Dogs and fleas in Pakistan

Is it time to write off our relationship with the Pakistani Army and ISI as a bad investment?

The Pakistani security forces – both the Army and the ISI secret police – are among the purest expressions in the world of absolute evil: tyrants, kleptocrats, torturers, religious fanatics, supporters of terrorism.

The U.S. decision, back when Nehru was playing footsie with Moscow, to ally with Pakistan, made us the paymasters of the security forces, earning us the hatred of ordinary Pakistanis without earning us any gratitude from the men with the guns: rather the reverse. (“Why does he hate me so much?” said Sam Goldwyn of a rival. “I never did anything for him.”)

The subsequent decision to use the ISI to channel money and arms to the mujaheddin fighting the Russians had among its many side-effects the creation of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda as important fighting forces, and obviously the Pakistani military and secret police were sheltering Osama bin Laden up until this year. The A. Q. Khan nuclear-weapons-technology-peddling ring supplied, or tried to supply, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Iran.

Now it emerges that, as lukewarm as the senior Army and ISI officials are toward the U.S., everyone from the colonels down hates us with a passion; the arrest of the people who helped spot bin Laden for us was. it appears, a desperation move by the Army and ISI chiefs to keep their jobs, or even to avoid a coup.

The threat, if we cut off the money, is that the goons will (one more time) kick out the civilian leadership, openly ally with the Taliban, pick up their proxy-war-by-terror against India, and start taking money from China instead. And of course there’s always the risk that someone really crazy will get hold of some of those nuclear weapons. And a decisive shift in Pakistani policy could doom any chance of preventing a return to power by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But it seems to me – speaking as a non-expert –  that to sacrifice the need to get the Pakistani security forces under control to the needs of the war in Afghanistan would get the policy problem backwards.Afghanistan is worth fighting for – if indeed it is worth fighting for, which with Karzai in charge may not be the case  anyway – only as a means to the end of preventing the takeover of Pakistan by pro-terrorist forces and promoting a situation in which Pakistan and India could make peace. Our biggest long-term interest in the region surely is the promotion of Indian economic growth and political development (if only as a counterweight to China), and friendship between India and the U.S. The optimists learn Hindi; the pessimists learn Mandarin.

It seemed reasonable to hope that our show of strength and determination in taking out bin Laden would put backbone into our Pakistani friends – in particular some of the civilian politicians – and demoralize our Pakistani enemies. Whether that hope was reasonable or not, things haven’t turned out that way. Now we’re facing some tough choices. For forty years, the Pakistani security forces have known that, no matter what they did, the U.S. wouldn’t walk away from them. Maybe it’s time for that to change.

Several Reflections on the Death of Bin Laden

We should be cautious on drawing too many conclusions from publicly available information, especially given the inaccuracy of early accounts (woman as human shield, etc.), but several features of the story beyond what’s been commented on widely are interesting:

1. Bin Laden may have been an operational drag on “Central Al Qaeda.” The weird story about plots to disrupt American trains (!) on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 suggests that Bin Laden was still actively involved in operational planning. He could only communicate infrequently and with low bandwidth, vastly increasing the cycle time of planning revisions. It also put him very out of touch, probably contributing to Al Qaeda central irrelevance. I suspect that, despite the symbolic value of eliminating Bin Laden, had he just been eliminated by an airstrike, it might have been a net plus for Al Qaeda.

2. The operation as conducted, on the other hand, because of the intelligence yield of hardrives and documents and thumb drives now in US possession, leaves every Al Qaeda associate wondering whether their location has been or is about to be discovered, and whether they will soon meet a similar fate. They will no longer trust established communication channels and will suspect that people in contact with them have flipped. Al Qaeda’s central coordinating and resourcing function, had it had any strength left, probably is no more. The lesson will not be lost on people thinking of joining similar networks.

3. The controversy over the photos revealed interesting dynamics in the Obama administration and much silliness elsewhere. Leon Panetta said the photos would be released – despite this the President decided the opposite. It is clear who is in charge of this administration. On the other hand, Senator Lindsey Graham’s statement that the photos should be released because the only reason the go in on the ground was to obtain proof of Bin Laden’s death was utter foolishness. First of all, the intelligence yield and disruption of Al Qaeda was even more important than certainty (See #2 above.). Second, certainty was established in other ways than a picture. Third, a picture can be doctored and would not convince those who ready to believe in conspiracies (viz the parallel with Obama’s birthplace).

4. It’s interesting that in reaction to belief that elements in the Pakistani Army or ISI protected Bin Laden people are talking about cutting economic assistance funds, that tend to support the welfare of the Pakistani people and the civilian government, but not the assistance through military channels and the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Contingency Fund, that are targeted directly on producing a Pakistani military more aligned with U.S. regional goals.

Is Pakistan an Ally or an Enemy? How about “neither”?

