The April 24 collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza, a building hosting numerous garment factories on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, has now claimed more than 1,100 lives. There is no mitigating the disaster for the families of those killed or maimed, or for the nation of Bangladesh.
I had the true pleasure of spending a week in Bangladesh back in December 2008. After having spent time in Pakistan, Bangladesh is a breath of fresh air. While the specter of extremism, aggrievement, an embrace of terrorism and an obsession with its neighbors permeates Pakistan and Pakistani society, Bangladesh exudes tolerance and a general desire by its people that the fate of their country is in their own hands. Much of the difference between the two outlooks rests in the brutal birth of Bangladesh. Its 1971 independence war claimed upwards of 850,000 lives—far more than in Bosnia or the past two years of Syrian atrocities. Pakistan—which controlled what is now Bangladesh from 1947-1971—sought a state based on religious identity. Bengalis, who generally embraced much more moderate interpretations of Islam, embraced ethnic and cultural identities beyond religion. More than four decades later, Pakistanis who organize around ethnicity or secular ideas are considered traitors, and religious parties reign supreme. The opposite is true in Bangladesh.
The fact that 60 percent of Pakistanis voted in parliamentary elections, thereby defying Pakistani Taliban intimidation, is a good sign. So is the likelihood that Pakistan will see the first succession since the country’s founding in 1947 from one elected government to another after the first government had completed its full term in office.
But we should not expect much change in foreign policy from presumptive prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who got his start in politics as a protégé of the Islamist military dictator General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. In the 1990s, during an earlier stint as prime minister, he was a supporter of the Afghan Taliban and has remained cozy with Islamic militant groups ever since; during this campaign he refused to come out strongly against the Pakistani Taliban, which helps to explain why that group did not attack rallies held by his Pakistan Muslim League party. Although Sharif is said to favor better ties with India, his most famous act as prime minister occurred in 1998 when he approved Pakistan’s first nuclear test, thereby ratcheting up tensions with India.
Buried deep in this Wall Street Journal article on the future of the U.S. Army is this dismaying revelation: “Defense officials said the Army must shrink by an additional 100,000 soldiers if the across-the-board cuts remain, bringing the service to 390,000.”
Let’s put that figure into perspective. The army shrank by roughly a third after the end of the Cold War–from 730,000 active-duty personnel in 1990 to 491,000 in 1996. That was grossly inadequate to deal with the challenges of the post-9/11 world (or arguably the pre-9/11 world either), and so over the past decade the army slowly grew, reaching a peak strength of 557,000 in early 2012. A year later the army is down to 541,000 and shrinking fast.
I am not an optimist when it comes to Afghanistan. The United States lost the Afghan war the second President Obama issued a public timeline for withdrawal and when diplomats offered to negotiate with the Taliban. Officials endorsing such timelines—too often out of political perspicacity rather than military wisdom—are culpable in setting the stage for defeat. Momentum matters in Afghanistan more than spin, as Afghans have never lost a war: they simply defect to the winning side.
The White House may believe its spin, but no one in Afghanistan does. Whereas the Taliban once embraced the narrative of the First Anglo-Afghan War, describing Mullah Omar as Dost Muhammad and Hamid Karzai as Shah Shujah, with the implication that ISAF forces would play the role of the British heading into a disastrous retreat, the historical allusions have changed in recent months as Afghans filter events through the living memory of the Soviet withdrawal. Hence, Hamid Karzai has become Najibullah in the current Afghan narrative. Najibullah, of course, was the last Communist leader of Afghanistan. True, Najibullah managed to hold onto power for three years following the Soviet withdrawal, but he fell as soon as the rubles—about $3 billion per year—dried up. Afghans recognize that most of the money promised in the past years’ series of international donor conferences will never get delivered.
Further, when the World Bank estimates the foreign assistance that Afghanistan will require to stay afloat, they too often assume that the Afghan mining industry will be far more advanced than reality will dictate. In the past year, real estate prices have dropped 20 percent in Afghanistan as Afghans recognize that the long-term prospects for rule of law are dim.
Michele Flournoy and Michael O’Hanlon are right to argue in this Wall Street Journal op-ed that the U.S. has a big stake in the outcome of Afghanistan’s April 2014 presidential election. They are right, moreover, that we must do everything possible to safeguard the integrity of the balloting process. But I disagree with their assertion–which amounts to a bipartisan article of faith in today’s Washington–that “the United States and other key outside nations shouldn’t and won’t try to pick a winner.”
