Monthly Archives: October 2011

Pakistan: Reversing The Lens

Pakistan: Reversing The Lens

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Oct. 26, 2011

“Terrorism is not a statistic for us.”—Asif Ali Zardari, president of Pakistan

This is a Pakistani truism that few Americans understand. Since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, Pakistan has lost more than 35,000 people, the vast bulk of them civilians. While the U.S. has had slightly over 1800 soldiers killed in the past 10 years, Pakistan has lost over 5,000 soldiers and police. The number of suicide bombings in Pakistan has gone from one before 2001, to more than 335 since.

For most Americans, Pakistan is a two-faced “ally” playing a double game in Central Asia, all while siphoning off tens of billions of dollars in aid. For Pakistanis, the spillover from the Afghan war has cost Islamabad approximately of $100 billion. And this is in a country with a yearly GDP of around $175 billion, and whose resources have been deeply strained by two years of catastrophic flooding.

Washington complains that its $20.7 billion in aid over the past nine years has bought it very little in the way of loyalty from Islamabad, while Pakistan points out that U.S. aid makes up less than 0.3 percent of Pakistan’s yearly GDP, what Zahid Hussain, author of a book on Islamic militants, says comes out to “the price of a six-inch personal-size pizza with no extra toppings from Pizza Hut” for each Pakistani. In any case, much of the civilian aid—the bulk, $14.2 billion, goes to the military—has yet to be disbursed.

Both countries’ opinions of one another are almost mirror images: According to a U.S. poll, 74 percent of Americans do not consider Pakistan to be an ally, while the Pew Research Center found that six in 10 Pakistanis consider the Americans an “enemy,” and only 12 Percent have a favorable view of the U.S.

How did this happen? In part the answer is mistakes and misjudgments by both countries that date back to the 1979-89 Russian occupation. But at its heart is an American strategy that not only runs counter to Pakistan’s interests, but will make ending the war in Afghanistan a far more painful procedure than it need be.

If Pakistan is a victim in the long running war, it is not entirely an innocent one. Pakistan, along with the U.S., was an ally of the anti-Communist, right wing Mujahideen during the 1980s Afghan war.

Pakistan’s interest in Afghanistan has always been multi-faceted. Islamabad is deeply worried that its traditional enemy, India, will gain a foothold in Afghanistan, thus essentially surrounding Pakistan. This is not exactly paranoid, as Pakistan has fought—and lost—three wars with India, and tensions between the two still remain high.

Over the past six years, India has conducted 10 major military exercises along the Pakistani border, the latest—Viajyee Bhava (Be Victorious)—involved 20,000 troops and what New Delhi military spokesman S.D. Goswaim called “sustained massed mechanized maneuvers.” Pakistan is the only potential enemy in the region that “massed” armored formations could be aimed at. India has the world’s fourth largest army, Pakistan’s the 15th.

By aligning itself with Washington during its Cold War competition with the Soviets in Afghanistan, Islamabad had the inside track to buy high performance American military hardware to help it offset India’s numerical superiority. Indeed, it did manage to purchase some F-16s fighter-bombers.

But in Central Asia, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. When Pakistan allied itself with the Taliban, India aligned itself with the Northern Alliance composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, who opposed the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Pashtuns are a plurality in Afghanistan’s complex mix of ethnicities, and traditionally they dominated the Kabul government.

Islamabad has always been deeply concerned about the Pashtuns, because the ethnic group makes up some 15 percent of Pakistan’s population, and Pashtuns do not recognize the colonial period border—the so-called Durand Line—that forms the current boundary between the two countries.  A long-time fear of Islamabad is that Pakistani Pashtuns could ally themselves to Afghani Pashtuns and form a breakaway country that would fragment Pakistan.

