Carve this in stone: the first rule in Afghanistan should be, “Do no harm in Pakistan.” The second rule in Afghanistan should be, “If the solution to your problem is ‘fixing’ Pakistan, you’re screwed.”
Earlier in this series, we dealt with counterinsurgency doctrine’s assumption of a self-contained battle space. We saw how U.S. attempts to create that seal along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border for the purpose of counterinsurgency leads us to empower and expand possibly the most corrupt piece of the Afghan national security forces. But that considerable catastrophe is nothing in comparison to the most consequential effect of the attempt to create the seal: dangerous interference in Pakistan, including civilian-slaughtering Predator strikes and destabilization of the Pakistani political order. Pakistan’s political order is in constant flux. From CRS:
[Pakistan’s] history has included the assassination of politician and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, just ahead of scheduled general elections. In February 2008, parliamentary elections brought to power a coalition of former opposition parties including Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, led by her widower Asif Zardari. In August 2008, General Pervez Musharraf, who had come to power in a military coup in 1999, resigned as the President of Pakistan. In September 2008, Zardari was elected president, completing a transition to civilian-led rule. The ability and will of that civilian-led government to exercise authority over Pakistan’s security forces, and to take steps to stop insurgent activities, is not yet completely clear.
Describing the tumultuous political situation in the country, former Ambassador Dan Simpson recently wrote:
[Pakistan] is a very divided and diverse country. It includes big, mostly peaceful political movements, based for the most part on tribal and regional differences. They are what has the current civilian government of Pakistan, headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, a thoroughly crooked scoundrel whom the United States nonetheless prefers to the alternatives, in domestic political turmoil. Mr. Zardari’s principal civilian opponent is former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, equally crooked and villainous.
The conflict between these two civilian politicians — and others — leaves Pakistan in such a state of civil disorder that the other political force in the country, the military, which has seized power at countless junctures since independence in 1947, always has a wet finger in the air to determine whether it is time for it to carry out another coup d’etat against another civilian government.
In this context, our attempt to seal off Afghanistan undermines stability in several ways. First, our favored weapons of choice in Pakistan–Predator drones–kill civilians, devastate communities, and cause popular outrage against the United States. Just as dire, the drone strikes generate rage against the Pakistani government for being unable or unwilling to stop the strikes. The former helps our opponents recruit and expand and find safe haven; the latter destabilizes a fragile civilian government still struggling to bring its military to heel. That in turn drives Pakistani populations to withdraw their support for chasing down the opponents of the U.S. inside their territory. Again, from CRS:
For example, in October 2008, the Pakistani parliament unanimously passed a resolution calling for an end to military action against extremist groups, and its replacement with dialogue. The resolution stressed the need for an “independent foreign policy” for Pakistan, and stated that “the nation stands united against any incursions and invasions of the homeland.”
I highlight this last bit not to criticize the parliament’s resolution. Rather, I hold it up as evidence of a political class that knows full well its people at large will not tolerate continued American interference and U.S.-caused death in their territory. If popular outrage rises to the level of prompting a legislative body to pass a resolution like this, you can bet that its risen to the level high enough to cause the Pashtuns on the border region to grant safe haven to their militant kinsmen across the Durand Line. In other words, the U.S.’s counterinsurgency actions have the paradoxical result of creating more of the safe havens they’re trying to eliminate.
Second, the U.S. has zero chance of creating anything remotely approaching a seal between Afghanistan and Pakistan without the cooperation of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. Regardless of the administration’s signals that new funds would be contingent on their pursuing extremists, getting Pakistan military help means giving the Pakistan military funds. Like the Pakistani political order, there are factions within factions inside the military and intelligence services, and some of those factions helped create the Taliban and continue to support them. From today’s NYT:
The Taliban’s widening campaign in southern Afghanistan is made possible in part by direct support from operatives in Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, despite Pakistani government promises to sever ties to militant groups fighting in Afghanistan, according to American government officials. The support consists of money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance to Taliban commanders who are gearing up to confront the international force in Afghanistan that will soon include some 17,000 American reinforcements. …There is even evidence that ISI operatives meet regularly with Taliban commanders to discuss whether to intensify or scale back violence before the Afghan elections.
Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders publicly deny any government ties to militant groups, and American officials say it is unlikely that top officials in Islamabad are directly coordinating the clandestine efforts. American officials have also said that midlevel ISI operatives occasionally cultivate relationships that are not approved by their bosses.
The fact that senior commanders do not totally control their subordinates raises the possibility that even in cases where U.S. funds flow to the Pakistani national security establishment in exchange for good policy changes, those funds could filter down into the middle ranks and find their way into extremist hands. But even if the military and intelligence services totally reformed and cut ties with the Taliban (unlikely, but still…), funding the Pakistani military could be toxic to the internal politics of Pakistan. The civilian government does not fully control the military or intel services, so any moves to strengthen them runs the risk of strengthening their hand in the internal power plays of Pakistani politics.
Unless you’ve been living in cave–wait, strike that, the people living in caves absolutely know this–you know that Pakistan has nuclear weapons to deter its arch-rival, India. It’s one of the few places in the world where it’s conceivable for a nuclear-armed state apparatus to fall under the control of an Islamist extremist movement. We should be working as hard as possible to support stability and calm inside Pakistan and to strengthen the hand of the civilian government. Trying to kill the border closed does just the opposite. These and other complications and paradoxes in Pakistan led Ambassador Simpson to pen a sharp rebuke of ongoing military action in Afghanistan and attendant interference in Pakistan:
Bottom line: The United States is not going to get matters in Pakistan under control. Rest of the bottom line: If the United States can’t get matters in Pakistan under control — and as even Mr. Obama’s own special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, has said, the problems in the two countries are inextricably linked — Mr. Obama’s escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan by adding thousands more U.S. troops simply is not going to work.
If it is not going to work, there is no reason to pursue it, spending more of our money and blood. Whoever in Washington wants this — those wishing to preserve the beloved heritage of one of President George W. Bush’s wars, supporters of Israel who might want to distract us from pursuing a Middle East peace settlement, contractors and others who make money off such wars or those who wish to save the hide of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, should be told to stay out of the way while Mr. Obama gets us out of this losing, lost contest.
- Despite the humanitarian bromides, counterinsurgency is not a humanitarian exercise in chivalry. It’s an anti-Christian exercise in brutality, just like every other war doctrine.
- COIN doctrine’s real-world effect on troops undermines its basic assumptions.
- Massive deployments required by counterinsurgency doctrine will damage our economy when we can least afford it.
- Attempts to create a sealed environment required for counterinsurgency have driven us into bed with the most corrupt faction of the Afghan security services: the Afghan Border Police. Coda: U.S. backed counterinsurgents killed St. Romero de America and brutalized El Salvador.
- Counterinsurgency will severely complicate a thaw in U.S./Iranian relations and incentivize bad Iranian behavior in Afghanistan.
- Counterinsurgency strategy will destabilize Pakistan.
There are rumblings that tomorrow’s announcement from President Obama will refocus the U.S.’s policies on counterterrorism vs. counterinsurgency. That’s better than an all-out COIN doctrine, but what remains to be seen is whether Obama can overcome resistance within the Armed Forces and congressional leadership for abandoning COIN. Speaking from experience, they absolutely love COIN. It’s been beaten into their heads for years now. The deepest test of the mettle of this president will be his ability to reign in his subordinates’ love for chivalrous language and massive troop deployments. By all accounts, his new strategy will add military personnel to Afghanistan, and that’s the wrong move.
What you can do: