Category Archives: India

Four More Years: The Asia Pivot

Four More Years: The Asia Pivot

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 26, 2012

In March 1990, Time Magazine titled an article “Ripples in The American Lake.” It was not about small waves in that body of water just north of Fort Lewis, Washington. It was talking about the Pacific Ocean, the largest on the planet, embracing over half of humanity and the three largest economies in the world. Time did not invent the term—it is generally attributed to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, U.S. Pacific commander during WW II—but its casual use by the publication was a reflection of more than 100 years of American policy in this immense area.

The Asia-Pacific region has hosted four American conflicts—the Spanish American War, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—and is today the focus of a “strategic pivot,” although that is a bit of a misnomer, by the Obama administration. The Pacific basin has long been the U.S.’s number one trade partner, and Washington deploys more than 320,000 military personnel in the region, including 60 percent of its navy. The American flag flies over bases in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, the Marshall Islands, Guam and Wake.

It is one of the most perilous regions on earth right now, and, for the first since the collapse of the old Soviet Union, two major nuclear powers are bumping up against one another. As volatile as the Middle East is, one of the most dangerous pieces of real estate on the planet are a scatter of tiny islands in the East China Sea, where China, Japan and the U.S. find themselves in the kind of standoff that feels distressingly like the Cold War.

Tension over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, however, is just one of several foreign policy challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, each with its own characteristics and history. Japan and South Korea are in a faceoff over an island that Tokyo calls Takeshima and Seoul calls Dokdo.  Moscow and Tokyo are at loggerheads over the Kurile islands, Beijing is throwing its weight around in the South China Sea, North Korea just launched a long-range ballistic missile (and is possibly considering a nuclear test), and Washington is recruiting allies against China, sometimes by turning a blind eye to serious human rights violations.

How the Obama administration responds to these issues over the next four years will go a long way toward determining whether the ocean lives up to its name—peaceful—or once again becomes an arena for tragedy. So far the record is not encouraging.

Washington has stumbled badly in the dangerous crisis over islands that China calls the Diaoyu and Japan calls the Senkaku. The dispute over these uninhabited specks in the East China Sea islands goes back to the Sino-Japan War of 1895 when Tokyo wrested them from Beijing. In 1971, the Americans—caught up in the Cold war and refusing to recognize China— made the whole matter a lot more complex by ignoring two WW II treaties requiring Japan to return its conquests to their original owners, and instead handed the islands over to Japan.

When China protested, Tokyo and Beijing agreed to kick the can down the road and delay any final decisions on sovereignty to some later date. That all changed when Japan—pressed by rightwing nationalists—purchased three of the islands this past summer and altered the status quo. To make matters worse, the U.S. declared that it would stand by Japan in any military conflict, thus raising the ante from a local confrontation between two Asians giants to a potential clash between nuclear powers.

China sees the islands as part of its defensive parameter, not an unusual point of view considering the country’s history. China has been the victim of invasion and exploitation by colonial powers, including Japan, dating back to the first Opium War in 1839. Beijing is convinced Washington is surrounding it with potentially hostile alliances, and that the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is part of a U.S. strategy to keep China down. There is an economic dimension to the issue as well. China would like to exploit oil and gas deposits, as well as fishing grounds, in the East China Sea.

Extending the U.S.-Japan mutual support treaty to the islands is a major mistake. China has no intention of attacking its main Asian trade and investment partner, and putting Tokyo under Washington’s nuclear umbrella around this issue has helped unleash a powerful current of nationalism in Japan. For instance, Tokyo is debating whether to put Japanese Self-Defense Forces on Yonaguni Island in the Okinawa or Ryukyu chain. That would put Japanese troops squarely in the middle of China’s first line of maritime defense. Yonaguni is a long way from Tokyo, but on a clear day you can see the mountains of Taiwan from its beaches. The island’s residents are opposed to the Self-Defense Force deployment.

The new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has been particularly strident, openly talking of dumping Japan’s anti-war constitution and building nuclear weapons. He comes from a long line of military-minded nationalists. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a member of Japan’s wartime cabinet and considered a war criminal. Rather than going to jail, however, Nobusuke was “rehabilitated” after the war and became a prime minister in 1957. Abe has stonewalled demands by China and other countries in the region to apologize for its brutal policies during WW II.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Abe was asked if there was a “possibility that the two Asian powers could go to war.” According to the Times, “Mr. Abe just smiled and walked away.”

If that exchange does not give Washington pause, it should.

China has a strong legal case for ownership of the islands, and rather than rattling sabers, Washington should encourage the UN and the International Court of Justice to get involved. What it should not do is green light the politics of people like Abe, who might draw Washington into a confrontation with China. In 1914 Austria attacked Serbia. Russia mobilized, and Germany, bound by treaty to Austria, followed suit. That ended very badly.

The disputes in the South China Sea are very different than those in the East China Sea, although some of the actors are the same. Beijing claims that it owns a vast expanse of the Sea, that includes the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and numerous reefs and shallows, also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines. At stake are rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas deposits, as well as a considerable portion of the world’s trade routes.

The Chinese have been rather heavy handed in the dispute, refusing to negotiate with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and insisting on bilateral talks instead. China vs. Brunei is hardly a level diplomatic playing field. The standoff has given the U.S. an opportunity to intervene as a “neutral broker,” a posture that has pushed every paranoid button in Beijing. China has responded by stepping up its patrols in the South China Sea, even sabotaging joint Indian-Vietnam oil exploration near the Paracels.  New Delhi—which has its own tensions with China over its northern border—is threatening to send naval vessels into the disputed area.

The crisis is solvable, but a few things need to happen.

China must back off, because its current claim violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas. A place to start is for ASEAN and Beijing to work out a “code of conduct” to resolve disputes peacefully. But Washington should stay out of this fight. Given the strong military component of the “pivot,” one can hardly blame China for assuming that U.S. involvement is not aimed at resolving disputes.

“If you are a strategic thinker in China, you do not have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China,” says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Washington has shifted naval forces into the Pacific and is in the process of putting 2,500 Marines in northern Australia. While 2,500 Marines are hardly likely to tip the balance of power in Asia, it seems an unnecessary provocation. The U.S. is moving air power into the region as well, including B-1 bombers, B-52s, and F-22 stealth fighters. In early November, 47,000 U.S. and Japanese forces carried out joint military exercises.

Washington is also re-negotiating its Mutual Support Treaty with Japan, which will include the deployment of an advanced anti-missile system (ABM). The ABM is ostensibly directed at North Korea, but China is unhappy because it could pose a threat to Beijing’s modest nuclear missile force. In general, ABM systems are destabilizing, which is why the ABM Treaty was negotiated between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1972. The Obama administration should repudiate the Bush administration’s 2002 scrapping of the ABM Treaty and instead focus on ridding the world of nuclear weapons, a promise made in 2008 but ignored ever since.

North Korea may be a threat to its own people, but it hardly poses a major danger to the U.S. or its allies, South Korea and Japan. Yes, the country has nuclear weapons, but any use of them would be tantamount to national suicide, and the North Koreans have always shown a strong streak of self-survival. What about the shelling of the South Korean island and the sinking of a South Korean warship? Certainly dangerous acts, but the North does have legitimate grievances over how its coastal waters were divided after the Korean War, and, while Pyongyang probably sunk the ship, there are some doubts. If North Korea seems paranoid, it is partly because each year the U.S., South Korea, and sometimes Japan, carry out war games aimed at intervening in the advent of “instability” in the north.  U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta threatened North Korea with nuclear weapons last year, hardly a strategy to get the Pyongyang regime to give them up.

North Korea mainly serves as an excuse for Japan and the U.S. to militarize the North Pacific and expand their ABM system. But it is a poor, backward country that has trouble feeding its own people. Hollywood’s latest version of the 1950s anti-communist classic, “Red Dawn,” features North Korean paratroopers invading Alaska. Really.

The White House should take a big deep breath, ignore the bombast, stop threatening North Korea with nuclear weapons, retire the war games, and restart aid programs. The only people hurt by the aid cutoffs are poor North Koreans.

Washington sees Indonesia is a potentially valuable ally in the alliance against China, as well as a source of valuable raw materials, and has thus given Jakarta a free pass on its human rights record. But for an administration that trumpets its support for democracy and says it has a moral view of the world, that real politique is unacceptable. The U.S. should finally own up to its role in the 1965 Indonesian coup that killed up to a million communists, leftists, trade unionists, and progressives. It should also halt all military aid to the Jakarta regime until the Indonesians prosecute those who committed atrocities in East Timor and West Papua. The U.S. should have nothing to do with training Kopassus, the Indonesian Special Forces unit that organized many of the East Timor massacres and is currently trying to crush an independence movement in West Papua.

Some of the White House’s actions have bordered on the petty. The U.S. is organizing an 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact that was designed to exclude China, the big dog on the Asian-pacific block. In retaliation, China is encouraging the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that will exclude the U.S.

The U.S. is a Pacific power, but Asia is a very different place than it was two hundred years ago. You can’t dispatch “Chinese” Gordon and a couple of gunboats and get your way anymore. Nor can you deal with rivals by building alliances a’ la Cold War and threatening to use force. The world is too small, Asia is too big, and war would be catastrophic. The Pacific is no one’s “lake,” but an ocean vast enough for all.

—30—

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Four More Years: Central and South Asia

Four More Years: Central & South Asia

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 30, 2012

From the ice-bound passes of the Hindu Kush to the blazing heat of the Karakum Desert, Central Asia is a sub-continent steeped in illusion. For more than two millennia conquerors have been lured by the mirage that it is a gateway to immense wealth: China to the east, India to the south, Persia to the west, and to the north, the riches of the Caspian basin. Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, British, and Soviets have all come and gone, leaving behind little more than forgotten graveyards and the detritus of war.

Americans and our NATO allies are next.

It is a cliché that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, but a cliché doesn’t mean something is not true, just that it is repeated over and over again until the phrase becomes numbing. It is a tragedy that the US was “numb” to that particular platitude, although we have company. In the past 175 years England has invaded Afghanistan four times.

Our 2001 invasion was itself built on a myth—that the Taliban had attacked the US on 9/11 was fabricated to lay the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq 17 months later. That both invasions turned into disasters is hardly surprising. Rudyard Kipling and TE Lawrence predicted those outcomes more than a 100 years ago.

Most of all, the war has been a calamity for the Afghan people. The country has staggered through more than 30 years of war. According to a recent UN survey, conditions for Afghans in the southern part of the country are desperate. Some one-third of the area’s young children—one million under the age of five—are acutely malnourished. “What’s shocking is that this is really high by global standards,” Michael Keating, deputy head of the UN mission to Afghanistan, told the Guardian (UK). “This is the kind of malnutrition you associate with Africa, and some of the most deprived parts of the world, not with an area that has received so much international attention and assistance.”

The area in question embraces Kandahar and Helmand, the two provinces targeted by Washington’s 2009 troop surge. That the provinces have widespread malnutrition and are still deeply restive—both are among the most dangerous areas in the country— is a commentary on the futility of the entire endeavor.

The question is, what now? How the White House answers that will go a long way toward determining whether Afghanistan can begin to extricate itself from its long, national nightmare, or once again collapse into civil war that could destabilize the entire region.

There are a couple of truths the White House will need to absorb.

First, there can be no “residual” force left in the country. Right now the Obama administration is trying to negotiate a status force agreement that will allow it to keep anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 troops in the country to train the Afghan army and pursue al-Qaeda. Such an agreement would exempt US forces from local laws, and is a non-starter for Afghans from the get go. The Taliban and their allies—in particular the highly effective and quite lethal group, the Haqqanis—will not allow it, and insisting that US troops remain in the country will guarantee the war continues.  If there is one truth in Afghanistan, it is that the locals don’t cotton to outsiders.

Nor are the regional neighbors very enthusiastic about having the American military in residence next door. Since those neighbors—specifically Iran, China, Pakistan and Russia—will be central to any final settlement, one does not want to annoy them. It doesn’t take much effort to derail a peace process in Afghanistan.

As for al-Qaeda, it doesn’t exist in Afghanistan, and it is even a specter of its former self in Pakistan. In any case, the Taliban and its allies are focused on local issues, not worldwide jihad, and pose no threat to the US or NATO. Indeed, way back in 2007, Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban, pledged that the organization would not interfere in the affairs of any other country.

The White House can get the ball rolling by finally closing down Guantanamo and releasing its Taliban prisoners. Pakistan has already started its prisoner release. Washington must also stop its aggressive use of drones and Special Forces to pursue Taliban leaders. These so-called “night raids” and drone assassinations are not only provocative, but make any final agreement more difficult to negotiate. The US has already decapitated much of Taliban’s mid-level leadership, which, in turn, has atomized the organization into scores of local power centers. In fact, that decentralization may make reaching a final agreement much more difficult, because no single person or group of people will be empowered to negotiate for local Taliban affiliates.

In the long run the war will most likely be resolved the way most things end in Afghanistan: in a compromise. For all their war-like reputation, Afghans really excel in the art of the deal. The Taliban will be part of the government, but all the scare talk about Islamic extremists sweeping into power is exaggerated. The Taliban are mostly based in the Pashtun-dominated south and east, and they will remain the biggest players in Helmand, Kandahar and Paktika provinces. But Pashtuns only make up a plurality in the country—about 42 percent—and will have to compromise with the other major ethnic groups, the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Even when the Taliban ruled the country it never succeeded in conquering northern Afghanistan, and it has less support today than it did then.

One major danger comes from US support for local militias that do nothing to control the Taliban, but are quite successful at building up provincial warlords and protecting the opium trade (harvests increased 18 percent over a year ago). The Soviets followed exactly the same path, one that eventually led to the devastating 1992-96 civil war.

In short, the US needs to get out, and as quickly as possible. Its NATO allies have already boarded that train—the French are leaving a year early, the Dutch are gone, and the Brits are bunkered down—and prolonging the war is more likely to end in a debacle than any outcome favored by Washington. It is not our country, we don’t get to determine its history. That is a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam, but apparently did not.

The future of Afghanistan is linked to Pakistan, where current US policy is in shambles. A recent poll found that 74 percent of Pakistanis considered Washington an enemy. Many attribute those figures to the deeply unpopular American drone war that has killed scores of civilians. The drones have definitely made a bad situation worse, but the dispute goes deeper than missile-toting Predators and Reapers.  Pakistan is legitimately worried about its traditional opponent in the region, India, and Islamabad views Afghanistan as part of its “strategic depth”—a place to which to retreat in case of an attack by the much stronger Indian Army. Given that Pakistan has lost four wars with its southern neighbor, paranoia about the outcome of a fifth is understandable.

Instead of showing sensitivity to this concern, Washington has encouraged India to invest in Afghanistan, which it has done to the tune of over $2 billion. India even has paramilitary forces deployed in southern Afghanistan. Further, the Obama administration has taken Kashmir off the table, in spite of the fact that, in the run-up to the 2008 elections, Obama promised to seek a solution to the long-running conflict. Dropping Kashmir was a quid pro quo for a growing alliance between New Delhi and Washington aimed at containing an up and coming China.

But Kashmir is far too dangerous to play the role of a regional pawn. India and Pakistan came very close to a nuclear war over the area in the 1999 Kargil incident, and both countries are currently accelerating their nuclear weapons programs. Pakistani and Indian military leaders have been distressingly casual about the possibility of a nuclear war between the two countries. Rather than actively discouraging a nuclear arms race, Washington has made it easier for New Delhi to obtain fuel for its nuclear weapons programs, in spite of the fact that India refuses—along with Pakistan—to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As with agreeing to mute concerns over Kashmir, the US’s waver of the NNPT is part of Washington’s campaign to woo India into an alliance against China. A nuclear exchange between the two South Asian countries would not only be a regional catastrophe, but would have a worldwide impact.

Independent of the dangers Kashmir poses for the region and the world, its people should have the right to determine their own future, be it joining Pakistan, India, or choosing the path of independence. A UN sponsored referendum would seem the obvious way to let Kashmir’s people take control of their won destiny.

For starters, however, the US should demand that New Delhi accept a 2004 Indian government commission’s recommendation to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which Human Rights Watch calls “a tool of state abuse, oppression and discrimination.” The Special Powers Act was first created to control Catholics in Northern Ireland and then applied across Britain’s colonial empire. It is used today by Israel in the Occupied Territories and India in Kashmir. It allows for arrests without warrants, indefinite detainments, torture, and routine extra-judicial killings.

Washington’s fixation with lining up allies against China has also seen the US cut corners on human rights issues in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Indonesia. But recreating a version of the old Cold War alliance system in the region is hardly in the interests of Central and South Asians—or Americans, for that matter. India and Pakistan do not need more planes, bombs and tanks. They need modernized transport systems, enhanced educational opportunities, and improved public health. The same can be said for Americans.