From Islamabad’s point of view, the American demand that it corral the Taliban and the Haqqani Group that operate from mountainous Northwest Frontier and Federally Administrated Tribal Areas of Pakistan might stir up Pashtun nationalism, one of those things that goes bump in the night for most Pakistanis. In any case, the task would be beyond the capabilities of the Pakistan military. In 2009, the Pakistani Army used two full divisions just to reclaim the Swat Valley from local militants, a battle that cost billions of dollars, generated two million refugees, and inflicted heavy casualties.

Current U.S. strategy has exacerbated Pakistan’s problem by putting the Northern Alliance in power, excluding the Pashtuns from any meaningful participation, and targeting the ethnic group’s heartland in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan. According to Hussain, this has turned the war into a “Pashtun war,” and meant, “The Pashtuns in Pakistan would become…strongly allied with both al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

The U.S has also remained silent while India moved aggressively into Afghanistan. On Oct. 4, Kabul and New Delhi inked a “strategic partnership” which, according to the New York Times, “paves the way for India to train and equip Afghan security forces.” The idea of India training Afghan troops is the equivalent of waving a red flag to see if the Pakistani bull will charge.

One pretext for the agreement was the recent assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the Afghan High Peace Council, whom the Karzai government claims was killed by the Taliban under the direction of the Pakistani secret service, the ISI. But evidence linking the Taliban or Pakistan to the hit is not persuasive, and the Taliban and Haqqani Group—never shy about taking the credit for killing people—say they had nothing to do with it.

Pakistan’s ISI certainly maintains a relationship with the Afghan-based Taliban and the Haqqani Group, but former Joint Chiefs of Staff head, Admiral Mike Mullen’s charge that the latter are a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s ISI is simply false. The Haqqanis come from the powerful Zadran Gaum Pushtun tribe based in Paktia and Khost provinces in Afghanistan, and North Wazirstan in Pakistan’s Tribal Area. It was one of the most effective military groupings in the war with the Russians, and is certainly the most dangerous group of fighters in the current war.

When their interests coincide the Haqqanis find common ground with Islamabad, but the idea that Pakistan can get anyone in that region to jump to attention reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the deeply engrained cultural and ethnic currents that have successfully rebuffed outsiders for thousands of years. And in the border region, the Pakistan Army is as much an outsider as is NATO.

There a way out of this morass, but it will require a very different strategy than the one the U.S. is currently following, and one far more attuned to the lens through which most Pakistanis view the war in Afghanistan.

First, the U.S. and its allies must stand down their military offensive—including the drone attacks—against the Taliban and Haqqani Group, and negotiate a ceasefire.

Second, the U.S. must open immediate talks with the various insurgency groups and declare a plan for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. The Taliban—the Haqqanis say they will follow the organization’s lead—has indicated they will no longer insist on a withdrawal of troops before opening talks, but they do want a timetable.

Third, recognition that any government in Kabul must reflect the ethnic make-up of the country.

Fourth, Pakistan’s concerns over Indian influence need to be addressed, including the dangerous issue of Kashmir. President Obama ran on a platform that called for dealing with Kashmir, but subsequently dropped it at the insistence of New Delhi. The issue needs to be put back on the table. The next dust-up between Pakistan and India could go nuclear, which would be a catastrophe of immeasurable proportions.

Pakistan and the U.S. may have profoundly different views of one another, but at least one issue they agree: slightly over 90 percent of Pakistanis would like U.S. troops to go home, and 62 percent of Americans want an immediate cut in U.S. forces. Common ground in this case seems to be based on a strong dose of common sense.




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Libya & Afghanistan: Getting It Wrong

Libya & Afghanistan: The Price of Getting it Wrong

Dispatches From The edge

Conn Hallinan

Oct 12, 2011

“In 1979, when Soviet troops swept into Afghanistan, an angry Jimmy Carter organized an unofficial alliance to give the Soviets ‘their Vietnam’ (which Afghanistan became).” New York Times, 11/9/11

The writer of the above paragraph is Marvin Kalb, a former network correspondent, Harvard professor emeritus, co-author “Haunting legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama.”