Tell it to Pakistan. Do Flournoy and O’Hanlon have any confidence that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence will refrain from picking a winner? Or Iran’s Quds Forces? What about the brutal and corrupt warlords and power brokers who dominate Afghan politics today in collusion with current president Hamid Karzai? Will they refrain from picking a candidate too?
Over at The Long War Journal, Lisa Lundquist examines the decision by Pakistani clerics to give religious sanction for suicide attacks. While her analysis focuses on what the Pakistani declaration means for Afghan attempts to outlaw religiously-motivated suicide attacks as part of the ongoing Afghan peace process, there are two larger points which she leaves unaddressed.
The first is pedantic, but necessary in an age when political correctness trumps reality. The Pakistani ulema council’s decision should end the nonsense quips that suicide bombing can’t be theologically-grounded, because Islam forbids suicide. The debate among Muslim theologians is actually more nuanced, and was well-covered in this Middle East Quarterly article. In short, the devil is in the details, because Koranic verse 2:154 declares, “Do not think that those who are killed in the way of God are dead, for indeed they are alive, even though you are not aware,” which means that a bystander’s assumption that the terrorist committed suicide because his head is lying on the street somewhere is wrong, since he went to paradise while still alive and therefore can’t be said to have killed himself.
Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered U.S. Special Forces to leave Wardak Province following reports—rejected by U.S. forces—that they were involved in the disappearance of nine people. Karzai’s decision—and the apparent willingness of U.S. forces to go along with it—really do signal the beginning of the end. U.S. forces will withdraw not with a mission accomplished, but in defeat. Political and military claims to the contrary are nonsense, and show a profound ignorance of Afghanistan and Afghan history more than a decade into our latest involvement in that country. The defeat need not have been though; it was far more a political decision on the part of the White House than the result of any military weakness.
As my AEI colleague Ahmad Majidyar—hands down the best analyst of Afghan politics there is in the United States right now, and someone not limited by security to ISAF headquarters or our many Forward Operating Base or otherwise sucked into the military-information bubble—notes Wardak is the gateway to Kabul, the path which Taliban fighters use to infiltrate Kabul to carry out spectacular attacks. The security situation in Wardak has been declining in the past year. The Taliban have prioritized moving into Wardak as foreign forces leave.
When U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan “on schedule,” Afghanistan will revert to civil war. White House and Pentagon officials may have convinced themselves that their transition mirrors that in Iraq, and that Iraq’s transition was a success, but to Afghans, the U.S. strategy is a cookie-cutter repeat of the Soviet withdrawal. We have the Afghan Local Police, and the Soviets had similar local militias. We hope that we can leave behind agents of influence in the government, and the Soviets tried the same tactic.
The Soviet-era dictator Najibullah managed to hold on to power for three years after the Red Army’s withdrawal, but that was only because of the Soviet ‘peace dividend’: The Soviet Union provided Najibullah with almost $3 billion a year and equipment it withdrew from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Only when the money ran out did Najibullah fall. The same will happen with Hamid Karzai. Even the most sobering World Bank reports regarding what the international community must do to keep Afghanistan afloat assume that Afghanistan will have a functioning mining industry, but insecurity and poor infrastructure have hampered even the Chinese, who do not care as much if they lose civilian contractors.
Last week, while participating at a conference on Afghanistan at Fort Hood, I met some U.S. officers who served in Turkey a bit over a decade ago. While they clearly loved their time in Turkey, they noted how many of their Turkish counterparts had quietly fled the army and Turkey itself over the past few years. Many disagree with the Islamism which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, and fear his arbitrary justice, as well as the blind eye so many in Europe and our own Foggy Bottom who care little so long as the victims are soldiers.
The flight of old guard Turkish officers reminds me of the flight of Pakistani officers in the wake of the 1971 loss of East Pakistan/Bangladesh when Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who came to power in 1978, accelerated Islamization as a means to build an overarching Pakistani identity. Many high-ranking Pakistani veterans, uncomfortable with religious radicalization, fled Pakistan. Whereas the Turkish military, at least until a few years ago, served as the bulwark against Islamic radicalism in society, the Pakistani military—under which Pakistani intelligence falls—became the catalyst for radicalization. Several decades later, Pakistani is a state sponsor of terrorism in all but name.
Remember the “Axis of Evil,” George W. Bush’s much-mocked phrase to refer to Iran, North Korea, and Iraq? Admittedly it was a bit of a stretch to suggest that all three nations were cooperating. But there is a new axis which is, alas, much more grounded in reality: Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Their cooperation has already borne fruit in one dangerous area: the development of ballistic missiles.