There was a time when countries in Central and South Asia were responsible for much of world’s wealth and productive capacity. In 1750, India produced 24.5 percent of the world’s manufactured goods. England, in contrast, produced 1.9 percent. By 1850, the world had turned upside down, as colonialism turned—or to use the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s term, “de-evolved”—India from a dynamic world leader to an economic satrap of London. The region is emerging from its long, colonial nightmare, and it does not need—indeed, cannot afford—to be drawn into alliances designed half a world away. It is time to bring the 21st century’s version of “the Great Game” to an end.

—30—

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Filed under Afghanistan, Asia, Central Asia, FPIF Blogs, India, Middle East, Pakistan

Asia’s Mad Arms Race

Asia’s Mad Arms Race

Dispatches From The Edge

May 18, 2012

Asia is currently in the middle of an unprecedented arms race that is not only sharpening tensions in the region, but competing with efforts by Asian countries to address poverty and growing economic disparity. The gap between rich and poor—calculated by the Gini coefficient that measures inequality—has increased from 39 percent to 46 percent in China, India, and Indonesia. While affluent households continue to garner larger and larger portions of the economic pie, “Children born to poor families can be 10 times more likely to die in infancy” than those from wealthy families, according to Changyong Rhee, chief economist of the Asian Development Bank.

This inequality trend is particularly acute in India, where life expectancy is low, infant mortality high, education spotty, and illiteracy widespread, in spite of that country’s status as the third largest economy in Asia, behind China and Japan. According to an independent charity, the Naandi Foundation, some 42 percent of India’s children are malnourished. Bangladesh, a far poorer country, does considerably better in all these areas.

And yet last year India was the world’s leading arms purchaser, including a deal that will spend $20 billion dollars on high performance French fighter planes. India is also developing a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying  multiple nuclear warheads, and buying submarines and surface craft. Its military budget is set to rise 17 percent this year to $42 billion.

“It is ridiculous. We are getting into a useless arms race at the expense of fulfilling the needs of poor people,” Praful Bidwai of the Coalition of Nuclear Disarmament and Peace told the New York Times.

China, too, is in the middle of an arms boom that includes beefing up its navy, constructing a new generation of stealth aircraft, and developing a ballistic missile that is potentially capable of neutralizing U.S. carriers near its coast. Beijing’s arms budget has grown at a rate of some 12 percent a year and, at $106.41 billion, is now the second largest on the planet. The U.S. budget—not counting the various wars Washington is embroiled in—runs a little over $800 billion, although some have estimated that it is over $1 trillion.

While China has made enormous strides in overcoming poverty, there are some 250 million Chinese officially still considered poor, and the country’s formerly red-hot economy is cooling. “Data on April spending and output put another nail into hopes that China’s economy is bottoming out,” Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics told the Financial Times.

The same is true for most of Asia. For instance, India’s annual economic growth rate has fallen from 9 percent to 6.1 percent over the past two and a half years.

Tensions between China and other nations in the region have set off a local arms race. Taiwan is buying four U.S.-made Perry-class guided missile frigates, and Japan has shifted much of its military from its northern islands to face southward toward China.

The Philippines are spending almost $1 billion on new aircraft and radar, and recently held joint war games with the U.S.  South Korea has just successfully tested a long-range cruise missile. Washington is reviving ties with Indonesia’s brutal military because the island nation controls the strategic seaways through which pass most of the region’s trade and energy supplies.

Australia is also re-orientating its defense to face China, and Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith has urged “that India play the role it could and should as an emerging great power in the security and stability of the region.”

But that “role” is by no means clear, and some have read Smith’s statement as an attempt to rope New Delhi into a united front against Beijing. The recent test of India’s Agni V nuclear-capable ballistic missile is largely seen as directed at China.

India and China fought a brief but nasty border war in 1962, and India claims China is currently occupying some 15,000 square miles in Indian territory. The Chinese, in turn, claim almost 40,000 square miles of the Indian state of Arunachai Pradesh. While Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says that “overall our relations [with China] are quite good,” he also admits “the border problem is a long-standing problem.”

India and China also had a short dust up last year when a Chinese warship demanded that the Indian amphibious assault vessel Airavat identify itself shortly after the ship left the port of Hanoi, Vietnam. Nothing came of the incident but Indian President Pratibha Patil has since stressed the need for “maritime security,” and “the protection of our coasts, our ‘sea lines of communications’ and the offshore development areas.”

China’s forceful stance in the South China Sea has stirred up tensions with Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia as well. A standoff this past April between a Philippine war ship and several Chinese surveillance ships at Scarborough Shoal is still on a low simmer.

China’s more assertive posture in the region stems largely from the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits crisis that saw two U.S. carriers humiliate Beijing in its home waters. There was little serious danger of war during the crisis—China does not have the capability to invade Taiwan—but the Clinton Administration took the opportunity to demonstrate U.S. naval power. China’s naval build-up dates from that incident.

The recent “pivot” by Obama administration toward Asia, including a military buildup on Wake and Guam and the deployment of 2,500 Marines in Australia, has heightened tensions in the region, and Beijing’s heavy-handedness in the South China Sea has given Washington an opening to insert itself into the dispute.

China is prickly about its home waters—one can hardly blame it, given the history of the past 100 years—but there is no evidence that it is expansionist. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said in February “No country, including China, has claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.” Nor does Beijing seem eager to use military force. Beijing has drawn some lessons from its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam.

On the other hand, Beijing is seriously concerned about who controls the region’s seas, in part because some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies pass through maritime choke points controlled by the U.S. and its allies.

The tensions in Asia are real, if not as sharp or deep as they have been portrayed in the U.S. media. China and India do, indeed, have border “problems,” but China also describes New Delhi as “not competitors but partners,” and has even offered an alliance to keep “foreign powers”—read the U.S. and NATO—from meddling in the region.

The real question is, can Asia embark on an arms race without increasing the growing gulf between rich and poor and the resulting political instability that is likely to follow in its wake? “Widening inequality threatens the sustainability of Asian growth,” says Asian Development Bank economist Rhee. “A divided and unequal nation cannot prosper.”

More than half a century ago former General and President Dwight Eisenhower noted that “Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired signifies…a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed…this is not a way of life at all…it is humanity hanging from an iron cross.”

Americans have ignored Eisenhower’s warning. Asian nations would do well to pay attention.

—30—

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The U.S. and The Afghan Train Wreck

The U.S. & The Afghan Train Wreck

Dispatches From The Edge

April 16, 2012

The recent decision by the Taliban and one of its allies to withdraw from peace talks with Washington underlines the train wreck the U.S. is headed for in Afghanistan. Indeed, for an administration touted as sophisticated and intelligent, virtually every decision the White House has made vis-à-vis Afghanistan has been a disaster.

On Mar. 15 the Taliban ended preliminary talks with Washington, because, according to a spokesman for the insurgent organization, the Americans were being “shaky, erratic and vague.” The smaller Hizb-i-Islami group followed two weeks later.

That both groups are refusing to talk should hardly come as a surprise. In spite of the Obama administration’s talk about wanting a “political settlement” to the war, the White House’s strategy makes that goal little more than a mirage.

The current U.S. negotiating position is that the Taliban must cut all ties with the terrorist group al-Qaeda, recognize the Afghan constitution, lay down their arms, and accede to a substantial U.S. military presence until at least 2024. The U.S. has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, its allies another 40,000. The current plan calls for a withdrawal of most of those troops by the end of 2014.

What is hard to figure out is why the White House thinks any of its demands—with the exception of the al-Qaeda proviso—have even a remote possibility of being achieved? Or exactly what the Americans think they are going to be “negotiating” with Mullah Omar of the Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Hezb-i-Islami, or Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani Group?

The Obama administration’s initial mistake was to surge some 33,000 troops into Afghanistan with the aim of beating up on the resistance and forcing it to negotiate from a position of weakness. That plan was always an illusion, particularly given the ability of the insurgents to fall back into Pakistan to regroup, rearm, and recruit. In any case, the idea that 140,000 foreign troops—the 330,000 member Afghan National Army (ANA) is incapable of even defending itself—could defeat a force of some 25,000 guerillas fighters in a country as vast or geographically formidable as Afghanistan is laughable.

As a series of recent attacks demonstrate, the surge failed to secure Kandahar and Helmand Province, two of its major targets. While NATO claims that insurgent attacks have fallen as a result of the U.S. offensive, independent data collected by the United Nations shows the opposite.

In short, after a decade of war and the expenditure of over $450 billion, Afghanistan is a less secure place than it was after the 2001 invasion. All the surge accomplished was to more deeply entrench the Taliban and elevate the casualty rate on all sides.