It is false history.

As Paul Jay of the Real News (and before him, the French publication Le Nouvel Observateur) discovered, the Carter administration made the decision to intervene in an Afghan civil war fully six months before the Soviet invasion. In a July 1979 “finding” the White House authorized U.S. military and intelligence agencies to supply the anti-communist mujahideen fighters with money and supplies.

The “finding” was the beginning of “Operation Cyclone,” a clandestine plan aimed at luring the Soviets into invading Afghanistan. From a relatively modest $23 million down payment, Cyclone turned into a multi-billion behemoth—the most expensive intelligence operation in U.S. history—and one that eventually forced the Soviets to withdraw.

Cynics might shrug and respond that isn’t truth always the first casualty of war? Except in this case the casualties are still coming in as the U.S. marks its 10th year occupying Afghanistan. And when one totes up the collateral damage from that July 1979 memo, which led to the eventual victory of the Taliban, it chills the soul.

When the mujahideen went home, they took the war with them, to Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Central Asia, North Africa, and a host of other places. They also permanently altered the skyline silhouette of New York City. In the annals of disastrous “blowbacks”—unintended consequences flowing from a policy or event—U.S. support for overthrowing the Afghan government and supporting the mujahideen has little competition.

Ancient history?

On Mar. 18, President Obama told the U.S. Congress that U.S. involvement in the war in Libya would be a matter of “days not weeks.” It turns out, lots of days, 227 and counting.

“It’s really quite interesting how resilient and fierce they’ve been,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ralph J. Jodice II told the New York Times. “We’re all surprised by the tenacity of the pro-Qaddafi forces.”

Besides the rather creepy use of the word “interesting” to describe people you are trying to blow up with 500-pound bombs and Hellfire missiles, the key word in the general’s statement is “surprised.” Aside from destruction, about the only truth of war is surprise. As Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Prussian Army chief of staff, and one of the great military minds of the 19th century, once noted, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

It appears that when the President made those comments, he had been listening to generals, always a very bad idea. President Johnson listened to generals in Vietnam, and they told him some variation of what our current generals obviously told Obama: Piece of cake. We’ll bomb the bejesus out of these Arabs, and in a few days they’ll turn tail and run for the sand dunes.

Except they didn’t.

In the long run the combination of bombing, ground support by British Special Forces, and the unpopularity of the regime will eventually defeat the pro-Qaddafi forces, but because this has turned into a war of some 34-plus weeks, there is going to be some very serious blowback.

For starters, take the 20,000 mobile ground to air missiles, most of which have gone missing. There are two basic kinds that someone—we haven’t the foggiest idea who—has gotten their hands on.

The SA-24 “Grinch”, or Igla-S, is a very dangerous character. It has a range of some three miles, a powerful warhead, and a guidance system that lets it find targets at night. It is similar to the U.S. Stinger that so distressed the Soviets in Afghanistan. Introduced in 1983, it can hit a plane at 11,000 feet. It can also down drones and cruise missiles, and helicopters are toast.

The other ground-to-air is the older Russian SA-7 “Grail,” or Strela-2, originally deployed in the 1968, but upgraded in 1972. It has an infrared detection system—it homes in on an aircraft’s engine heat—and the upgraded model has a filter for screening out decoy flares. The SA-7 is similar, but considerably superior, to the U.S. Redeye. The SA-7 has a range of a little over two miles and can reach up to 16,000 feet.

“We are talking about some 20,000 surface-to-air missiles in all of Libya,” according to Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights emergencies director, who says that “ in every city we arrive, the first thing to disappear are the surface-to-air missiles.” According to Bouckaert, “They could turn all of North Africa into a no-fly zone.”

