for years about their campaign against AQ, right up until the point that it was revealed that bin Laden et al. had reconstituted their organization and were back on the grind and better than ever. The last sentence is literally word for word what the Bush administration used to say: UBL and his lieutenants are isolated and cannot coordinate attacks.

Second, the “enhanced assistance from cooperative governments” is rather obviously an allusion to Pakistan, and the reason it is phrased so obliquely is that if they came out and said Pakistan was doing a better job, they would be laughed at. The Pakistani government is coming apart at the seams. They are unable to affect anything in the Federally Administered Tribal Regions where AQ Central is hanging out; even when Musharraf, who at least made a half-assed effort to try to help, sent troops in to FATA and the North-West Frontier, they were beaten by the ragtag tribal militias. And on top of it all, the new head of the military (the real power in Pakistan) is an Islamist and former chief of the ISI-D who is explicitly pro-Taliban.

Third, the body count also harkens back to the days of yore, when Bush would give speeches talking about the number of high- and medium-value AQ targets that had been killed. He stopped giving those for a reason: Al Qaeda now has a pool of trained, combat-tested veterans to move up into managerial positions when one of the top dogs are killed. The phrase “and allied groups” gives me pause too, because this could mean that they’re killing Taliban chiefs, who are significantly easier to get because they actually come into Afghanistan to get killed, and not members of the Al Qaeda shura (ruling council).

A good analogy would be the prosecution of the American Mafia. After every high-profile case that ended in convictions (Lucky Luciano, Murder Incorporated, the Pizza Connection, the Five Families RICO case), US attorneys would crow about how they had killed the mob, or reduced them to unorganized street gangs. And of course, two years after one of these big convictions, the Five Families or the Chicago Outfit had quietly moved their veteran soldiers up into the executive positions and continued on as per usual. And this went on for seventy years, before any real headway was made against Cosa Nostra.

More from the article:

The most important new weapon in the Western arsenal is said to be the recruitment of spies inside al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations, a long-sought objective. “Human sources have begun to produce results,” Richard Barrett, head of the United Nations’ al-Qaeda and Taliban monitoring group, said Tuesday. Barrett is the former chief of Britain’s overseas counterterrorism operations.

Current and former senior U.S. officials, who spoke about intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity, confirmed what one former CIA official called “our penetration of al-Qaeda.” A senior administration official said that success had come “because of, first of all, very good intelligence capabilities . . . to locate and identify individuals who are part of the al-Qaeda organization.”

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair referred obliquely in an interview with reporters earlier this month to the use of spies, saying that “the primary way” that U.S. intelligence determines which terrorist organizations pose direct threats is “to penetrate them and learn whether they’re talking about making attacks against the United States.”

Now this is the part where I fervently hope that this revelation is psychological warfare against the Taliban and AQ to paralyze them with paranoia over moles in their organizations. It is a very effective tactic, see: James  Jesus Angleton. Given the incredible difficulty of inserting an intelligence officer into AQ, or even getting one of their members to flip and become a double agent, revealing that information for political reasons would border on the criminal.

Recent claims of significant success against al-Qaeda have become part of White House deliberations about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, centering on a request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American and NATO commander there, for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign that will require more U.S. troops. Discussions began in earnest Tuesday as senior national security and military officials met with President Obama.

Those within the administration who have suggested limiting large-scale U.S. ground combat in Afghanistan, including Vice President Biden, have pointed to an improved counterterrorism effort as evidence that Obama’s principal objective — destroying al-Qaeda — can be achieved without an expanded troop presence.

And in the first paragraph we have the reason that the White House leaked this story to WaPo. McChrystal’s public demand for tens of thousands of extra troops, which really are necessary if we are going to nation-build the way the Hillary-Holbrooke axis wants to, has put Obama in an awkward position, because the Congress doesn’t particularly want to do that.  The bright side is, they do seem to be rethinking their strategy of just throwing more soldiers into the meatgrinder. Cyncial as I am, I don’t want to think that this is just a stall to twist arms on Capitol Hill.

I don’t want to give the impression that I believe McChrystal (and Clinton and Holbrooke) are right.  Nation-building will never work in a place like A-stan; I wrote an article about it a few months ago. Joe Biden has the right strategy, though he has so far lost the internecine battles: A smaller number of American troops, mostly composed of Special Operations and Special Forces operators with close air support, in a strictly counterterrorism role. So, despite the fact that this article is disingenuous, if it helps stop a counterproductive and downright disastrous troop escalation, I’m willing to take that.

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Talkin’ Geopolitics With Joe Biden: Waiting For The Inevitable Gaffe.

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

One of the things that will be most amusing about the Obama administration in the coming years will be watching Joe Biden stick his foot in his mouth, and then make it worse trying to get it out. This is pretty much a guarantee. But at the Munich Security Conference ten days ago, the Vice President was all business, delivering the first major foreign policy speech since the inauguration.

Reuters compiled a last of significant quotes from the speech, and I taking a look at them one by one would be interesting:

“I come to Europe on behalf of a new administration, an administration that is determined to set a new tone not only in Washington, but in America’s relations around the world. That new tone is rooted in a strong bipartisanship to meet these common challenges. And we recognise that meeting these challenges is not a luxury but an absolute necessity.”

So he’s taking a more conciliatory, if measured, tone towards foreign policy, but it’s not like this is hard to do after eight years of the fuck-you-if-you-don’t-like-it Bush Doctrine.

ASKING MORE FROM PARTNERS

“As we seek a lasting framework for our common struggle against extremism, we will have to work cooperatively with nations around the world – and we will need your help. For example, we will be asking others to take responsibility for some of those now at Guantanamo as we determine to close it. Our security is shared. So, too, I respectfully suggest, is our responsibility to defend it.”

“America will do more. That’s the good news. The bad news is that America will ask for more from our partners as well.”

A nice little one-two punch at our European allies, making good on the promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison but also a put-up-or-shut-up call for help.

AMERICA WILL LISTEN

“We believe that international alliances and organizations do not diminish America’s power. We believe they help us advance our collective security, economic interests and our values. So we’ll engage. We’ll listen. We’ll consult.”

An unsurprising paean to the gurus of the loosely organized Western international order, but again, after Bush, a welcome one. Republicans, of course, will use this as a bludgeon to beat Obama about the head and neck with.

USING FORCE

“Our administration has set ambitious goals … to advance democracy not through its imposition by force from the outside, but by working with moderates in government and civil society to build the institutions that will protect freedom.”

“As America renews our emphasis on diplomacy, development, democracy and preserving our planet, we will ask our allies to rethink some of their own approaches – including their willingness to use force when all else fails.”

This is a pretty fascinating development, because it’s not exactly abandoning the “democracy is great for everyone” aspect of the Bush Doctrine, which was surprising to Your Humble Author;  they should be running away screaming from any of Bush’s policies. Also, the second quote seems to imply that the preemptive war doctrine aspect is also still in effect,  its’ just implied. These are not the improvements I was hoping for: America always has preemptive war in its pocket (though it will be much more difficult now), there’s no reason to state it or even subtly imply that we intend to keep it. Best left unsaid.

IRAN

“The Iranian people are a great people. The Persian civilization is a great civilization. But Iran has acted in ways that are not conducive to peace in the region or to the prosperity of its people; its illicit nuclear program is but one of those manifestations. Our administration is reviewing policy toward Iran, but this much is clear: We will be willing to talk.”

“We will be willing to talk to Iran, and to offer a very clear choice: continue down your current course and there will be pressure and isolation; abandon the illicit nuclear program and your support for terrorism and there will be meaningful incentives.”

Hopefully this is the first shot fired across the bow of Iran in efforts to start a dialogue, beginning with the State Department and hopefully ending at the White House. A carrot-and-stick approach is probably the only way to contain Iran’s ambitions nuclear-wise; there’s no way to stop them from developing nuclear weapons, but you can delay it. The focus on Iran’s atomic ambitions is baffling to me, when the already currently nuke-capable Pakistan is the far greater danger.

ISRAEL

“It is long time past for us to secure a just Two State solution. We will work to achieve it, and to defeat the extremists who would perpetuate the conflict. And, building on the positive elements of the Arab Peace initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia, we will work toward a broader regional peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.”

More of the usual. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

AFGHANISTAN

“The result must be a comprehensive strategy for which we all take responsibility that brings together our civilian and military resources that prevents a terrorist safe haven, that helps the Afghan people develop the capacity to secure their own future. But no strategy for Afghanistan, in my humble opinion, can succeed without Pakistan.”

If Joe were being honest, this quote would end with, “And Pakistan is not going to help us.” Pakistan’s civilian government is now back in the hands of the folks who created and funded the Taliban to begin with, and the military is run by Pervez Musharraf’s right-hand man; naturally, the deeply Islamist armed forces, secret police and fundamentalist political parties that support them are all covertly aiding the Taliban, if not Al Qaeda.

This statement is also more nation-building nonsense about Afghanistan, where a surge along the borderlands has less of a chance of succeeding than it’s already-improbably cousin in Iraq. Afghans as a whole aren’t too keen about the whole idea of a central government in general, to say nothing about military occupation by infidels.  Admittedly, I do agree that there does need to be a nation-building apparatus in the State Department that coordinates with the military. After all, we’re going to go to war again at some point, and the general consensus these days is that after you blow it up you have to fix it too.

MUSLIM WORLD

“America will extend a hand, as the President has said, to those who unclench their fists.”