The second U.S. error was to estrange Pakistan by wooing India in order to rope New Delhi into Washington’s campaign to challenge China in Asia.  First, Obama ditched his campaign pledge to address the volatile issue of Kashmir, the flashpoint for three wars between Indian and Pakistan. Second, the White House ignored India’s violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allowed it to buy uranium on the world market—the so-called 1-2-3 Agreement—while refusing that same waiver to Pakistan. Add the American drone war and last November’s deadly attack on Pakistani border troops, and most Pakistanis are thoroughly alienated from the U.S. And yet a political solution to the Afghan war without Islamabad is simply impossible.

The U.S. demand to keep Special Forces troops in Afghanistan in order to continue its war on “terrorism” is not only a non-starter for the insurgents—the Taliban are, after all, the target of thousands of deadly “night raids” carried out by these same Special Forces—it is opposed by every country in the region save India. How the White House thinks it can bring the Taliban and its allies to the table while still trying to kill and capture them, or maintain a military presence in the face of almost total regional opposition, is hard to figure.

The more than 2,000 yearly night raids have eliminated many of the senior and mid-level Taliban leaders and atomized the organization. When it comes time to negotiate, NATO may find it has literally hundreds of leaders with whom it will have to cut a deal, not all of whom are on the same page.

That the insurgency would lay down its arms has a quality of magical thinking to it. Not only is the insurgency undefeated, but according to a leaked NATO report, captured Taliban think they are winning. The report—based on 27,000 interrogations—also found that “Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governancy over GIROA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan], usually as a result of government corruption, ethnic bias and lack of connection with local religious and tribal leaders.”

There is no popular support for the war, either in Afghanistan, the U.S., or among its allies. The most recent ABC Poll found that 69 percent of Americans want the war to end, and according to a poll in the Financial Times, 54 percent of the British want to withdraw immediately.

As for supporting the Afghan constitution, why would an undefeated insurgency that sees its enemies in disarray and looking at a 2014 U.S.-NATO withdrawal date, agree to a document they had no part in drafting?

None of this had to happen. Back in late 2007, Saudi Arabia carried a peace offer from the Taliban in which they agreed to cut ties to al-Qaeda—a pledge they reiterated in 2008—and accept a time table for foreign troop withdrawals.  In return, a national unity government would replace the Karzai regime until elections could be held, and the constitution would be re-written.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations ignored the offer, apparently because they thought they could bring the Taliban to heel. It was thinking that verged on the hallucinatory.

The trump card holders these days are holed up in the high peaks or hiding in plain sight. Opium is booming in Helmand Province because the Taliban are protecting farmers from drug eradication teams, even blowing up tractors that are used to plow the crop under.

As the 2014 withdrawal date looms, the White House’s options are rapidly narrowing. If it holds to its plans to quarter troops in Afghanistan, the insurgency will fight on, and Washington’s only regional ally will be India, a country that can deliver virtually nothing toward a peace agreement. If it insists the insurgency recognize the Karzai regime and the constitution, it will be defending a deeply corrupt and unpopular government and a document that excluded the participation of country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtun. Pushtuns make up the core of the Taliban.

How the U.S. managed to get itself into this mess needs to be closely examined. The State Department under Hillary Clinton has become little more than an arm of the Pentagon, and the White House has shown an unsettling penchant for resorting to violence. In the meantime Afghanistan is headed for a terrible smashup.

The World Bank estimates that 97 percent of Afghanistan’s economy is military related. The war is drawing to a finish, and there is no evidence that the U.S. or NATO has any intention or ability to keep the aid spigots wide open.  Europe is in the middle of an economic meltdown and the U.S. economy is struggling.

NATO provides about $11 billion a year to support the Afghan army, a figure that will probably drop to about $4 to $5 billion after 2014. There is already talk of reducing the 335,000-man Afghan army to a more manageable and less expensive force of 230,000.

There is a window of opportunity, but only if the Obama administration takes advantage of it. A strategy that might work—when it comes to Afghanistan there are no guarantees—would include:

  • A ceasefire and stand down of all offensive operations, including the highly unpopular “night raids.”
  •  Shelving any long-term plans to keep combat troops or Special Forces in the country, and shutting down the drone war in Pakistan.
  •  Urging the formation of a national unity government and calling for a constitutional convention.
  • Sponsoring a regional conference aimed at keeping Afghanistan neutral and non-aligned.
  •  Insuring aid continues to flow into Afghanistan, particularly aimed at upgrading infrastructure, improving agriculture, and expanding education.

At home, the Congress should convene hearings aimed at examining how the U.S. got into Afghanistan, who made the key decisions concerning the war and regional strategy, and how the country can avoid such disasters in the future.

It may be too late and, in the end, NATO may tuck its tail between its legs and slink out of Afghanistan. But the deep divisions the war has created will continue, and civil war is a real possibility. The goal should be to prevent that, not to pursue an illusory dream of controlling the crossroads to Asia, a chimera that has drawn would be conquerors to that poor, ravaged land for a millennium.

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Pakistan: Anatomy Of A Crisis

Pakistan: Anatomy Of A Crisis

FPIF Blog

Conn Hallinan

Dec. 2, 2011

In the aftermath of the Nov. 26 NATO attack on two border posts that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the question being asked is whether the assault was a  “fog of war” incident or a calculated hit aimed at torpedoing peace talks in Afghanistan? Given that the incident has plunged relations between Washington and Islamabad to a new low at a critical juncture in the 10-year war, the answer is vitally important

According to NATO, U.S. and Afghan troops came under fire from the Pakistani side of the border and retaliated in self-defense. American officials have suggested that the Taliban engineered the incident in order to poison U.S.-Pakistani relations. But there are some facts suggesting that the encounter may have been more than a “friendly fire” encounter brought on by a clever foe, an ill-defined border, and the normal chaos of the battlefield.

Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Samiullah Rahmani denies they were even in the area—and the insurgent group is never shy about taking credit for military engagements (of course, if deception was involved that is what the Taliban would say). However, this particular region is one that the Pakistani army has occupied for several years and is considered fairly “cleansed” of insurgents.

The incident was not the case of a drone attack or bombing gone awry, a common enough event. For all the talk of “precision weapons” and “surgical strikes,” drones have inflicted hundreds of civilian deaths and 500 lb bombs have very little in common with operating rooms. Instead, the NATO instruments were Apache attack helicopters and, according to Associated Press, an A-130 gunship. In short, the assault was led by live pilots presumingly indentifying targets to their superiors.

Those targets were two border forts, architecture that has never been associated with the Taliban. It is true the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is porous and not always clearly defined, but the Afghan insurgents don’t build concrete posts. A “fort” is duck soup for a drone or a fighter-bomber, which is why the Taliban favor caves and hidden bunkers.

Naturally enough, both sides disagree on what happened. The Americans say they took fire from the Pakistani border, engaged in a three-hour running fight, and called in the choppers at the end of the battle.

But, according to the Pakistanis, there was no fire from their side of the border, and helicopters started the battle, which went on for a little less than two hours. Pakistan also says there were two Apache attacks. The first struck outpost Volcano, and when the fort’s nearby companion, outpost Boulder, fired on the helicopters, it also came under assault. Pakistan claims that its military contacted NATO to warn them they were attacking Pakistani troops, but the firing continued. The helicopters finally withdrew, only to reappear and renew the attack when the Pakistanis tried to reinforce the besieged forts.

Might it have been a matter of bad intelligence?

According to the Pakistanis, Islamabad has been careful to identify its posts to NATO in order to avoid incidents exactly like this. Pakistan Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem said, “it is not possible” that the “NATO forces did not know of the location of the Pakistani posts.”  Pakistan Gen. Ashram Nader called the attack a “deliberate act of aggression.”

Could it have been “deliberate”? Mistakes happen in war, but the timing of this engagement is deeply suspicious.

It comes at a delicate moment, when some 50 countries were preparing to gather in Bonn, Germany for talks aimed at a settling the Afghan War. Central to that meeting is Pakistan, the only country in the region with extensive contacts among the various insurgent groups. If the U.S. plans to really withdraw troops by 2014, it will need close cooperation with Pakistan.

“This could be a watershed in Pakistan’s relations with the U.S.,” Islamabad’s high commissioner to Britain, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, told the Guardian (UK). “It could wreck the time table for the American troop withdrawal.”

Pakistan has now withdrawn from the Bonn talks, and relations between Washington and Islamabad are as bad as they have ever been. The Pakistanis have shut down two major land routes into Afghanistan, routes over which some 50 percent of supplies for the war move. Islamabad has also demanded that the CIA close down its drone base at Shamsi in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province.

Who would benefit from all this fallout?

