By now a pattern has emerged in President Obama’s foreign policy: Inclined to “lead from behind,” the cool, unexcitable and cerebral chief executive normally hesitates and agonizes before taking decisive action, then, when pushed to do so by allies, aides, or by Congress, or all three, he claims credit for having been tough all along. The mission to kill Osama bin Laden was an exception–the president was, by all indicators, more unwavering than his senior advisers–but the decision to intervene in Libya certainly falls into this category as does the decision to keep Guantanamo open and the decision to impose a tough new round of sanctions on Iran’s central bank and oil industry. The latter sanctions were compelled by virtually unanimous votes of Congress after the president spent the first three years of his administration trying to reach out to Tehran.
Now the pattern is being repeated with regard to the Haqqani Network. For the past two years, despite strong arguments to do so from both U.S. military and diplomatic representatives in Afghanistan, the administration has refused to add the Haqqani Network to the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, presumably for fear of offending Pakistan which provides sanctuary and other support to the Haqqanis. Then in early August Congress passed legislation giving the administration 30 days to either list the Haqqanis or explain why not. And lo and behold the White House has finally decided to designate the Haqqanis, which will make it easier to go after that organization’s finances.
There is nothing the Pakistani government would like more than a precipitous American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) will jump at the chance to fill the vacuum, much as Iran’s Qods Force and associated militias moved to fill the space in Iraq left by the departing U.S. presence.
Pakistani leaders will never stop supporting the Taliban. After the 1971 secession of Bangladesh, the ISI concluded that radical interpretations of Islam were all that could hold the relatively artificial nation of Pakistan together. The rise of ethnic identity (well, at least among the non-Punjabis) risked creating fissures which could tear the country apart. Perhaps today their paranoia does not match with the reality, but old habits die hard.
Almost two weeks ago, Pakistani authorities imprisoned Rimsha Masih, an 11-year-old Christian girl reportedly with Down’s Syndrome, accusing her of burning a few pages from the Noorani Qaida, a beginner’s guide to Koranic recitation. Her case is now the subject of debate in the Pakistani press. The Express Tribune Online featured a member of the provincial assembly criticizing the misuse of the blasphemy law. A commentary in The Daily Times, an English-language Lahore paper, declared, “Mentally ill are those who charge an 11-year-old, illiterate girl of blasphemy and then enjoy the sport of watching humans killed just as the Romans used to do in the times of gladiators. The police officials that arrested the little slum dweller and the judges that sent her to jail need to be examined for symptoms of mental derangement.” The Urdu-language press—for example, Karachi’s Ummat Online—however, are rallying to protect the blasphemy laws regardless of their abuse.
The embrace of radical Islamism has been a cynical strategy in Pakistan. In 1971, after Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) won its independence, the Pakistani military made a fateful decision to promote radical Islamism as the glue to hold the country apart. After all, Pakistan was founded as a “land for the Muslims,” but in practice it is impossible to boil identity down to a single variable. Pakistan may have been overwhelmingly Muslim, but Pakistanis were as likely to see themselves as Pastun, Baluch, Bengali, or Punjabi (among others). When the Bengalis went their own way, Islamabad could no longer consider Pashtun and Baluch nationalism to be a mere irritant: It posed an existential threat.
Here’s something you might want to keep in mind while celebrating the U.S.’s pending withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. From Tom Joscelyn at the Weekly Standard:
There is evidence that al Qaeda is already using Afghanistan (once again) to plot attacks against the West.
Earlier this month, for example, Spanish authorities announced that they had broken up a three-man al Qaeda cell that was plotting terrorist attacks on one or more targets. The cell had been trained in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Investigators added that the men had ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is headquartered in Pakistan, and had attended the LeT’s training camps inside Afghanistan as well.
Here’s a pretty gruesome story from Pakistan that began circulating yesterday:
At least 11 nurses, including three Christians, were poisoned at Civil Hospital Karachi for eating during Ramadan. During their afternoon break yesterday, the 11 nurses went to the hostel cafeteria for some tea and food. Rita, a Catholic nurse, collapsed first after drinking her tea. Now all the nurses are in the hospital’s intensive care unit, some in very serious conditions.
It was an appropriate day, then, for the State Department to publish its 2011 report on religious freedom around the globe. And the bottom line is that, throughout the Islamic world, as well as in the unreconstructed communist and authoritarian states, there’s precious little of it.
What kind of ranking does religious freedom hold in the conduct of American foreign policy? As of this morning, the State Department’s website had on prominent display the following declaration from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “For the United States, religious freedom is a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest, and a foreign policy priority.” No room for misinterpretation there, then.
Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute makes an important point in the Wall Street Journal: that, while Pakistan is increasingly in the grip of anti-Western military men and Islamists, there are large sectors of society that are more open to a liberal, pro-Western agenda. These range from the English-speaking elites to ethnic and religious minorities such as the Shi’ites, who are increasingly victimized by Sunni radicals.
I have previously suggested we should eliminate most aid to the Pakistani military, an institution that is actively sponsoring attacks on U.S. troops and our allies in Afghanistan. But that does not mean we should abandon Pakistan. Instead, we should channel our aid to civil society in Pakistan to try to build up a counterweight to the military.
The major criticism of drone strikes–the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism policy especially in Pakistan and Yemen–is that they cause too many civilian casualties, thereby creating more militants than they eliminate. A new study from the New America Foundation disputes that conclusion.
Authors Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland write: “The estimated civilian death rate in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan has declined dramatically since 2008, when it was at its peak of almost 50 percent. Today, for the first time, the estimated civilian death rate is at or close to zero.” Their finding is based on analyzing three years’ worth of data in news sources ranging from Reuters and the New York Times to the Express Tribune and Dawn in Pakistan.
Any compilation based on such open-source materials must necessarily be suspect. But then counting casualties from the drone strikes is necessarily an inexact science–Washington has an interest in minimizing the figures while jihadists have an interest in maximizing them. Perhaps there is a better count out there, but I’m not aware of it. If the New America Foundation’s conclusion is accurate, the reduction in collateral damage is a tribute to better technology (e.g., drones that can linger longer over their targets and use better sensors to identify them), better intelligence gathering, and better controls over these strikes.
This is yet another reason why the strikes cannot be stopped–they are the most effective tool to combat Islamist terrorism in areas such as Pakistan and Yemen where U.S. troops are not deployed en masse. Indeed, far from curtailing them, I believe it is imperative to extend the strikes to towns such as Chaman, located near the border with Afghanistan, which is a major staging point for the Taliban–but has been off bounds so far for the drone strikes because it is located outside the tribal areas of Pakistan. That needs to change if the U.S. is going to sufficiently degrade the insurgency to allow U.S. troop numbers to be reduced by 2014 without a catastrophic collapse in security.
Max Boot is correct to call for the designation of the Haqqani Network as a terrorist group, but he does not go far enough in sketching out the implications. The reason why the State Department has not pushed forward with the designation is not only because U.S. diplomats want to maintain the ability to negotiate with the Haqqanis, but because designating the Haqqanis would make it very difficult to avoid listing Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror.
The fact that the Haqqani Network is a terrorist group is irrefutable. The White House may want to drag its feet in pursuit of some diplomatic fiction, but the Congress may not be so tolerant. Already, there is a bill in the House calling for the designation. It may not be such a long shot: Remember, the White House opposed further sanctions on Iran, but the Senate voted 100-0 to impose them anyway. Only after they showed some positive effect did the White House retroactively claim credit.
So it appears the standoff which led to the closing of the NATO supply line through Pakistan in November has finally been resolved. After resisting offering an apology for an incident in which a cross-border firefight led to the deaths of two dozen Pakistani soldiers, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has finally delivered language that would satisfy Pakistan. As she said in a statement:
“I once again reiterated our deepest regrets for the tragic incident in Salala last November. I offered our sincere condolences to the families of the Pakistani soldiers who lost their lives. Foreign Minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives. We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.”
The recent attack by Pakistan Taliban fighters, based in Afghanistan, into Pakistan, where they killed 13 Pakistani soldiers, has not gotten the attention it deserves.
The Pakistani Taliban fighters fled the Swat Valley in Pakistan after a Pakistani army assault beginning in 2009. They found refuge in Kunar and Nuristan provinces–remote areas of eastern Afghanistan where the U.S. Army fought many fierce battles (Sebastian Junger’s book War and his film “Restrepo” are set here) before pulling back. That pullback was undertaken because these frontier regions are not major population centers but, because U.S. forces are no longer there in substantial numbers, various insurgents have been able to filter back in. This should serve as a stark warning of what can happen, on a far larger scale, if the U.S. pulls out prematurely from Afghanistan, either before or after 2014.
“Taliban to Kids: Drop Dead.” That would be the headline in the NY Daily News or some other tabloid. The New York Times has a more staid approach: “Taliban Block Vaccinations in Pakistan.” But the news contained therein is no less shocking and contemptible: the Pakistani Taliban are going to block UNICEF-administered polo vaccinations in North Waziristan until the U.S. stops its drone attacks in Pakistan which have been heavily focused on North Waziristan.