“In the Muslim world, a small and I believe very small, number of terrorists are beyond the call of reason. We will and we must defeat them. But hundreds of millions of hearts and minds in the Muslim world share the values we hold dear. We must reach them.”

The VP is of course being polite with the facts, but the truth is that probably ten percent of Muslims (a not-insignificant hundred sixty million people) are at least passive supporters of what we in the West call “Islamism.” The Sunni Ikhwan, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, is organized politically in at least a dozen Middle Eastern countries and often held down through repressive policies by their host government; Al Qaeda has morphed into a worldwide ideology in the last seven years despite the actual group’s limited resources, based almost solely on Osama bin Laden’s marketing as a latter-day Saladin; The Taliban, their Pakistani franchise and the Kashmir jihadists all enjoy massive popular support; the Shi’ite Hizb’allah in Lebanon is widely admired by Arabs even of other religious persuasions for forcing Israel to end a twenty-year occupation of the Galilee.

These are the exact words the Bush Administration was mouthing for two full terms, so I’ll believe it when it’s backed up with an actually effective hearts and minds campaign.

NATO

“Our Alliance must be better equipped to help stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons, to tackle terrorism and cyber-security, to expand the writ of energy security and to act in and out of area more effectively.”

The only worrying part of this is the “expand the writ of energy security” part, because it’s an obvious shot at Russia’s current stinginess with shipping natural gas to Europe and the Near Abroad. One wonders what “acting in and out of area more effectively” really means.

MISSILE DEFENCE

“We will continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven and it is cost effective. We will do so in consultation with you our NATO allies and with Russia.”

This is just plain stupid, sticking our finger in the Russian’s eye for no good reason. Everyone knows the real reason for so-called missile defense in Eastern Europe is to intimidate the Bear into backing off from the Near Abroad countries. Someone get back to me when we actually have a missile interceptor that can stop an ICBM or IRBM that uses countermeasures.

RUSSIA

“The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our Alliance. It’s time, to paraphrase President Obama, to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should work together.”

This doesn’t really mean anything besides, “We are unwilling or unable to discuss our strategy for Russia.”

So out of the starting gate, Obama’s foreign policy is looking like a mixed bag. As a president who’s almost guaranteed to have a doctrine named after him, this needs to be at least as much of a focal point of the administration as the economy. Things cannot be allowed to drift, a la the first Clinton term, because the consequences could be catastrophic. America’s standing in the world means more and more in an increasingly close-knit world, and repairing it better be at least Job Two on Obama’s to-do list. Ending “enhanced interrogation techniques” and closing Gitmo is a good start though, and hopefully picking foreing policy guru Biden as Vice President (where he inherits a national security staff larger than the National Security Council’s thanks to Dick Cheney) means they plan on taking this seriously.

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

Monday, February 9th, 2009

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

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Post-Feminist Foreign Policy: Liberal Internationalism In Action

Monday, January 26th, 2009

by Tommy Brown

From a really bizarre article in the online version of Newsweek by Anna Quindlen, titled “The End of Swagger:”

As Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton begin to use their uncommon authority and intelligence to implement a new American international agenda, it might behoove them to read a speech given some years ago in Beijing. It read in part: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights for one and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely—and the right to be heard. Women must enjoy the rights to participate fully in the social and political lives of their countries if we want freedom and democracy to thrive and endure.”

Secretary Clinton was first lady when she spoke those words at a United Nations conference on women in 1995. Some of the participants wept to hear an influential American commit to a view of the world so many of them shared: that the way for nations to prosper was to pay attention to women’s rights, women’s welfare and women’s concerns.

A noble cause, to be sure, but one that immediately runs up against the brick wall of reality, in that the only belief in women’s rights that most countries where the Western Enlightenment never penetrated have is that a woman has a right to bear children and serve her husband. While of course it is a noble cause to push for women’s rights worldwide, Your Humble Author seems to recall that this particular message was a key one in both the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, and in the end, turned out to be so much horse manure. And this is in a situation where we invaded, broke down their old society, and re-wrote their laws. Accomplishing it through less direct means like diplomacy may be a tad more difficult.

Now, I’m sure this will offend some (if not most) people, but foreign policy is not missionary work, and our relationships with unpleasant regimes shouldn’t hinge on whether women have to wear the burqa or not. I’m all for soft diplomatic power to encourage women’s rights, and using the UN to push for it, in the same manner that we led the fight against human rights violations (until recently). But in matters where important national security interests are at stake, this is the definition of a non-issue.

A story most don’t know is that the main roadblock towards America extending diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government, and thus being able to negotiate with them in the years before 9/11, was that a group led by Mavis Leno (wife of Tonight Show host Jay) lobbied and convinced then-President Clinton that recognition should be denied until the Taliban gave their women Western-style civil rights. The fact that everyone in Afghanistan lacked any sort of Enlightenment-style human rights seems to have escaped everyone involved.