It is no secret that many in the U.S. military are unhappy about the prospect of negotiations with the Taliban, in particular the organization’s most lethal ally, the Haqqani Group. There is an unspoken but generally acknowledged split between the Defense Department and the State Department, with the former wanting to pound the insurgents before sitting down to talk, while the latter is not sure that tactic will work. Could someone on the uniformed side of the division have decided to derail, or at least damage, the Bonn meeting?

It is also no secret that not everyone in Afghanistan wants peace, particularly if it involves a settlement with the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, made up of mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, want nothing to do with the Pashtun-based Taliban that is mainly grouped in the south and east, and in the tribal regions of Pakistan. The Afghan Army is mostly Tajik, who not only make up the bulk of the soldiers, but 70 percent of the command staff. President Hamid Karzi is a Pashtun, but he is largely window dressing in the Northern Alliance-dominated Kabul government.

There are broader regional issues at stake as well.

It was no surprise that China immediately came to Pakistan’s defense, with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechu expressing “deep shock and strong concern” over the incident. China is not happy about the NATO deployment in Afghanistan and less so about the possibility of permanent U.S. bases in that country. At a Nov. 2 meeting in Istanbul, China, along with Pakistan, Iran and Russia, opposed a long-term American deployment in the area.

Iran is worried about the threat of U.S. military power on its border, Islamabad is concerned that prolonging the war will further destabilize Pakistan, and Beijing and Moscow are suspicious that the Americans have their sights set on Central Asia gas and oil resources. Both Russia and China rely on Central Asia hydrocarbons, the former for export to Europe, and the latter to run its burgeoning industries.

China is also anxious about the Obama administration’s recent strategic shift toward Asia. The U.S. has openly intervened in disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea, and recently signed an agreement to deploy 2,500 Marines in Australia. Washington has also tightened its ties with Indonesia and warmed up to Myanmar. To China, all this looks like a campaign to surround Beijing with U.S. allies and to keep its finger on the Chinese energy jugular vein. Some 80 percent of China’s oil moves through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

A key ingredient in any formula to offset Beijing’s growing power and influence in Asia is the role of India. New Delhi has traditionally been neutral in foreign policy, but, starting with the Bush administration, it has grown increasingly close to Washington. China and India have a prickly relationship dating back to the 1962 border war between the two countries and China’s support for India’s traditional enemy, Pakistan. China claims on part of India’s border area have not improved matters.

India would also like a Taliban-free government in Kabul, and anything that discomforts Islamabad is just fine with New Delhi. There are elements in the American military and diplomatic community that would like to see Washington dump its alliance with Pakistan and pull India into a closer relationship. A fair number of Indians feel the same way.

So far, the White House has refused to apologize, instead leaking a story that showing any softness vis-à-vis Pakistan during a U.S. election year is impossible.

In the end, the border fight may turn out to be an accident, although we are unlikely to know that for certain. Military investigations are not known for accuracy, and much of what happened will remain classified.

But with all these crosscurrents coming together in the night skies over Pakistan, maybe somebody saw an opportunity and took it. In a sense, it is irrelevant whether the attack was deliberate or dumb: the consequences are going to be with us for a long time, and the ripples are likely to spread from a rocky hillside in Pakistan to the far edges of the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Conn Hallinan can be read at middleempireseries.wordpress.com

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Afghanistan: Anatomy Of A Hit

Afghanistan: Anatomy Of A Hit

Dispatches From the Edge

July 23, 2011

 

The assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai in Kandahar July 12 is one of those moments when the long and bloody Afghanistan war suddenly comes into focus. It is not a picture one is eager to put up on the wall.

 

Karzai, a younger half brother (because their father had multiple wives) of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was the Kabul government’s viceroy in southern Afghanistan. What his nickname, “the king of Kandahar,” translates into is “warlord.” He controlled everything from the movement of drugs to the placement of car sales agencies. Want to open a Toyota dealership? See “AWK,” as he was also known, and come with a bucket load of cash.

 

AWK’s power, according to the Financial Times, “lay in a mafia-style network of oligarchs and loyal elders, funded, according to U.S. media reports, by heroin trafficking.” He was also on the CIA’s payroll. No truck moved through the south without paying him a tax. No United Nations or North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) projects could be built without his okay. In case someone didn’t get the message, his Kandahar Strike Force Militia explained it to them. Next to AWK, Al Capone was a small-time pickpocket.

 

And he was our guy.

 

So was Jan Mohammed Khan, assassinated July 17, a key ally and advisor to the Afghan president, and a man so corrupt that the Dutch expeditionary forces forced his removal as the governor of Uruzgan Province in 2006.

 

The entire U.S. endeavor in Afghanistan—from the initial 2001 invasion to the current withdrawal plan—has relied on a narrow group of criminal entrepreneurs, the very people whose unchecked greed set off the 1992-96 Afghan civil war and led to the victory of the Taliban.

 

AWK was a member of the Popalzai tribe, which along with the Alikozai and Barakzai tribes, has run the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand since the early 1990s, systematically excluding other tribes. According to the Guardian’s Stephen Gray, “The formation of the Taliban was, in great measure, a revolt of the excluded.”

 

When the Americans invaded, “AWK and the Barakzai strongman and former Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai not only seized control of NATO purse-strings by acquiring lucrative contracts, but they also manipulated U.S. intelligence and Special Forces to gain help with their predatory and retaliatory agenda,” says Gray, harassing and arresting Taliban members until they fled to Pakistan.

 

AWK not only poured money into the coffers of the Kabul government, he insured a second term for his brother by stuffing ballot boxes in the 2009 election, and he was a key actor in identifying targets for U.S. night raids. It is the success of these night raids in killing off Taliban leaders that has allowed the Obama Administration to claim a measure of victory in the Afghan war and to lay the groundwork for a withdrawal of most American troops by 2014.

 

With U.S. polls running heavily against the war—59 percent oppose it—and with more than 200 votes in Congress for speeding up the withdrawal timetable, the White House wants the war to be winding down as the U.S. goes into the 2012 elections

 

For the Afghan central government and the Obama administration, then, AWK was probably the most powerful and important warlord in the country.

 

As in chess, there are winners and losers when a major piece falls.

 

The assassination has dealt a serious blow to the Americans. The rosy picture of progress painted by the U.S. Defense and State departments is shot to hell, literally. The Taliban have demonstrated that all the hype on “improved security” is about as real as an opium dream. Even if the assassination was due to a personal quarrel rather than a Taliban hit, few will believe that is so, particularly after Khan’s assassination just five days later.

 

While the Kabul government has appointed another Karzai in AWK’s place, there is almost certainly going to be a bloody intercine battle among surviving Kandahar power brokers. A major infight will end up robbing Kabul of much needed funds and further isolate the government. The only hope for the Karzai government now is to ramp up talks with the Taliban while Kabul still has some power and influence.

 

And that fact puts Pakistan in the driver’s seat, because there will be no talks without Islamabad. The Americans need these talks as well, so don’t pay a lot of attention to the White House’s huffing and puffing over aid.

 

In any case, the decision to cut some $800 million in aid to the Pakistani military has been less than a major success. Pakistan Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar told Express TV that “If Americans refuse to give us money, then okay…we cannot afford to keep the military out in the mountains for such a long period.”

 

Pakistan currently has tens of thousands of troops on the 1,500-mile Pakistan-Afghan border, fighting an insurgency that did not exist until the American invasion drove the Taliban into the Tribal Areas and the Northwest Territories. From Pakistan’s point of view it is fighting its own people, and losing up to 3,000 soldiers and civilians a year, because of Washington’s policies in the region.

 

One loser is India, even though in the long run peace in Afghanistan will allow New Delhi to reap the rewards of a Central Asia gas pipeline. In the short run, however,Indian diplomacy in the region has badly misfired. India intervened in Afghanistan— providing more than a billion dollars in aid—in order to discomfort Pakistan.

 

But in 2009 New Delhi withdrew its support for the Karzai government because India was convinced the Americans were about to jettison the Afghan President. That never happened, but Karzai decided that his long-term survival lay in making peace with the Taliban, which in turn meant warming up ties with Islamabad.

 

In the meantime, Pakistan—fearful of India and suspicious of the U.S.—tightened its ties with China (discomforting the Indians even more). In fact, in the end, China may be the big winner. Beijing runs a huge copper mine and seems to have no trouble getting its ore out of the country, which suggests there is a deal among China, Pakistan and the Taliban to keep the roads open. China is also building a railroad, as well as exploring for iron ore and rare earth elements.