The Taliban have some small shred of cover for this move due to the fact that the CIA recruited a doctor undertaking vaccinations to try to locate Osama bin Laden’s hideout. (That doctor, Shakil Afridi, is now languishing in a Pakistani jail for the “crime” of helping to uncover a mass murderer.) This fact, along with many others, underlines how deeply intertwined al-Qaeda is with other Pakistan-based radical groups, from the Pakistani Taliban to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. And it also shows how heartless these groups are.
Congratulations are due to the CIA, which carried out the strike, and to President Obama, who ordered it (and approved the target personally, as the New York Times has revealed) for the elimination of a major enemy of the United States–Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s No. 2 commander. Like many of al-Qaeda’s operatives, Libi was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan. He was the effective, day-to-day field commander of al-Qaeda, and his death will no doubt cause serious disruption to whatever operations al-Qaeda Central is involved in. The importance of his elimination is somewhat decreased, however, by the fact that so many of the terrorist organization’s operations have migrated outside of Pakistan, to regional affiliates from Mali to Yemen; Libi’s death probably will not have much impact on their operations.
This highlights the declining utility of targeting al-Qaeda Central: the organization has already been severely hurt by the continuous elimination of its top cadres. Such operations must be maintained to keep the pressure on, but they can no longer be the exclusive focus of counter-terrorism operations. It is good to see the drone campaign being ramped up in Yemen, but there are limits to what strikes from the air can achieve. There is a desperate need to expand lawful authority in such ungoverned areas to keep groups such as al-Qaeda from regenerating themselves. If the U.S. government has a plan to accomplish that in Pakistan, Yemen or other countries, from Mali to Libya, I have not heard of it.
During my last visit to Pakistan, I had the opportunity to sit down with Asad Durrani, the former chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the shadowy military intelligence unit that helped hide Osama bin Laden and sponsored the Taliban. While Durrani’s regular columns in the Pakistani press are full of vitriol, he was a very polite man, and we enjoyed tea and civil but contentious conversation in the Islamabad Club.
While Durrani is more refined than his predecessor Hamid Gul, he nonetheless reflects the dominant strain within Pakistani strategic thinking. Hence, his recent article in Pakistan’s Express Tribune should raise alarm bells and end any belief in the White House and President Obama’s amen chorus that his drawdown of forces will be seen as anything but complete and utter defeat. As Durrani writes, “The presence of the world’s mightiest alliance in Afghanistan gave us another chance as well: to gang up with the tribesmen, once again, and defeat yet another superpower. That is the chance we did not miss.”
The NATO summit in Chicago has come and gone and still no agreement with Pakistan on reopening the NATO supply line that had been closed last November after a border fight between Pakistan’s troops and a contingent of U.S. and Afghan soldiers. President Zardari had been invited to the meeting on the assumption that an agreement was imminent and that his appearance would be the final push needed to finalize the details. Instead, he showed up and was snubbed by President Obama, who rightly refused to hold a meeting with Zardari until a deal was done. Various news outlets have reported that the two sides remain far apart in how much per truck NATO will have to pay Pakistan: The Pakistanis reportedly want a staggering $5,000 per truck–far more than the cash-strapped Pentagon wants to pay.
Meanwhile, a Pakistani court has handed down a 33-year prison sentence to the doctor who assisted the CIA in locating Osama bin Laden. This is adding insult to injury and underlines, for the umpteenth time, that Pakistan is no ally of the U.S. Sometimes it can act in cooperation with the U.S., but even that is increasingly rare these days. Thus, it makes perfect sense that a Senate appropriations subcommittee just voted to slash U.S. aid to Pakistan, to $1 billion, roughly half the amount the administration had requested, and even part of that is conditional on the reopening of the supply line.
When history judges President Obama for the schizophrenic debacle that America’s AfPak strategy has become – and it will – his inability to integrate the advice of military leaders will figure prominently:
The president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. “This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.”… the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It’s hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a “tough-guy” leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell….
Max’s post from earlier this week outlines how Obama put his “own political calculations front and center in making national security policy,” from ignoring his generals on the Afghan surge to shutting them out totally from withdrawal planning. The president, having pushed Afghanistan as “the good war” during the election to deflect from his Iraq defeatism, had to at least make a token gesture at trying to stabilize the country. That political necessity clashed with his genuine desire to withdraw, and the combination resulted in the worst possible policy: more American troops in harm’s way, but not enough to win.
