2009 03 04
Recently read: Descent Into Chaos

Ahmed Rashid. Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia

At roughly 500 densely packed and depressing pages, this not an easy book to read. But it added immeasurably to my appreciation of the current position of the US and its allies in Afghanistan and Central Asia and of how that position came to be so desperate. Ahmed Rashid is an famously well-connected veteran Pakistani journalist. His book takes us from the weeks before September 11, 2001 right up to 2008, pausing from time to time to provide some historical perspective to his main narrative. It’s a valuable book to have on hand as we watch policymakers struggle to discover a way out of their—and for a substantial subset of this site’s readers, our—current predicament in Afghanistan.

Rashid gets his book off to a poor start with a long and unremarkable introduction that reads like just another litany of Bush’s misdeeds. It’s all true, of course, but you can find this sort of thing in any number of places, if you still care to, which I don’t. As soon as the book proper is underway, however, Rashid starts to unpack his case in copious detail and to draw on an almost uniquely broad range of sources and experiences. (When I’m interested in a subject I have an insatiable appetite for detail about it, but it did occur to me that readers who take a less Aspergerish approach to a subject might wish that Rashid’s editor had succeeded in forcing more of these details into the footnotes.)

The main thing I took away from Rashid’s book is how reliably most actors in the region have made a bad situation worse whenever they’ve been given a choice about how to proceed. Afghanistan is a poor, landlocked, and long-troubled country, but it’s been made much, much worse than it ever needed to be by the cascading effects of a series of poor decisions by just about everyone involved.

In the late 70s, the CIA weighed stability in the country against the chance to goad the USSR into a debacle, and chose the latter. On December 24, 1978, Brezhnev took the bait, and the Soviet army blundered into the country, against the advice of his top generals.* Seeing the chance to trap the USSR into a painful “Vietnam” of its own making, the US then poured money into resistance fighters in the region. That decision reflected another ranking of priorities: the prospect of stability and the development of democracy in Pakistan was trumped decisively by the goal of encouraging resistance to the USSR in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the US channeled money and arms through Pakistan, entrenching and legitimizing the military’s intrusions into the country’s political life, and encouraging the slow-spreading poison of radicalism, militarism, criminality and drug-trading in the entire region.

After the withdrawal of the USSR, there followed several years of horrific fighting between rival warlords. The success of the Taliban movement owes something to popular disgust at the instability and corruption sown by these warlords. It also owes something to money and logistical support from the ISI, Pakistan’s highly secretive intelligence agency, which sought to cultivate ties in Afghanistan in order to train and encourage Kashmiri militants and provide Pakistan with strategic depth in the event of a full out conflict with India.

As it happens, after September 11, 2001, it was Pakistan which ended up providing strategic depth to the Taliban, after Taliban forces were routed by US air power and US proxies on the ground. It was there, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan (which are, in fact, anything but Federally Administered), that the Taliban and Al Qaeda found refuge, in some cases with the support of the ISI, which continued to play a dangerous double game of privately supporting and publicly (sometimes) condemning militant groups, for both ideological and strategic reasons. The ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban and other militants was a sore point for US-Pakistan relations, but the Bush administration continued to believe, against all evidence, that Musharif was their man, and refused to push Pakistan too hard on the issue.

The US went into Afghanistan without a clear policy on the issue of “nation building.” Bush had trouble walking back from his earlier campaign pledge to avoid such activities, and Rumsfeld remained, to the end, deeply hostile to the notion and employed all his considerable bureaucratic savvy to thwart the efforts of others in the US administration who wanted a more substantial engagement with the country. After much dithering, there was briefly talk from Bush himself of a Marshall Plan for the country, but the idea quickly slipped away as if forgotten as other priorities loomed into view.

The main other priority looming into view was a new war on a different front. At precisely the moment that the US faced the daunting prospect of stabilizing Afghanistan, it turned its attention to Iraq. I have long seen it written that the war in Iraq provided a distraction from Afghanistan that seriously jeopardized that mission. But until Rashid’s book I had not grasped the details, or understood how much evidence there really is for the proposition. Efforts to establish Karzai’s new government in Kabul were undermined by a policy Rashid calls “warlordism,” that is, providing financial and political support to warlords who then worked to undermine the government in Kabul. With resources diverted to the coming war in Iraq, Washington had clearly determined that nation building in Afghanistan would have to be done on the cheap, and warlordism seemed to offer a shortcut to the difficult and resource-intensive process of establishing and extending Kabul’s legitimacy and reach.

Stand back for a moment and marvel at the various trade offs involved here: The US pursues the Iraq War at the expense of the larger mission in Afghanistan, and loses both. The Bush administration’s uncritical support of Musharif helps set the conditions for the ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban. This in turn vastly complicates the hope of achieving even minimal security in Afghanistan, and plays a role in allowing Al Qaeda figures to escape and plan more attacks (the more recent London and Madrid bombings were almost certainly plotted from within the FATA). Having sacrificed security in Afghanistan to the goal of maintaining solid relations with Pakistan, US policymakers were then forced to watch conditions in Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan, further diminishing their leverage with the country.