 

There are other potential winners here as well. Iran has traditionally been involved in northern Afghanistan, where it has roots among the Tajiks, who speak a language similar to Iran’s Farsi. Iran also has close ties to the Shiite Hazaras and pumps aid into western Afghanistan. Iran’s help will be essential if the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks are to join in any peace agreement.

 

Whatever the final outcome, the U.S./NATO adventure has been an unmitigated disaster. With Europeans overwhelmingly opposed to the war, there is a stampede for the exit by virtually every country but Britain and the U.S. In the end, Afghanistan may well end up the graveyard of NATO.

 

The major losers, of course, are the Afghans. So far this has been the deadliest year for civilians since 2001. Most of those deaths come via roadside bombs, but casualties from NATO air attacks are up. In spite of hundreds of billions of dollars in aid, Afghanistan is still grindingly poor and stunningly violent. After almost a decade of war the words that spring to mind are Macbeth’s: “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

 

 

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Why is the NY Times Censoring Afghan News?

Why is the New York Times Censoring Afghan News?

Dispatches From the Edge

May 16, 2011

On May 12, the New York Times did a very curious thing.

In an article entitled “Indian and Afghan Leaders Forge Deeper Ties in Meeting” by Alissa J. Rubin and Sanger Rahimi, the newspaper failed to mention that during his visit to Afghanistan, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had endorsed peace talks between the Taliban and the government of Hamid Karzai.

The Times’ piece—buried on the back pages—led with an agreement by the two governments to “move ahead on a strategic partnership” and then prattled on about aid. The words “Taliban” and “talks” never appeared.

In contrast, a May 13 Reuters article led with “India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, backing Kabul’s peace plan to reconcile with the Taliban-led insurgents.” According to Reuters, the Prime Minister said, “Afghanistan is embarked upon a process of national reconciliation. We wish you well in this enterprise.”

A BBC broadcast also led with the “Taliban talk” news, and the print version put it in the third sentence. To date the New York Times has yet to report the fact that India abandoned its previous opposition to opening talks with the Taliban.

How could the Times miss a story like that? There are only two explanations. One, that the two reporters are the kind that would have asked Mary Todd Lincoln if she liked the play. Two, that the reporters put the breakthrough remarks into the story, and an editor in New York took them out.

As a whole, Times coverage of the Afghan War has not been very good, certainly not nearly as good as the reporting by the McClatchy newspapers, let alone the international press. But their reporters have rarely demonstrated incompetence, and there is nothing in the record to suggest that Rubin and Rahimi are not good reporters. They could have missed what is probably the most important development in the past year—if so, time for reassignment to the Metro Desk—but it is much more likely that higher ups in New York left it on the cutting room floor.

Bad news sense? Maybe, but than again, maybe not.

On May 14, the Times wrote an editorial entitled “Pakistan After Bin Laden” where the following paragraph appears:

“The Obama administration also needs to take a harder look at military aid to Pakistan, to determine what is vital for counterterrorism and what might be tied to specific benchmarks, like apprehending the Taliban chief, Mullah Omar, and members of the Haqqani network.”

In short, the Times is arguing that Pakistan should take out the very people whom the Karzai government will need to talk with in any negotiations with the Taliban.  There is an old rule in the business of negotiations: don’t arrest or kill the people you want to talk with. That is, unless you don’t really want to have talks. The Israelis have developed this into a science: as soon as it looks like there are going to be talks between Israel and the Palestinians, they build some new settlements, knowing that the provocation will torpedo any negotiations.

The Times is a strong supporter of U.S. Gen. David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which consists of attacking the Taliban in order to weaken them prior to a political settlement. The idea is that if they are first beaten up, the insurgents will be more pliable during negotiations.

However, since the Taliban show no signs of throwing in the towel—indeed, U.S. civilian intelligence agencies pretty much agree that the war is going badly and the situation is not likely to improve—the Times’ position is a formula for continuing the war.

The 2010 “surge” of troops into Afghanistan has been largely a bust. The south, where most troops went, is quieter, but hardly pacified, and insurgent attacks have increased in other areas of the country, particularly in the east and the north. This past year has been the deadliest for both Coalition troops and Afghan civilians.

Is what the Times wants? Indeed, wants it so badly that it won’t report that there has been a major diplomatic breakthrough? If you don’t print the news that you don’t like, it didn’t happen?

Boy, that’s a relief.

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The Great Game’s New Clothes

The Great Game’s New Clothes

Dispatches From The Edge

May 5, 2011

According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Leon Panetta, the U.S. never informed Pakistan about the operation to assassinate al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin because it thought the Pakistanis could “jeopardize the mission” by tipping off the target.

Maybe, and maybe not. This is, after all, the ground over which the 19th century “Great Game” was played, the essence of which was obfuscation. What you thought you saw or knew was not necessarily what was.

The “official” story is that three CIA helicopters—one for backup—took off from Jalalabad, Afghanistan and flew almost 200 miles to Abbottabad, most of it through Pakistani airspace. Pakistan scrambled jets, but the choppers still managed to land, spend 40 minutes on the ground, and get away.

Is it possible the helicopters really did dodge Pakistani radar? During the Cold War a West German pilot flew undetected through the teeth of the Soviet air defense system and landed his plane in Red Square, so yes. Choppers are slow, but these were stealth varieties and fairly quiet. But at top speed, the Blackhawks would have needed about an hour each way, plus the 40 minutes on the ground. That is a long time to remain undetected, particularly in a town hosting three regiments of the Pakistani Army, plus the Kakul Military Academy, the country’s equivalent of West Point. Abbottabad is also 35 miles from the capital, Islamabad, and the region is ringed with anti-aircraft sites.

Still, it is possible, except there is an alternative scenario that not only avoids magical thinking about what choppers can do, but better fits the politics of the moment: that Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) knew where Bin Ladin was and fingered him, estimating that his death would accelerate negotiations with the Taliban. Why now? Because for the first time in this long war, U.S. and Pakistani interests coincide.

Gen. Hammad Gul, former head of the ISI, told the Financial Times on May 3 that the ISI knew where he was, but regarded him as “inactive.” Writing in the May 5 Guardian (UK), author Tariq Ali says that a “senior” ISI official told him back in 2006 that the spy organization knew where bin Ladin was, but had no intention of arresting him because he was “The goose that laid the golden egg.” In short, the hunt for the al-Qaeda leader helped keep the U.S. aid spigot open.

Indeed, bin Ladin may have been under house arrest, which would explain the absence of trained bodyguards. By not allowing the al-Qaeda leader a private militia, the ISI forced him to rely on it for protection. And if they then dropped a dime on him, they knew he would be an easy target. As to why he was killed, not captured, neither the U.S. nor Pakistan wanted him alive, the former because of the judicial nightmare his incarceration would involve, the latter because dead men tell no tales.

As for the denials: the last thing the ISI wants is to be associated with the hit, since it could end up making the organization a target for Pakistan’s home-grown Taliban. If the ISI knew, so did the Army, though not necessarily at all levels. Did the Army turn a blind eye to the U.S. choppers? Who knows?

What we do know for certain is that there is a shift in Pakistan and the U.S. with regards to the Afghan war.

On the U.S. side, the war is going badly, and American military and intelligence agencies are openly warring with one another. In December the U.S. intelligence community released a study indicating that progress was minimal and that the 2009 surge of 30,000 troops had produced only tactical successes: “There remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency.”  The Pentagon counter-attacked in late April with a report that the surge had been “a strategic defeat for the Taliban,” and that the military was making “tangible progress in some really key areas.”

It is not an analysis agreed with by our NATO allies, most of which are desperate to get their troops out of what they view as a deepening quagmire. A recent WikiLeak cable quotes Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Union, saying “No one believes in Afghanistan anymore. But we will give it 2010 to see results.” He went on to say Europe was only going along “out of deference to the United States.”  Translation: NATO support is falling apart.

Recent shifts by the Administration seem to signal that the White House is backing away from the surge and looking for ways to wind down the war. The shift of Gen. David Petraeus to the CIA removes the major U.S. booster of the current counterinsurgency strategy, and moving Panetta to the Defense Department puts a savvy political infighter with strong Democratic Party credentials into the heart of Pentagon. Democrats are overwhelmingly opposed to the war but could never get a hearing from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican.

The last major civilian supporter of the war is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but Gates, her main ally, will soon be gone, as will Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. The shuffle at the top is hardly a “night of the long knives,” but the White House has essentially eliminated or sidelined those in the administration who pushed for a robust war and long-term occupation.

A surge of sanity? Well, at least some careful poll reading. According to the Associated Press, six in 10 Americans want out of the war. Among Democrats 73 percent want to be out in a year, and a USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 72 percent of Americans want Congress to address an accelerated withdrawal. With the war now costing $8 billion a month, these numbers are hardly a surprise.