In recent weeks North Korea has tested a missile and Syria has fired Scud missiles at its own people. The two missile programs are closely related, largely through Iranian intermediaries. Indeed, there are reports of Iranian experts being on hand to help the North Koreans with their missile launch. In the past there has been credible evidence of North Korea exporting missiles to Iran and Syria. Now, at least in the case of Iran, the help seems to be going the other way.
Who, you ask? Were it not for the valiant agency Morning Star News, which specializes in documenting the persecution of Christians around the world, even fewer news consumers would know the name of this angelic-looking, 71-year-old Swedish lady who was gunned down in the Pakistani city of Lahore:
Shot by two armed men outside her house in Lahore’s upscale Model Town as she returned from her Full Gospel Assemblies (FGA) office in the Kot Lakhpat area, Almby died at about 10 p.m. Pakistan Standard Time at Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, FGA Bible School Principal Liaqat Qaiser told Morning Star News.
Almby, director at the FGA Technical Training Institute and also a teacher at the FGA Bible School, was shot in the chest, and the bullet damaged her left lung. Initially she was taken to Lahore’s Jinnah Hospital, where doctors removed the bullet and said her condition was critical because of excessive bleeding.
She had served the Pakistani Christian community for 38 years.
“Almby will be missed dearly,” Qaiser said. “She spent a long time serving the poor and downtrodden Christians in Pakistan, and every Christian is very sad at her demise. But she is in a much better place now.”
My colleague Danielle Pletka alerted me to this article, which truly is a rare good news story out of Pakistan:
Rafiullah Kakar, 23, is all set to live “a dream come true”. He is the 2013 Rhodes Scholar for Pakistan… Kakar does not belong to a feudal family. He grew up in one of the most hostile and backward regions of Pakistan and no one had gone to college in his family before him. His transformation from a boy who did not learn Urdu until the seventh grade to a Rhodes Scholar is a story of hard work, family support, perseverance and the pursuit of personal ambition.
The whole news report is worth reading. Baluchistan is one of the most backward areas of Pakistan and Iran (for history buffs, about five years ago I did a thumbnail history of Baluchistan, here), and Pakistan is a society where elite and family connections often trump talent. American politicians may quip that it takes a village, but government alone will never supplant hard work and individual aptitude, nor does progress occur when it dampens rather than promotes rewards inherent in personal ambition.
Kim and Fred Kagan have a typically trenchant op-ed in the Washington Post today on the minimal force requirements necessary for post-2014 Afghanistan. Bottom line up front: They argue a force of at least 30,000 personnel will be needed for a bare-bones counterterrorism and advisory mission.
They begin by assuming that the U.S. will need three major bases outside Kabul–in Jalalabad, Khost, and Kandahar. Each base will require a battalion of ground troops, primarily for protection, and a battalion of combat-aviation to enable drone strikes and operations by Special Mission Units. That adds up to two brigades, or 10,000 troops. Add in 5,000 or so logisticians to keep those bases supplied and you’re up to 15,000. To prevent the areas around those bases from going to hell, it will also be necessary to send some advisors to the local Afghan army and police headquarters. That adds another 6,000 or so personnel. If you add in “the security forces for a base near Kabul, a theater headquarters, route-clearance packages, theater logisticians and other ancillary units,” you are pushing “the requirement above 30,000.”
On Wednesday, Mullah Omar, the elusive leader of the Taliban, released a message for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which this year falls on October 26. Omar’s message is well worth reading, especially against the backdrop of Obama administration efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.
As Ahmad Majidyar—probably the most astute Afghanistan analyst in the United States—points out, Mullah Omar used his address to redouble his commitment to a complete military victory. “We will continue to wage Jihad against the invaders who have invaded our country until the occupation ends completely,” he declared. Obama and Governor Romney might both have reaffirmed the 2014 pullout date during their most recent debate, but let us hope that they did so fully cognizant that no amount of spin will convince Afghans and Afghanistan’s neighbors that the withdrawal is anything but a Taliban victory.
Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ right to education, has done more to de-legitimize Taliban rule and the radical Islamist ideology for which it stands than any Western diplomat or multimillion dollar de-radicalization program. How disappointing it was, then, that in last night’s debate, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney saw fit to pay tribute and provide a shout-out to this bold little girl.
Obama argued that his administration strategy was predicated on fighting radicalism:
Well, keep in mind our strategy wasn’t just going after bin Laden. We created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan. And what we’ve also done is engaged these governments in the kind of reforms that are actually going to make a difference in people’s lives day to day, to make sure that their governments aren’t corrupt, to make sure that they’re treating women with the kind of respect and dignity that every nation that succeeds has shown and to make sure that they’ve got a free market system that works.