Daniel Larison objects to attacks on Pakistan’s loyalty as an ally, noting (correctly) that allies don’t always agree.  Jeffrey Goldberg also sticks up for Pakistan as an ally. (h/t Sullivan)

I think we’re getting to the point where these terms don’t make much sense as regards Pakistan.  There are countries and non-state actors out there that are US allies, and there are countries and non-state-actors that are US enemies.  And you know what?  There are countries and non-state actors out there that are neither one.

Let’s make the hardly-bulletproof-but-still-reasonable assumption that most nations follow what they perceive to be their interests, whether that is some sort of overarching “national interest” or the collection of interests of individuals and groups within those societies.  Those nations whose interests very strongly dovetail with the United States we will call “allies”, and those whose interests are rarely aligned with the United States we can call “enemies.” 

Where is Pakistan?  It is in neither of these camps.  It has no use for Al Qaeda, but probably welcomes Taliban rule in Afghanistan because the Taliban will never ally with India.  It probably doesn’t want nuclear proliferation, but isn’t averse to selling some secrets to get foreign exchange.  It certainly doesn’t want a nuclear war, but it does want Kashmir, and isn’t averse to having groups of terrorists attack India if for other reason than domestic political consumption.

The Cold War is over.  We are in a very complicated multipolar world with far more powers than even Europe in the 19th century.  Most nations will be neither our allies or our adversaries.  We should be getting used to it by now.

This is so obvious I’m not even sure why I had to write it, but several years of “you’re either with us or against us” has obviously taken its intellectual toll.

A few words in defense of the Pakistani ISI

A lot of arch and winking snark is circulating about finding OBL living in a nice house surrounded by retired army officers and a few blocks from the Pakistani military academy.  The suggestion is that the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service out of whose sight no sparrow falls, or even ruffles his feathers a little, or the army itself, must have known who their neighbor was and didn’t tell us.

This is so cynical and small-minded, and paranoid, as it projects superhuman powers of detection and inference on the ISI.  Bin Laden didn’t have his name on the mailbox. He didn’t have a phone, so how were they supposed to even look him up in the phonebook! His facebook page is all in Arabic; Pakistanis don’t speak Arabic! The walls around the place were eight and twelve feet high, and you have to have no manners at all not to understand that means you’re not welcome to look in. What kind of gaucherie are we expecting; gossiping with servants?

It’s even been suggested that they sent over a nice brisket for busy evenings in the plotting and mayhem trade, or otherwise facilitated his sojourn. In a neighborly sort of way.  But since they had absolutely no possible way of knowing who he was (a servant would take the brisket at the door) this is making a gracious virtue into a fault, and so unfair.

Anyway, the ISI is about the single, enduring, defining mortal threat to Pakistan, which is  India, and its laser-like focus is legendary.  We’ve heard absolutely nothing to suggest suspicious behavior of this sort from the OBL digs: not a Slumlord Millionaire delivered from Netflix; not a moo from inside; none of the usual symptoms of Indianity. And until we do, let’s respect the ISI and the army for doing their job and not being the kind of nosy people who stir things up and make bad feeling among neighbors who just want to get along and mind their business.

UPDATE 22:00PDT Mon.:  The Pakistani ambassador to the US explained to a reporter that criticizing Pakistan for not finding OBL was unjustified, and offered – as evidence that bad guys are sometimes just very hard to find – Whitey Bulger’s long success at staying out of jail. You could not make this up:  Whitey Bulger was  protected by the American ISI FBI, as a useful source of information with which to prosecute Italian mobsters, and money; the agent who “ran” him is in prison for life. Read the fictionalized version (better than real life, of course) in George V. Higgins’ At End of Day.

At a time like this,

when a gang-rape is ordered by local government to punish the brother of the victim for something he didn’t do and that wasn’t criminal or even wrong and that gets whitewashed by the highest national court (with the local council apparently not even indicted),  it’s important to say “Everyone’s culture is just as good as everyone else’s culture, in every way” over and over again, until you see the contextual advanced morality of the story and the men in it.  Get a sandwich and clear your schedule; it may take a while.

Haiti’s ruins and Pakistan’s flood

A plea for charity alone is not, I’ll admit, compelling reading. Here, then, are some actual reasons to believe we may be less inclined to help Pakistan after the floods than we should be.

Keith a few days ago drew some fascinating conclusions from the fact that a post of his on AIDS evoked no comments: AIDS now evokes ennui, to both good and bad effect.  It would appear that my post on Pakistan suggesting that people send money to both UNICEF and carbon offset funds was equally boring.  I deserved it: this is an intellectual blog, and though I implied intellectual reasons behind my call for charity, I didn’t spell them out.  I will now.