Pakistan has long been frustrated with the U.S.’s reluctance to talk to the Taliban, and, from Islamabad’s perspective, the war is largely being carried out at their expense. Pakistan has suffered tens of thousands of civilian and military casualties in what most Pakistanis see as an American war, and the country is literally up in arms over the drone attacks.

The Pakistani Army has been deployed in Swat, South Waziristan, and Bajaur, and the U.S. is pressing it to invade North Waziristan. One Pakistani grumbled to the Guardian (UK), “What do they [the U.S.] want us to do? Declare war on our whole country?” For the 30 million Pashtuns in the northwest regions, the Pakistani Army is foreign in language and culture, and Islamabad knows that it will eventually be seen as an outside occupier.

A poll by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan’s northwest—home and refuge to many of the insurgents fighting in Afghanistan—found some 80 percent oppose the U.S. war on terror, almost nine in every 10 people oppose U.S. attacks on the Taliban, and three quarters oppose the drone attacks.

The bottom line is that Pakistan simply cannot afford to continue the war, particularly as they are still trying to dig themselves out from under last year’s massive floods.

In April, Pakistan’s top military, intelligence and political leadership decamped to Kabul to meet with the government of Harmid Karzai. The outcome of the talks is secret, but they appear to have emboldened the parties to press the U.S. to start talking. According to Ahmed Rashid, author of “Taliban” and “Descent into Chaos,” the White House is moving “the fledgling peace process forward” and will “push to broker an end to the war.” This includes dropping “its preconditions that the Taliban sever links with al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution before holding face-to-face talks.”

Given that in 2008 the Taliban agreed to not allow any “outside” forces in the country and pledged not to pose a danger to any other country, including those in the West, this demand has already been met. As for the constitution, since it excluded the Taliban it will have to be re-negotiated in any case.

While there appears to be a convergence of interests among the major parties, negotiations promise to be a thorny business.

The Pentagon will resist a major troop drawdown. There is also opposition in Afghanistan, where Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities are deeply suspicious of the Taliban. The Karzai government also appears split on the talks, although recent cabinet shuffles have removed some of the more anti-Pakistan leaders.

Then there is the Taliban, which is hardly a centralized organization, especially since U.S. drone attacks and night raids have effectively removed more experienced Taliban leaders, leaving younger and more radical fighters in charge. Can Taliban leader Mullah Omar deliver his troops? That is not a given.

Both other insurgent groups—the Haqqani Group and Hizb-i-Islami—have indicated they are open to negotiations, but the Americans will have a hard time sitting down with the Haqqanis. The group has been implicated in the deaths of numerous U.S. and coalition forces. To leave the Haqqani Group out, however, will derail the whole process.

The U.S. would like to exclude Iran, but as Rashid points out, “No peace process in Afghanistan can succeed without Iran’s full participation.” And then there is India. Pakistan sees Indian involvement in Afghanistan as part of New Delhi’s strategy to surround Pakistan, and India accuses Pakistan of harboring terrorists who attack Indian-controlled Kashmir and launched the horrendous 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 166 people.

Murphy’s Law suggests that things are more likely to end in chaos than reasoned diplomacy. But self-interest is a powerful motivator, and all parties, including India, stands to gain something by ending the war. India very much wants to see the 1,050-mile TAPI pipeline built, as it will carry gas from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Fazilka, India.

A lot is at stake, and if getting the peace process going involved taking out Osama bin Ladin. Well, in the cynical world of the “Great Game,” to make an omelet, you have to break eggs.

Back in the Victorian era the British Army marched off singing a song:

“We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do/

We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and we’ve got the money too”

But in the 21st century most our allies’ armies don’t want to fight, ships are useless in Afghanistan, there aren’t enough men, and everyone is broke.

For 33 years the people of Afghanistan have been bombed, burned, shot, tortured and turned into refugees. For at least the moment the pieces are aligned to bring this awful war to an end. It is time to close the book on the “Great Game” and bring the troops home.

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Pakistan’s Nukes: The U.S. Connection

 

Pakistan’s Nukes :The U.S. Connection

Dispatches From The Edge

March 8, 2011

 

Washington—New American intelligence assessments have concluded that Pakistan has steadily expanded its nuclear arsenal since President Obama came to office…for the Obama administration the assessment poses a direct challenge to a central element of the President’s national security strategy, the reduction of nuclear stockpiles around the world.”—New York Times

 

The above words, written this past February, were followed by a Times editorial, titled “Pakistan’s Nuclear Folly,” decrying that “the weapons buildup has gotten too little attention,” and calling on Washington to “look for points of leverage” to stop it.

 

Well, the administration and the Times may be unhappy about Pakistan’s nuclear buildup, but it certainly should not have come as a surprise, nor is there much of a secret to the “points of leverage” that would almost certainly put a stopper on it: scupper the so-called 1-2-3 Agreement between the U.S. and India.

 

Back in 2003, Douglas Feith, then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Bush Administration, pulled together a meeting of the U.S.-India Defense Policy Group to map out a blueprint for pulling New Delhi into an alliance against China. The code word used during the discussions was “stability,” but as P.R. Chari of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies noted, “What they really mean is how to deal with China.”

 

The Bush administration changed the Clinton Administration’s designation of China as a “strategic partner” to “strategic competitor,” and in its U.S.-China Security Review concluded that Beijing is “in direct competition with us for influence in Asia and beyond” and that in “the worst case this could lead to war.” Another Pentagon document revealed by Jane’s Foreign Report argued that both India and the U.S. were threatened by China, and that “India should emerge as a vital component of US strategy.”

 

One of the obstacles to that alliance was the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which blocks any country that is not a signer from buying nuclear fuel on the world market. Since neither India nor Pakistan has signed the Treaty, they can’t buy fuel from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group. That has been particularly hard on India because it has few native uranium sources and has to split those between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. The ban, however, is central to the NPT, and one of the few checks on nuclear proliferation.

 

But the Bush administration proposed bypassing the NPT with the so-called 1-2-3 Agreement that permitted India to purchase nuclear materials even though New Delhi refused to sign the Treaty. India would agree to use the nuclear fuel only in its civilian plants and open those plants for inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But the Agreement also allowed India to divert its own domestic supplies to its weapons program, and those plants would remain off the inspection grid. In short, India would no longer have to choose between nuclear power and nuclear weapons: it could have both.

 

In July 2008, Pakistan’s then Foreign Minister Khurshid Kusuri predicted that if the 1-2-3 Agreement went through, “The whole Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will unravel,” and, in a letter to the IAEA, Pakistan warned that the pact “threatens to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent.”

 

However, neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration paid any attention to Pakistan’s complaints. The results were predictable.  Pakistan ramped up its nuclear weapons program and may soon pass Britain as the fifth largest nuclear weapons nation in the world.

 

It also dug in its heels at the 65-nation 2011 Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and blocked a proposal to halt the production of nuclear weapons-making material.  The 1-2-3 Agreement and the push to bring India into the Nuclear Suppliers group, warned Ambassador Zamir Akram, were “undermining the validity and sanctity of the international non-proliferation regime” and would “further destabilize security in South Asia.” The Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) is a priority for the Obama administration.

 

Islamabad is not alone in its criticism of the 1-2-3 Agreement or the FMCT. A number of nations are challenging NPT signers, including the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France, to fulfill Article VI of the NPT that requires the elimination of nuclear weapons. While the U.S. and Russia have reduced their arsenals, both still have thousands of weapons, and the Americans are in the process of modernizing their current warheads.

 

Pakistan is a far smaller country than India, and would likely face defeat in a conventional conflict. It has already lost three wars to India. Its ace in the hole is nuclear weapons, and some Pakistanis have a distressingly casual view of nuclear war. “You can die crossing the street, or you could die in a nuclear war,” remarked former Pakistan army chief Gen. Mirza Aslem Beg. A BBC poll found that the Pakistani public has an “abysmally low” understanding of the threat.

 

Many Indians are not much better. Former Indian Defense Minister Georges Fernandes commented that “India can survive a nuclear attack, but Pakistan cannot.” And that same BBC poll found that for most Indians “the terror of a nuclear conflict is hard to imagine.”

 

Both countries have recently rolled out cruise missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The Pakistani Hatf-7, or “Babur,” has a range of almost 500 miles and a speed of 550 miles. It appears to have been copied from the U.S. BGM-109 “Tomahawk,” several of which crashed in Pakistan during 1998 air strikes against Afghanistan. The Indian PJ-10 BrahMos cruise has a shorter range—180 miles—but a top speed of 2100 mph. India and Pakistan also have ballistic missiles capable of striking major cities in both countries.