There’s much more like this in Rashid’s book, if you can stomach it, buttressed by a wealth of supporting facts and argument. Since the book’s publication conditions on the ground have further deteriorated. As the new administration tries to salvage the mess handed down to it from its predecessors, I hope Rashid’s book gets the attention it deserves.

* I’m simplifying to make a point, at the risk of giving the CIA far too much credit. The decision to invade might well have been made without any CIA involvement, as Brezhnev was intervening in a complicated conflict involving the USSR’s communist allies in Afghanistan and their enemies.

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2007 11 04
Pakistan and India

Lots of talk this morning about Musharraf’s decision to declare a state of emergency. The focus in the U.S. is understandably on just how fucked the U.S. is here. But I’d like to take this moment to remind people how totally fucked India is. India’s decision to go nuclear always looked dumb, since prior to going nuclear it already had a balance of conventional power on the subcontinent. Going nuclear forced Pakistan to go nuclear, which had the effect of evening things out somewhat between the countries. But now that Pakistan is teetering on the brink of – what? A coup of some sort perhaps? Some other kind of disintegration? – whatever it’s on the brink of, India has to sit and watch and wonder who will be next to take over this unstable power, which has nuclear weapons in part because of India’s incredibly stupid adventures in strategery. Nice!

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2007 02 26

An ill Matthew Yglesias confesses he doesn’t know how exactly the U.S. ought to conduct itself with respect to Pakistan. Bradford Plumer has a nice summary of the problem (click through for the hyperlinks):

Most policymakers and pundits don’t seem to know how to deal with Pakistan. (I certainly don’t.) On the one hand, the United States wants Musharraf to be more aggressive about hunting down Al Qaeda operatives in North Waziristan. On the other hand, moving too aggressively against that part of the country might cause Musharraf’s government to collapse, in which case radical Islamists could seize power–and with it, control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Scary stuff.

Plumer then wonders:

At any rate, I’m curious to know what sort of safeguards Pakistan has in place to prevent its nukes from falling in the wrong hands, should, say, Taliban sympathizers in the intelligence services stage a coup (or whatever). The reporting on this front appears patchy. In 2004, Graham Allison warned that the security measures were still much too flimsy, and wanted the United States and China to do a thorough review of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile, in order to help Musharraf set up proper controls. That would involve a lot of delicate diplomacy–especially since Pakistan is understandably reluctant to open its arsenal up to outside inspection–but it doesn’t seem completely undoable.

So what’s actually being done? A Congressional Research Service report in 2005 noted that the United States was offering some assistance, but mostly to “focus on helping secure nuclear materials and providing employment for personnel, rather than on security of nuclear weapons.” See also here. And last August, Pakistan declared that it had set up a “tri-command nuclear force,” but it’s not clear whether that would safeguard the weapons in the event of a coup. (In any case, the country’s past assurances on this score have been fairly suspect.) Those seem to be the main media stories of late. Who knows, perhaps the administration really is doing all it can here, but I’d sort of like to see a closer investigation.

There’s also the possibility of war with rival-nuclear-power-India to worry about. As for solutions, I too am stumped by the larger problem of how to deal with a nuclear power struggling with militants, rogue intelligence services, and hostilities with a nuclear neighbour. My modest suggestion of the day is that if I were in charge of U.S. foreign policy, I would have made a resolution of the Kashmir dispute a very high priority around 2002 (when things got very heated for a while between India and Pakistan), if I hadn’t already.

Obviously Kashmir is a tricky issue, but it’s not an impossible one. Constructive and careful intervention by an outside party might well make real progress on the issue, perhaps even leading to a solution that most of the parties could live with. This would be valuable for two reasons. First, one thing people are always forgetting is just how radicalizing the issue of Kashmir is within Pakistan. If you care about the issue of Islamic radicals in Pakistan – and you really ought to care – then you should be very interested in steps that might remove a major cause around which militants in the country have tended to rally. Second, obviously, a resolution of (or even progress on) the Kashmir dispute would significantly reduce the probability of a nuclear exchange on the subcontinent, an exchange that would be disastrous for the entire world’s environment and leave millions dead and dying.

Anyway, all this is just to say that I’ve spent the last few years wondering why this isn’t a very big priority for people whose opinions matter.

Howls of outrage (4)

2004 10 01
Musharraf on Kashmir

From the Hindustan Times:

Returning home after nearly two weeks of foreign tour, President Pervez Musharraf has said he had asked the western countries to facilitate a solution to the Kashmir issue which India and Pakistan were trying to resolve bilaterally.