One prediction: Niger has recently been using helicopters to attack the Tuareg-led Movement of Nigeriens for Justice in the Sahara. Tuaregs are demanding compensation for rich deposits of uranium that French companies are currently mining, and the Niger government has responded with military force. The Qaddafi government supported the Tuaregs in their fight with Niger, and supplied them with weapons. Want to make a bet that the Tuaregs end up with some of those missiles and that the Niger military is about to lose some helicopters?

And the fall of Qaddafi may not end the fighting. Libya is a complex place with strong crosscurrents of tribe and ethnicity. For instance, it is unlikely that the Berbers in the south will accept continued domination by the Arab north.

As for false history: journalism, as the old saw goes, is history’s first draft. According to the mainstream media, the U.S. and NATO got into the Libyan civil war to protect civilians, and indeed, one of the reasons the war has gone on so long is that NATO is reluctant to attack targets in Qaddafi strongholds, like Sirte, because such attacks might result in civilian casualties.

Which makes it hard to explain the Agence France Presse story entitled “NATO, NTC [National Transitional Council] deadlier than Kadhafi diehards: Sirte escapees.”

Sirte, Libya (AFP) Oct. 6, 2011-Fine words from NATO and Libyan new regime fighters about protecting civilians means little to the furious residents of Sirte, whose homes are destroyed and relatives killed in the battle to capture Moamer Kadhafi’s hometown.


“Why is NATO bombing us?” asks Faraj Mussam, whose blue minivan was carrying his family of eight jammed in beside mattresses and suitcases as they fled the city this week.”

According to the AFP story, the greatest danger civilians face in Sirte is from NATO bombs and shelling by NTC forces outside the city. A Red Cross official told AFP that there are still tens of thousands of residents in Sirte—it was a city of 100,000 before the February revolution—and they are under constant danger from artillery and bombs.

“When asked if NATO was fulfilling its mission to protect civilians, one aid worker, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, replied: ‘It wouldn’t seem so.’

 “ ‘There’s a lot of indiscriminate fire,’ he said, adding that many of the Sirte residents and doctors he had spoken to had complained of the deadly results of NATO air strikes.”

According to AFP, NTC soldiers say that firing artillery and rockets into Sirte doesn’t endanger civilians because they are all gone. It is a contention aid workers heatedly dispute.

The UN resolution that authorized the NATO intervention was supposedly aimed at protecting Libyan civilians. It quickly morphed from saving lives to regime change, and somehow the “protect civilians” only seems to apply to those who are on one side of the civil war. Sooner or later that narrative is going to come out, and the next time “protecting civilians” comes up in the UN, it is unlikely to get serious consideration.

More than 30 years ago the U.S. intervened in the Afghan civil war in order to goad our Cold War enemy into a fatal mistake (and then lied about it). We are still paying for that policy.

Eight months ago the U.S. and its allies engineered an intervention in Libya’s civil war behind the cover of protecting civilians, a rationale that is increasingly being challenged by events in that country.

What the “blowback” from the Libyan War is still unclear, it might be a bad idea to invest a lot of your money in commercial air travel, particularly anywhere in Africa, the Middle East or Central Asia. Qaddafi’s days may be numbered, but those SA-24s and SA-7s are going to be around for a long time.


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Why The Drone Wars Threaten Us All

Why The Drone Wars Threaten Us All

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Oct. 3, 2011

Lost in debate over whether the Obama administration had the right to carry out the extra-legal execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Yemini cleric and al-Qaeda member, is who pulled the trigger? It is not a minor question, and it lies at the heart of the 1907 Hague Convention, the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the 1977 additions to the ‘49 agreement: civilians cannot engage in war.

In the main, laws of war focus on the protection of civilians. For instance, Article 48, the “Basic Rule” of Part IV of the 1977 Geneva Conventions, states, “In order to ensure respect for and protection of civilian populations and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between civilian populations and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”

What follows in the 1977 Conventions are nine articles specifying what the general rule means, ranging from prohibitions against attacking power plants and water sources and spreading “terror among civilian populations” to destroying the “natural environment.” There are many civilian-related sections in other parts of the Conventions, but the 10 articles that make up Chapter I, Section I, Part IV on “Civilian Population” are the clearest guidelines about what is allowed when civilians are caught up in war.