 

In its editorial declaiming Pakistan as guilty of “nuclear folly,” the Times pointed out that “Pakistan cannot feed its people [or] educate its children.” Neither can India. As a 2010 United Nations Development Program report discovered, as bad as things are in Pakistan, life expectancy is lower in India, and the gap between rich and poor is greater. In fact, neither country can afford large militaries—Pakistan spends 35 percent of its budget on arms, and India is in the middle of a $40 billion military spending spree—and a nuclear war would not only destroy both countries, but also profoundly affect the entire globe.

 

Nuclear weapons are always folly, but what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The U.S. currently spends in excess of $1 trillion a year on all defense and security related items, while our education system is starving, our infrastructure is collapsing, and hunger and illiteracy are spreading.  If the Times wants to ratchet down tensions in South Asia, let it call for dumping the 1-2-3 Agreement and beginning the process called for in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measure relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty of general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

 

 

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Pakistan, China, and the CIA

The CIA, Pakistan & Tangled Webs

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 27, 2011

Was American CIA agent Raymond Davis secretly working with the Taliban and al-Qaeda to destabilize Pakistan and lay the groundwork for a U.S. seizure of that country’s nuclear weapons? Was he photographing sensitive military installations and marking them with a global positioning device? Did he gun down two men in cold blood to prevent them from revealing what he was up to? These are just a few of the rumors ricocheting around Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar in the aftermath of Davis’s arrest Jan. 27, and sorting through them is a little like stepping through Alice’s looking glass.

But one thing is certain: the U.S. has hundreds of intelligence agents working in Pakistan, most of them private contractors, and many of them so deep in the shadows that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), doesn’t know who they are or what they are up to. “How many more Raymond Davises are out there?” one ISI official asked Associated Press.

Lots, it would appear. Five months ago, the Pakistani government directed its embassies in the U.S. to issue visas without letting the ISI or Pakistan’s Interior Ministry vet them. According to the Associated Press, this opened a “floodgate” that saw 3,555 visas for diplomats, military officials and employees issued in 2010.

Many of those visas were for non-governmental organizations and the staff for the huge, $1 billion fortress embassy Washington is building in Islamabad, but thousands of others covered consular agents and workers in Lahore (where Davis was arrested), Karachi and other cities. Some of those with visas work for Xe Services (formally Blackwater), others for low-profile agencies like Blackbird Technologies, Glevum Associates, and K2 Solutions. Many of the “employees” of these groups are former U.S. military personnel—Davis was in the Special Forces for 10 years—and former CIA agents. And the fact that these are private companies allows them to fly under the radar of congressional oversight, as frail a reed as that may be.

How one views the incident that touched off the current diplomatic crisis is an example of how deep the differences between Pakistan and the U.S. have become.

The Americans claim Davis was carrying out surveillance on radical insurgent groups, and was simply defending himself from two armed robbers.  But Davis’s story has problems. It does appear that the two men on the motorbike were armed, but neither fired their weapon and, according to the police report, one did not even have a shell in his pistol’s firing chamber. Davis apparently fired through the window of his armored SUV, then stepped out of the car and shot the two men in the back, one while attempting to flee. He then calmly took photos, called for backup, climbed into his car, and drove off. He was arrested shortly afterwards at an intersection.

The Pakistanis have a different view of the incident. According to Pakistani press reports, the two men were working for the ISI and were trailing Davis because the intelligence agency suspected that the CIA agent was in contact with the Tehrik-e-Taliban, a Pakistani group based in North Waziristan that is currently warring with Islamabad. As an illustration of how bizarre things are these days in Pakistan, one widespread rumor is that the U.S. is behind the Tehtik-e-Taliban bombings as part of a strategy to destabilize Pakistan and lay the groundwork for an American seizure of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal.

The ISI maintains close ties with the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, as well as its allies, the Hizb-e-Islami and the Haqqani Group. All three groups are careful to keep a distance from Pakistan’s Taliban

Yet another rumor claims that Davis was spying on Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group with close ties to the ISI that is accused of organizing the 2008 massacre in Mumbai, India. The Americans claim the organization is working with al-Qaeda, a charge the Pakistanis reject.

When Davis’s car was searched, police turned up not only the Glock semi-automatic he used to shoot the men, but four loaded clips, a GPS device, and a camera. The latter, according to the police report, had photos of “sensitive” border sites. “This is not the work of a diplomat,” Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah told the Guardian (UK), “he was doing espionage and surveillance activities.”

The shooting also had the feel of an execution. One of the men was shot twice in the back and his body was more than 30 feet from the motorbike, an indication he was attempting to flee. “It went way beyond what we define as self-defense, “ a senior police official told the Guardian (UK), “It was not commensurate with the threat.” The Lahore Chief of Police called it a “cold-blooded murder.”

The U.S. claims that Davis is protected by diplomatic immunity, but the matter might not be as open and shut as the U.S. is making it. According to the Pakistani Express Tribune, Davis’s name was not on a list of diplomats submitted to Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry on Jan. 25. The day after the shooting the embassy submitted a revised list that listed Davis as a diplomat.

Washington clearly considered Davis to be important. When he asked for backup on the day of the shooting, another SUV was dispatched to support him, apparently manned by agents living at the same safe house as Davis. The rescue mission went wrong when it ran over a motorcyclist while going the wrong direction down a one-way street. When the Pakistani authorities wanted to question the agents, they found that both had been whisked out of the country.

Almost immediately the Obama administration sent Sen. John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to Islamabad to apologize and pressure Pakistan to release Davis. But the incident has stirred up a hornet’s nest in Pakistan, where the CIA’s drone war has deeply alienated most Pakistanis. Opposition parties are demanding that the CIA agent be tried for murder. A hearing on the issue of whether Davis has diplomatic immunity will be heard Mar. 14.

In the meantime, Davis is being held under rather extraordinary security because of rumors that the Americans will try to spring him, or even poison him. Davis is being shielded from any direct contact with U.S. officials, and a box of chocolates sent to Davis by the Embassy was confiscated.

The backdrop for the crisis is a growing estrangement between the two countries over their respective strategies in Afghanistan.

The U.S. has stepped up its attacks on the Afghan insurgents, launched a drone war in Pakistan, and is demanding that Islamabad take a much more aggressive stance toward the Taliban’s allies based in the Afghan border region. While Washington still talks about a “diplomatic resolution” to the Afghan war, it is busy blowing up the very people it will eventually need to negotiate with.

This approach makes no sense to Pakistan. From Islamabad’s point of view, increasing attacks on the Taliban and their allies will only further destabilize Pakistan, and substitutes military victory for a diplomatic settlement. Since virtually every single independent observer think the former is impossible, the current U.S. strategy is, as terror expert Anatol Lieven puts it, “lunatic reasoning.”

Pakistan wants to insure that any Afghan government that emerges from the war is not a close ally of India, a country with which it has already fought three wars. A pro-Indian government in Kabul would essentially surround Pakistan with hostile forces. Yet the Americans have pointedly refused to address the issue of Indian-Pakistan tension over Kashmir, in large part because Washington very much wants an alliance with India.

In short, the U.S. and Pakistan don’t see eye to eye on Afghanistan, and Islamabad is suspicious that Americans like Davis are undermining Pakistan’s interests in what Islamabad views as an area central to its national security. “They [the U.S.] need to come clean and tell us who they [agents] are, what they are doing,” one ISI official told the Guardian (UK). “They need to stop doing things behind our back.”

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the matter. Was the ISI onto Davis, and was he really in contact with groups the Pakistani army didn’t want him talking to? What did Washington know about Davis’ mission, and when did it know it? Did Davis think he was being held up, or was it a cold-blooded execution of two troublesome tails?

Rumor has it that the CIA and the ISI are in direct negotiations to find an acceptable solution, but there are constraints on all sides. The Pakistani public is enraged with the U.S. and resents that it has been pulled into the Afghan quagmire. On the other hand, there are many in Washington—particularly in Congress—who are openly talking about cutting off the $1.5 billion of yearly U.S. aid to Pakistan.

What the incident has served to illuminate is the fact that U.S. intelligence operations are increasingly being contracted out to private companies with little apparent oversight from Congress. At last count, the U.S. Defense Department had almost 225,000 private contractors working for them.

The privatization of intelligence adds yet another layer of opacity to an endeavor that is already well hidden by a blanket of “national security,” and funded by black budgets most Americans never see. The result of all this is a major diplomatic crisis in what is unarguably the most dangerous piece of ground on the planet.

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