Musharraf said that during his visit to the US, the Netherlands and Italy he tried to prevail on the western leaders to resolve the West Asia crisis and facilitate a solution to the Kashmir issue.

“I am pressing them that …you have to resolve political disputes. I told them that you must resolve the West Asia issue and we are trying to resolve Kashmir dispute on our own, you should facilitate that,” he told Pakistani media persons onboard a plane while returning home on Thursday night.

I won’t deny that this dispute is one tough nut to crack. But I suspect that it is crackable with constructive, balanced, and determined outside help. And, as I’ve said several times now, progress on this dispute would bring a substantial payoff.

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2004 09 25
Singh and Musharaff . . .

. . . sittin’ in a tree. . .

OK, not quite, but it is very encouraging to hear that the leaders of two hostile nuclear powers have managed to stage (in some sense of the word) a friendly meeting. Now, a sensible Kofi Annan, a sensible European Union, a sensible U.S. president, etc. etc. etc. would seize this moment and try to build on it. As far as I can tell, the Kashmir dispute is a) very dangerous to have festering; b) difficult for the parties to solve without outside help; c) possible to solve with outside help, since there is a genuine willingness on both sides to resolve the issue, in spite of all the obstacles.

Pakistan is a very troubled society, and the Kashmir dispute is an important part of the story. Sorry to keep going on about this, but it really is in everyone’s interests to make some progress on this issue . . .

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2004 09 10
A brief point about Kashmir

Gosh, if I set the global foreign policy agenda I would make a resolution of the Kashmir dispute a very high priority. Tension over Kashmir is not just dangerous in itself – it is after all tension between two nuclear powers – it also has a seriously corrosive effect on Pakistan, a country which can hardly afford the luxury of corrosion at the moment. It seems to me that there is no hope of breaking the deadlock that that ISI (Pakistan’s superduper powerful version of the CIA) has on Pakistan’s politics so long as the country is embroiled in a conflict with India. What’s more, so long as Kashmir remains in dispute there isn’t much hope of breaking the link between the ISI and militant Islamic groups, since those groups have considerable value to Pakistan as proxies in Kashmir. And those militant Islamic groups – well, call me crazy, but I’d keep an eye on them.

There’s only so much an outsider can do. And this is a very longstanding conflict, not something that the U.S. (or anyone else) can just sweep in and fix. But there are priorities and there are priorities. And this would go near the very top of the my list, whether my name was George W. Bush or Kofi Annan or whatever. It’s a pity the issue doesn’t get much attention (except briefly when the two countries start nuclear sabre-rattling, but then outside involvement seems limited to damage control rather than actual conflict-resolution).

Howls of outrage (4)

2004 07 23
The CIA and the ISI

I’ve spent almost three years now arguing that Pakistan ought to be a top foreign policy priority for the U.S. Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, had – alas, “has” is really more accurate – extensive ties with the Taliban and militant Islamic groups, including A.Q. The ISI is an extremely powerful and not completely controlled force within Pakistan, which itself has a highly dysfunctional political system. And the country is a nuclear power locked in a multi-generational dispute with a neighbouring nuclear power. If you think Iraq was more dangerous than that explosive combination, or even that it was rational to think that Iraq was more dangerous than that explosive combination, I give up on you. I think it’s also fair to say that the U.S. has not made Pakistan a top foreign policy priority, and rather that it has tended to downplay some of the more serious concerns about the country.

So I was predisposed to look favourably on a recent piece in the Guardian by Michael Meacher arguing that the U.S. was looking the other way when it came to Pakistan’s ties with A.Q. And it isn’t a completely bad piece. But then I ran smack into one of the stupider paragraphs I’ve read in a while:
Continue Reading »

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2004 06 04
Two Questions before Supper

A friend and former roommate of ours is visiting from out of town. He is a jazz trombonist and a professional chef. We’ve planned his visit to maximize the benefits from his various talents. The first part of his visit was spent in the recording studio with my wife and a few of her friends; tonight we move on to feasting. I leave you with two random questions while I stuff my fat face for a few hours.

First: Is Saddam Hussein being treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions? I’ve heard scarcely a peep about him since his capture. I ask not because (I blush to confess) I’m especially anxious to see him well-treated, but because I am anxious to see a case against him untainted by accusations that the U.S. has departed from international law. I’m a stickler for that kind of thing, even in what is pretty obviously a limit case. I confess, I’m also just very curious for details about his present state of mind. What the hell is it like to be an all powerful psychopath writing romance novels and killing people one day, and then cast helplessly into prison by the people you hate the most the next? Pretty odd, I’m guessing.

Second: Wither Kashmir? It seems that we only ever talk about Kashmir when Pakistan and India start rattling sabres. Why not earlier? Indeed, I have the impression that I’m more terrified than most people of a nuclear war on the subcontinent at some point in my lifetime. But that’s their problem – the feeling of terror is entirely appropriate on this issue.