The words are empty, however, as the Taliban declares itself on the verge of a great victory, and when the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to send women back centuries. Even in Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one of Obama’s closest friends, has seen the situation of women decline precipitously. To this, Obama appears oblivious.
Much attention has been focused in recent days, and for understandable reasons, on the emergence of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists as a serious threat in Libya. Indeed Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, who led a security assistance team in Libya, testified yesterday that its “presence grows every day. They are certainly more established than we are.”
Libya is hardly alone, however. There is also growing evidence of al-Qaeda’s reemergence in Iraq. The Associated Press reports that “the insurgent group has more than doubled in numbers from a year ago — from about 1,000 to 2,500 fighters. And it is carrying out an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq, up from 75 attacks each week earlier this year, according to Pentagon data.” There are said to be as many as ten al-Qaeda in Iraq training sites in the western deserts of Iraq.
The barbarism of the Taliban is occasionally disguised but never very effectively and never for long. The latest example of them showing their true colors is the horrifying assault on Malala Yousafzai, a precocious 14-year-old-girl from the Swat Valley of Pakistan, who has emerged as an outspoken champion of girls’ education–which is anathema to this violent fundamentalist movement. Taliban gunmen answered her temerity with a bullet to the head, leaving her in critical condition. What makes this heinous act even more shocking is that the Taliban took no effort to hide their involvement. As the New York Times reports:
A Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, confirmed by phone Tuesday that Ms. Yousafzai had been the target, calling her crusade for education rights an “obscenity.”
“She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it,” Mr. Ehsan said, adding that if she survived, the militants would certainly try to kill her again. “Let this be a lesson.”
So in the eyes of the Taliban, advocating for women’s education is a capital crime.
It is good to hear that most partnering operations between coalition and Afghan forces have resumed after a ten-day pause due to the furor over the anti-Mohammad video and a spat of “green on blue” insider attacks. Such operations are absolutely essential in order to improve the combat effectiveness of the Afghan forces; advisers stuck on giant bases, waving good-bye to Afghan troops as they venture outside the wire, would not be nearly as effective in getting the job done as troops who share the same hardships and risks with their Afghan counterparts. Out in the field, our troops can not only teach the Afghans by example; they can also provide the critical enablers (everything from IED-clearance packages to medevac) that allow the Afghan forces to be more effective.
This decision may, unfortunately, increase the short-term risk to coalition troops–but in the long run it will decrease risk because it is the surest method to bring about a more peaceful Afghanistan. Those who suggest a permanent end to partnering are raising the likelihood that the Afghan security forces will be unable to cope with an insurgency which benefits from bases in Pakistan–and thus raising the likelihood of a larger civil war leading, quite possibly, to the Taliban recapture of significant chunks of the country.
Politico reports that the Obama administration is now running a TV ad in Pakistan, condemning the anti-Islam film that it’s been blaming for the anti-American violence across the Muslim world:
The Obama administration is airing ads on Pakistani television condemning the anti-Islamic film “The Innocence of Muslims,” a State Department spokeswoman confirmed Thursday.
“As you know, after the video came out, there was concern in lots of bodies politic, including Pakistan, as to whether this represented the views of the U.S. Government. So in order to ensure we reached the largest number of Pakistanis – some 90 million, as I understand it in this case with these spots – it was the judgment that this was the best way to do it,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
The ads show clips of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemning the film in English (but dubbed in Urdu) in remarks they made last week, emphasizing that it was not produced or authorized by the United States government.
Lost in the headlines out of the Middle East was this amazing interview Fox News conducted with Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani medical doctor who helped the United States confirm Osama bin Laden’s compound. Even though Pakistani authorities said they were unaware of bin Laden’s residence in Abbottabad, a town that hosts Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point, they arrested Afridi, accusing him of treason. How one can commit treason without betraying state secrets is something that someone ought to ask the Pakistani government.
At any rate, after his arrest, Afridi says he was interrogated and tortured by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency. He relates:
“They said ‘The Americans are our worst enemies, worse than the Indians,’” Afridi, who spoke from inside Peshawar Central Jail, said as he recalled the brutal interrogation and torture he suffered after he was initially detained. “I tried to argue that America was Pakistan’s biggest supporter – billions and billions of dollars in aid, social and military assistance — but all they said was, ‘These are our worst enemies. You helped our enemies….’ It is now indisputable that militancy in Pakistan is supported by the ISI […] Pakistan’s fight against militancy is bogus. It’s just to extract money from America,” Afridi said, referring to the $23 billion Pakistan has received largely in military aid since 9/11.