But here’s where the article gets a bit bizarre:

Those are the kinds of conclusions that put people’s backs up, particularly if those people happen to be male. Isn’t it just another form of sexism, they argue, to suggest that women are better, or different? Hasn’t Secretary Clinton shown herself to possess a killer instinct as finally honed as that of any male counterpart? Yes, she has, and perhaps now that everyone knows she can be the toughest person in the room, she is uniquely positioned to go the other way. “Soft diplomacy could be her greatest strength,” says Kavita Ramdas, president of the Global Fund for Women. “This is the time to get rid of militarism as a dominant theme, not only because it’s wrong, but because it doesn’t work.”

It truly makes one wonder about the premise for this entire article, considering that the former Secretary of State passing the torch to Hillary Clinton is also a woman (though perhaps because she is a Republican it does not count).  So what does Madam Clinton being a woman have to do with getting ridding of “militarism as a dominant theme” and moving towards soft diplomacy? Obviously a woman can be just as hawkish as a man, in the case of both Condi and Hillary, and the author points that out the latter before making a totally contradictory point.

In the end, this is a difference of ideology, not yet another skirmish in the Battle of the Sexes. The Bush administration was composed of neoconservative hawks; the Obama administration is composed mostly of neoliberal hawks with the occasional internationalist thrown in.  This makes it pretty likely that negotiation is going to take a dominant position over militarism and saber-rattling, but I am at a loss as to why the SecState being a woman has anything to do with it.

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Pride Before The Fall: Expanding Nation Building Efforts In Afghanistan

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

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.<–>

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Fateful Triangle: Pakistan, India and Afghanistan

Monday, September 1st, 2008

From a recent Newsweek article on the suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Afghanistan:

Afghan authorities wasted little time in assigning blame. With blood and debris still littering the streets of Kabul after a suicide bomb at the Indian embassy killed 41 and injured 150 on Monday, an Afghan defense spokesman promptly pointed an accusatory figure at Pakistan. “The sophistication of this attack, and the kind of material that was used and the specific targeting, everything has the hallmark of a particular intelligence agency that has conducted similar attacks inside Afghanistan in the past. We have sufficient evidence to say that,” the spokesman told reporters Tuesday morning, refusing to mention Pakistan by name but acknowledging the reference as “pretty obvious.”

The “obvious reference” is, of course, to the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI-D), Pakistan’s intelligence agency and secret police. While Pakistan is nominally one of our biggest allies in the “war on terror,” in reality only President Pervez Musharaff and the military are pro-American, and it is borne out of strategic neccessity rather than genuine affection. Almost everyone else is lined up against us: The ISI-D is full to bursting with Islamists and maintains strong ties to the Afghan insurgency; the Bhutto movement, while paying lip service to the American obsession with democracy, are the people who created and funded the Taliban in the first place; and the general population is becoming increasingly radicalized.

The most disturbing part of the whole incident is that the Karzai government is openly blaming Pakistan, supposedly their biggest ally after America, in a public forum. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, but it bespeaks some serious behind-the-scenes maneuvering in both countries.

Just because ISI-D was behind it, and they are the definition of a rogue intelligence service, that doesn’t mean that the suicide bombing in Afghanistan wasn’t approved at the highest levels of the Pakistani government. It goes like this: India and Pakistan are mortal enemies in a nuclear standoff, with Kashmir as the flashpoint. The last three times they went to war, the Pakistanis got their asses kicked badly, and are understandably pretty nervous about it happening again. Alot of the reason Pakistan funded the Taliban movement was that they couldn’t afford to have hostile states on either side of them.

So the Indians, naturally, are investing heavily in Afghanistan, including building the new parliament and a road that would connect Afghanistan to the Middle East without going through Pakistan. An allied Afghanistan would allow them to pull the old pincer move, preventing Musharraf from committing the bulk of his military to the Indian border and putting Pakistan in an even more precarious strategic position (which wasn’t that great to begin with). At the very least, the Pakistanis consider Afghanistan to be their little buddy, and don’t want the Indians horning in.

Pakistan is not going to take this lying down. Even Musharraf knows the danger to his country posed by Indian influence in Afghanistan. The actual actors in the bombing were almost definitely one of the three groups who are collectively called “the Taliban” by the media: Mullah Omar’s people operating out of Quetta, the Haqqani, who are so zealous they think Omar is a big softy, or the “Afghan Arab” foreign fighters. Standing behind them organizing and financing the attack was the ISI-D, whose Islamist connections go all the way back to the Afghan-Soviet War.

So the million dollar question is, was it a rogue operation or did the Musharraf government approve it? Most likely no one will ever know, but I would give good odds it was at least tacitly condoned by our biggest ally in the region.

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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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