If I were Prez, I would make a settlement of Kashmir a top priority of my foreign policy. Kashmir may be a depressing mess, but it’s not an impossible one. Resolving the dispute over Kashmir would do more than remove the greatest (but, of course, not the only) irritant between two nuclear powers with a history of military conflict. It would also be a crucial step towards the constructive reordering of Pakistan’s political culture. The dispute over Kashmir has the inevitable effect of strengthening the position of the military and the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) within Pakistan’s political system. Resolving the dispute would therefore be one step in diminishing the dominance of these forces within it (which is one reason you can expect strong ambivalence from that quarter about any proposed resolution). And, of course, helping Pakistan to reorder itself politically is one of the most important steps in the struggle against Islamic radicalism.

Later. I’ma gonna get fat now.

Update: Gosh, I’m such a blowhard. Two minutes after posting this, I notice that India’s Exernal Affairs minister has ruled out third-party mediation. Of course that doesn’t mean that third-parties can’t play a construct role at the margins, especially if things break down again completely. Also, I didn’t mean to suggest that the third party has to be an American one. The Americans – I can’t help noticing – appear to have their hands full.

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2003 12 30
[Nuclear headache]

A Nuclear Headache: What if the Radicals Oust Musharraf?

I have often wondered if historians would see the failure to fully and constructively engage Pakistan after Sept. 11th as the gravest of the Bush administration’s mistakes. Indeed, if Sept. 11th were an argument for nation building anywhere, it was in Pakistan. Of course, I don’t mean invading the country. But a far larger carrot and a larger stick were both called for, I think, by the fact that an unstable nuclear power turned out to have directly supported fanatics like bin Laden. Bush has been stinting with his carrots – he wouldn’t even give Pakistan a decent (and fair) deal on textiles which might have strengthened his domestic hand, and he hasn’t been particularly aggressive in promoting civil society or stability in the country either. The dispute over Kashmir is managed to avoid a crisis, but not engaged in any meaningful way.

If you think the war on Iraq diverted energy and attention from this effort – or rather, from what might have been this effort – then we ought to reckon that among the consequences of the war.

It isn’t clear yet what the consequences are of allowing Pakistan to continue rotting in this way. But I’m afraid they will be cataclysmic.

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2003 10 14
[India and Pakistan]

Remember when things got a bit hot between Pakistan and India in the fall of 2001 (and onwards)? Many sensible people pointed out at the time that the dispute over Kashmir called for international mediation. Although quite serious, the dispute may not be intractible, and anyway, the consequences of a miscalculation between the two powers should be enough to get anyone’s attention.

In the meantime, though, no one has dealt seriously with the problem. Despite the occasional hopeful signs of thaw between the countries, no serious progress has been made in resolving the underlying causes of tension. Now things may be heating up again. I notice, for instance, that Pakistan has apparently stepped up its missile testing recently.

I think we may all look back at this and wish that the U.S. had turned its attention to the subcontinent instead of Iraq. A joint focus on settling the Kashmir dispute and encouraging the spread of civil society in Pakistan would have done more to hurt bin Laden’s recruitment than anything else they could have done. And let’s hope that by the time the threat between these two countries is appreciated, our appreciation isn’t being prompted by a mushroom cloud.

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2003 04 06
India and Pakistan

I like to think that my opposition to the war never depended on downplaying the threat from Iraq. Iraq did want nuclear weapons, and, armed with them, would have threatened more than oil (the Kurds, for example, or Israel). The problem with arguments stressing the danger from Iraq is that, even setting aside moral concerns about preventative war, showing that Iraq is potentially very dangerous doesn’t, by itself, suggest a response. To know how to respond, we need to know how dangerous it is compared with other threats, and supporters of the war were never able to muster a convincing argument that placed concern about Iraq within broader concerns about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Invading Iraq might eliminate a potential nuclear threat, but if the cost of doing so is to spark an arms race, or spur proliferation more broadly, it’s at odds with prudence as well as morality.

Alas, few on the Asian subcontinent have been content over the last year to sit tight and wait for the U.S.’s attention – and we should be clear that the U.S.’s attention desperately needed here . India and Pakistan, never particularly responsible with conventional military force, have for the last few years been playing an infinitely more troubling game of threats and bluster with their new nuclear arsenals. Nobody wants a nuclear war, of course, but the worry is that the players will miscalculate and bring it on in spite of themselves. The players here have an awful record when it comes to calculation (something which this story put me in mind of).

Does anyone really want to wager 10 millions lives (and, incidentally, the global economy) on the good judgement and maturity of the leadership of these countries?

Ask the Bush administration. They’ve put the issue on hold while they deal with Iraq.

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