Af-Pak Blowback

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Articles

Pakistan has one of the largest, most sophisticated militaries on the planet. Its army is as large as the U.S. Army. It’s among the top 25 largest military spenders in the world. On top of the billions of dollars of weapons provided to Pervez Musharraf’s authoritarian regime, Washington is promising another $3 billion a year in military assistance over the next five years. And, to top it off, Islamabad has nuclear weapons.

None of that seems to help Pakistan prevail in its fight against the various Taliban factions in the country. Even with so much sophisticated military hardware at their disposal, half a million Pakistani soldiers can’t seem to counter the determined efforts of … at most 15,000 Taliban fighters.

Is it sheer incompetence on the part of the Pakistani army? Or is the Taliban simply too determined and mountain-smart to be easily defeated?

Writing recently in The New York Review of Books, Ahmed Rashid points out that the Pakistani government didn’t deal with the problem when it was manageable. The Taliban and associated religious militants were too useful for the Pakistani military in its larger fight against India. By the time the Pakistani government realized that the Taliban threatened the integrity of the country, the militants were well-entrenched.

As Shibil Siddiqi points out in a special Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) report, the Pakistani army can’t be accused of incompetence when it comes to counterinsurgency. It has faced down insurgencies for the better part of Pakistan’s existence. Rather, the Pakistani army’s failure to suppress the Taliban goes to the heart of the country’s identity.

“The Pakistani establishment has for decades been cynical in its use of political Islam as a tool of domestic and foreign policy,” Siddiqi writes in Pakistan’s Ideological Blowback. “It has lionized the struggles for a theocratic state embodied by the Taliban and other Islamic holy warriors in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and beyond. Thus, for many the Taliban’s proclamations of being ‘jihadis’ or ‘mujahideen’ garb them in the cloak of popular Islamic legitimacy. Such a perception of legitimacy has been (and continues to be) fostered by the state itself.” You can also read a 60-Second Expert version of this report.

The United States funded anti-communist extremists in Afghanistan against the Soviets back in the 1980s and has suffered the repercussions ever since. Pakistan has played a similar game, this time in order to counter India, its larger and stronger neighbor.

Now, with its misguided AfPak strategy, the United States is upping the ante considerably. By sending more troops to Afghanistan and continuing its drone attacks in Pakistan, the United States is preparing the ground for future blowback. According to the most recent poll, Pakistani public opinion has turned decisively against the Taliban. But over 80% of the public considers U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan “unjustified.” Afghans of any means, meanwhile, are doing whatever they can to get out of the country.

The Obama administration has shouldered the burden of this “long war.” This conflict will absorb as much or more money as the Cold War, wreak as much havoc, and ultimately cause as much blowback. Closing Guantánamo and pulling U.S. troops out of Iraqi cities doesn’t alter the Bush-era framing of the war on terrorism or the Clinton-era upgrading of counterinsurgency doctrine. Obama has simply painted a smiley face on both of them. And the peace movement, still unsure of how to counter the policies of a popular president and one that it largely supported, is unprepared to oppose this multi-front, multi-year endeavor.

We supported the mujahideen against the Soviets and eventually suffered the September 11 attacks. Pakistan supported Islamic militancy against India and must now deal with the Taliban within its borders. We supported Obama to end the Bush revolution. And now it seems that AfPak will be our blowback.

Fueling the Crisis

When the Clinton administration made a faint-hearted stab at trimming the Pentagon in the 1990s, it compensated the arms industry by dramatically boosting arms exports. These days, after the Bush administration’s military-industrial largesse and the subsequent collapse of the economy, the Pentagon is looking at cutbacks down the road and a similar compensatory policy seems to be at work. Military contractors are on pace to dominate U.S. manufacturing exports.

A “long war,” meanwhile, requires lots of weapons. And the Pentagon sees military exports as a way to cut costs (through economies of scale), reward allies, and shift the fighting burden to other players.

“In fiscal year 2008, the foreign military sales program sold $36 billion in weapons and defense articles, an increase of more than 50% over 2007,” writes FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan in Weapons: Our #1 Export? “Sales for the first half of 2009 reached $27 billion, and could top out at $40 billion by the end of the year. In contrast, through the early 2000s, arms sales averaged between $8-13 billion per year.”

Say goodbye to nukes (eventually). Say hello to a bonanza in conventional weapons.

Honduras and Iran

On Sunday, ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya attempted to fly back to his country along with a bevy of Latin American leaders. The Honduran military blocked the airport runways, and Zelaya’s plane had to turn back.

Who was responsible for Zelaya’s ouster? The United States? Hugo Chávez?

FPIF contributor Geoff Thale thinks otherwise. As he moved to the left politically, Zelaya became a traitor to his own class, and the elite turned against him. “Zelaya, once in office, turned away from the traditional elites who had supported him and turned toward the trade union and campesino groups who might support his more populist and left-of-center programs,” Thale writes in Behind the Honduran Coup. “He built support in Via Campesina and other peasant organizations, as well as in trade unions and other sectors. More broadly, Zelaya began to win favor among the traditionally excluded, as his rhetoric and the animosity directed at him from the business community brought him supporters among the poor and marginalized.”

In Iran, meanwhile, the clerics of Qom denounced the recent presidential elections as illegitimate. Israel seems to be making preparations for a strike against the country’s nuclear facilities. Why should North Korea get all the attention?

Don’t pin all your hopes on opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, writes FPIF contributor Yelena Biberman, in her comparison of Iran’s green revolution with Ukraine’s orange revolution. “The most important lesson for the Iranian opposition to take away from the Orange uprising is the realization that bringing Mousavi to power won’t be enough,” she writes in Iran: Code Orange? “Yushchenko, victor of the ‘Orange Revolution,’ now enjoys a 2% popularity rating. He has no chance of being re-elected in the next presidential election, scheduled to take place in January 2010. In fact, Ukrainian voters may pick Yanukovich. For those inside Iran and those outside, putting all of one’s faith in Mousavi as Iran’s best chance for democracy is misguided.”

To Indict or Not to Indict

Roughly a year ago, the International Criminal Court indicted the first sitting leader of a country: Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. The charges were crimes against humanity and murder. We invited two experts on the Sudan situation to debate the issue in our latest strategic dialogue.

The indictment is not only moral but effective, argues FPIF contributor Meghan Stewart. “In recent weeks, the Sudanese government made a series of concessions in response to international pressure on Darfur,” she writes in Indicting Bashir is Right. “It has allowed a number of international humanitarian organizations back into Sudan; adopted reforms to Sudan’s Penal Code to incorporate war crimes and crimes against humanity, per the recommendation of the Arab League; and announced that it will implement the recommendations of the African Union’s panel on Darfur, which is tasked with helping Sudan to move the peace process forward and implement accountability mechanisms. It’s unclear whether these changes will help lead to a viable, long-term peace process. In the short term, however, they demonstrate that al-Bashir’s indictment has pushed the Sudanese government toward reform, and there is potential for additional change.”

FPIF contributor Hussein Yusuf points to the African Union and Arab League opposition to the indictment. However, just the verdict on Bashir and his indictment won’t help matters on the ground in Sudan. “The indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court (ICC) threatens peace and security in Sudan,” he writes in Indicting Bashir is Wrong. “The arrest warrant for the president not only escalates the conflict in Darfur and makes the resolution of the conflict more elusive, but it also weakens the sovereignty of the state of Sudan. This in turn revives the violence that escalated in the South-North war, destroying the peace deal that ended 22 years of civil war.”

They respond to each other’s positions in Strategic Dialogue: Bashir Indictment.

FPIF, July 7, 2009

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