First, there is every reason to believe that global warming made the flood worse.  (Monsoons themselves are natural; this is a different case from James’ outstanding post on how certain high-intensity storms, in places that never used to experience them, are probably caused uniquely by global warming.) The storm itself is part of a trend in which global warming is making extreme weather events of all kinds more common. Specific details about the climate in the region suggest—with less than perfect confidence, but with no reason I can see to demand such—that storms just like this one are becoming more frequent and stronger due to warming trends. In this case, the fact that the Himalayan glaciers are melting has likely also made things worse.  Millions of people have been left homeless by the storm and at risk of starvation or cholera.  That the fate of one of those people can be chalked up to the amount of CO2 one of us produces throughout a lifetime seems pretty likely.  My headline “Peccavi,” Latin for “I have sinned,” was an intended reference to the famous Punch cartoon portraying Charles James Napier saying this after illegally conquering Sindh province.  Like him, we’ve done something to Sindh, and like him we’re guilty.

Second, we’re almost certainly giving less in response to this disaster than we give in response to others that are equally catastrophic or even less so.  Part of this is “poor marketing” by Pakistan’s government.  (Sad commentary on being as poor as Pakistan: your people’s welfare hangs on the quality of a PR job regarding their misery.)  A New York Times story today blames several other factors: the low initial death toll, slow media coverage (and no telethon, e.g. like this one), the global recession, donor fatigue, the August vacation season, and Pakistan’s bad image as a center for war, terrorists and loose nukes.  But unnamed “aid groups” seized on the main reason, I think:

Images of people slogging through water did not generate the same kind of sympathy as a leveled city, even though the dimensions are similar, aid groups noted, especially since, according to the United Nations, more than 15 million people have been affected and are often difficult to reach.

Ruins are like accidents: they’re fascinating.  Burke in his work on The Sublime and the Beautiful noted that “numbers from all parts” would visit London in ruins after an earthquake who would never care to visit when it was standing—even though almost nobody is so wicked as to want it leveled.  He further, and rightly, noted that this apparently morbid interest is socially salutary as long as it’s paired with sympathy: the fascination leads us to seek out disasters, and then the sympathy makes us want to help.  But floods aren’t as impressive; they don’t seem violent or disastrous.  They evoke images of wading to higher ground where help will arrive. We can’t picture a reality in which the help, in an unimaginably large area, has also been flooded out.

With all that as preface, here’s take two:

UNICEF United States’ page on the Pakistan floods, Sustainable Travel International, or the U.S.’s top-rated carbon offset funds (per this report, .pdf)

Not cricket

Why did terrorists in Pakistan attack Sri Lankan cricketers?

On March 3rd, unknown terrorist gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, the old capital of the Punjab and second city of Pakistan. Six police guards were killed, but the cricketers escaped.

The story is nasty in a standard way, and very odd in others.

The easiest anomaly to explain is the survival of the cricketers. They were lucky – but also made their own luck. They came from a society with its own long history of terrorism by the Tamil Tiger separatists. Besides, they were professional athletes: very fit young men, with the quick reactions selected for by any ball game, and honed by its high-level practice. Cricket may look languid, as games last so long; but the ball is hard, like a baseball, may be bowled at 90 mph, and it’s legitimate to aim at the batsman’s head or body to intimidate him. The fielders are expected to take catches of mis-hit balls travelling at only slightly lower speeds, barehanded. At this level, you have to be pretty brave as well as quick. So when the team heard gunshots outside their bus, they did the right thing: they dived for the floor and shouted to the driver to keep going. And it worked.

Clip of highlights from a recent match between India and Sri Lanka:

What is harder to understand is: why pick on Sri Lankans? And why cricketers? To jihadist Muslims, Sri Lankans are infidels – Hindus and Buddhists – but they come from a poor country with no recent history of conflict with Muslims. They are just generic foreigners. The one thing that could have made them stand out is that they replaced an Indian cricket team whose tour was sensibly cancelled after the Mumbai attacks.

There’s even less logic to attacking cricketers. Surprisingly, the Takiban are in favour of it. Before 1978, most Afghans despised the game as a British imperialist relic. But following the Soviet invasion of 1978, young Afghan refugees in Peshawar picked up the game from Pakistanis, much as Tibetan refugees in Nepal have adopted spicy subcontinental food. The Taliban took the game back to Afghanistan when they gained power. A cricket website writes:

In January 2000, the Taliban regime wrote to the Pakistan Cricket Board seeking support to join the International Cricket Council as an associate member.

A decorously bearded Afghan team played in Rawalpindi in May 2001. So its unlikely that the Taliban would have chosen cricketers as suitable symbolic targets. The Middle Easterners in Al-Qaeda presumably do not play the game, which never caught on in the British Empire in that part of the world; but why should they hate it?

Terrorism works by symbolic association. If observers are left scratching their heads because they can’t see the point, an attack has failed. This one makes the Pakistan government look weak and incompetent, which it is, and may therefore have some obscure payoff in Pakistani internal politics. It may also backfire. The mass of the Pakistani population live in the Indus plain and like cricket. Making them angry and liable to demand action against the anarchist backwoodsmen in the mountains doesn’t look to me like a brilliant idea.