Throughout President Bush’s second term, the chief foreign policy mantra of the Democratic Party was to claim the United States was wrong not to concentrate its energy on winning the war in Afghanistan. That was the “good war” as opposed to the war supposedly entered on the basis of lies and which couldn’t be won. The surge President Bush ordered in 2007 undermined the talking point about Iraq being unwinnable, but the idea that Afghanistan was being shorted was heard a great deal in 2008 as Barack Obama was elected president. Once in the White House, the new president was forced to come to a decision about what to do in Afghanistan, and by the summer, he made good on his promise to fight the good war there. But along with his pledge to start a surge that could defeat the Taliban was a provision that critics at the time warned could undo all the good that could come of the new plan.
With the president set to announce at the G8 meetings in Chicago the complete end of American combat operations in 2013 whether or not Afghan forces are prepared to step into the breach, a front-page feature in today’s New York Times provides a helpful explanation of the decision. The piece, adapted from a new book by Times reporter David E. Sanger, makes it clear the administration never had fully backed the surge. Indeed, despite his “good war” rhetoric, Obama clearly never believed in the mission there to rid the country of the Taliban and was looking to back out of his commitment from the moment he made it. Having failed to go “all in” for the surge by not providing as many troops in the beginning as the military asked, the president then did not give the generals the opportunity to persuade him to slow down a planned withdrawal that only served to signal the enemy all they had to do was to hold on until the Americans left.
David Ignatius has a good column today pointing out that Pakistan has a lot to answer for in its relationship with al-Qaeda. As he notes: “Osama bin Laden lived in five houses in Pakistan, fathered four children there, kept three wives who took dictation for his rambling directives to his terror network, had two children born in public hospitals — and through it all, the Pakistani government did not know one single thing about his whereabouts?” That strains credulity as does the fact that numerous other senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad were able to live in Pakistan for years.
Of course, Pakistan’s links with terrorists hardly end with al-Qaeda. The Pakistani state, and specifically its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, has notoriously close ties with such groups as the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, who are responsible for the deaths of numerous American and Afghan soldiers as well as Afghan civilians, and Lashkar e Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 murder spree in Mumbai and whose founder, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, now has a $10 million American bounty on his head. Saeed, by the way, lives and travels quite openly in Pakistan; he must know he has nothing to fear from his confederates in the Pakistani security establishment.
My American Enterprise Institute colleague Ahmad Majidyar is a one-man encyclopedia of all things Afghanistan and Pakistan, and probably the best Afghan analyst I have ever met. He’s also an extremely incisive analyst. Today, he tweets:
Pakistan charges Osama’s widows for illegal entry. Wouldn’t it be better if they’d done this to Osama? Or Mullah Omar and Haqqani leaders?
Gen. Jack Keane, one of the architects of the surge in Iraq, is always a font of good sense when it comes to America’s wars. Thus, it is worth listening—and acting on his advice—when he suggests that our drone strikes in Pakistan be expanded beyond al-Qaeda targets to focus on the Taliban and related insurgent groups. The Washington Times quotes him as follows: “If we don’t start targeting the Taliban leadership now … the risk is much too high in terms of our ability to sustain the successes that we’ve had. We cannot let that Afghan Taliban leadership that lives in Pakistan continue to preside over this war and recruit and provide resources.”
He is absolutely right, and it is imperative to follow his advice even at the risk of further blowback from Pakistan, because there is no other way to achieve any degree of success in Afghanistan while pulling back as quickly as the Obama administration wants to do—namely a switch from combat to advising in 2013 and a complete pull-out in 2014. Even with stepped up drone strikes, the Obama timeline is probably a prescription for disaster and defeat. But if we at least do more to target the insurgent leadership which enjoys safe havens in Pakistan, our forces can somewhat increase their odds of success notwithstanding the rapid collapse of political will in the White House to prosecute this war to a successful conclusion.
From a Bloomberg News article on turmoil in the Middle East:
In Egypt, where Mubarak, 82, has been a dependable U.S. ally for 30 years, the White House will need “a delicate touch” to “ensure that a successor government is neither virulently anti-American nor openly hostile to Israel,” said Stephen M. Walt, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Egypt is the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel, according to the State Department’s 2011 budget, receiving more than $1.5 billion a year.
“We should be quietly advising other leaders in the region to take steps to alleviate discontent” and “avoid the same fate that Mubarak is now experiencing,” Walt said.
There’s no further description of Professor Walt in the Bloomberg article, but those familiar with his record on matters relating to Jews or Israel may find the spectacle of his cautioning against an Egyptian government “openly hostile to Israel” to be somewhat stunning, akin to Karl Marx being quoted hoping that the new Egyptian government won’t be openly hostile to capitalism. Though I suppose it leaves open the possibility that Professor Walt is hoping for an Egyptian government that’s privately hostile to Israel while publicly professing to wish it no harm.