The Conventions were mainly a response to the horrors of World War II, where civilian deaths were more than twice those on the military side. Of the approximate 80 million people who died in WW II, 55 million of them were civilians. In comparison, out of some 17 million who died in World War I, seven million were civilians.

The logic behind Article IV of the Conventions is that civilians are innocent bystanders, with no ability to defend themselves or inflict damage on an antagonist. However, if civilians take part in hostilities, they lose their protected status. If the warring parties have an obligation to protect non-combatants, civilians also have obligations, the most important of which is that they do not act as soldiers.

In short, if someone takes a pot shot at you, it is irrelevant if he or she is a civilian, by their actions they are no longer innocent bystanders.  Members of a resistance movement may not wear uniforms or be part of a military organization, but if they blow up your Humvee or ambush your patrol, they are combatants.

Which is why the question of who killed Anwar al-Awlaki (and over 2,000 people in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen killed by drones) is relevant. If the cleric was killed as part of a military operation—as with, for instance the assassination of Osama bin-Laden—then the arguments are around issues like whether we have the right to execute enemies without a trial (the Conventions say we don’t), or violate another nation’s sovereignty.

But al-Awlaki was not taken out by Navy Seals, he was assassinated by a member of the Central Intelligence Agency, the organization that runs the drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. CIA members are civilians. Indeed, the new director, David Petraeus, formally resigned his Army commission to make that point. Even if he had not, however, the CIA is not a military organization and is not under the control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Why is this important?  Because if civilians in the U.S. are killing combatants in another country, then those civilians lose their protection under the Conventions. Worse, it means all U.S. civilians become potential targets. If a CIA employee based in Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, or Djibouti in Africa kills a Pakistani, Somalian, or Afghan with a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone, one can hardly complain if everyday U.S. citizens are targeted for retaliation.

One could argue that, since al-Awlaki was an American citizen, the hit didn’t really contravene the Conventions and the arguments should be over whether you can order the killing of an American citizen without due process. However, others targeted by the drone war—like members of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Group, and the Somali Shabaab—do not fall in this category.

According to the CIA, the drone wars have killed no civilians. “There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop,” John O’Brennan, the Obama administration’s counterterrorism advisor told the New York Times.

That assertion is almost beyond ridiculous. Even a supporter of the drone war like Bill Roggio, editor of The Long War Journal, says the claim is “absurd.” The United Kingdom based Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that out of the 2,292 people killed by drones in Pakistan, 775 of them were civilians. Pakistan journalist Noor Behram puts the total much higher, telling the The Guardian (UK), “For every 10 to 15 people killed [by drones], maybe they get one militant.”

The U.S. claim, however false, allows the drone war to continue. There is nothing in the Conventions that bars lying.

The Obama administration (and the previous Bush administration) argue that drone war is part of the “war on terror” that Congress mandated after the 9/11 attacks: hence we are at “war” with at least the Taliban and its allies, the Shabaab, and al-Qaeda. But the CIA still has no authority to exacute a war. The last two run by the organization—the war in Laos and the Contra war against Nicaragua—were not only unmitigated disasters, they were illegal.

Many countries have already stretched the Geneva Conventions to the breaking point with regards to civilians and the treatment of prisoners. For instance, by using the term “collateral” to describe civilian deaths, a country sidesteps the Convention’s stricture against “deliberate targeting” of civilians by claiming the damage was “inadvertent.” By calling insurgents “combatants” rather than “soldiers,” the U.S. has water boarded people, thus finessing both the Conventions and the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture.

One could get cynical about this—aren’t civilians always the victims of war? —but in their own uneven way, the Geneva Conventions have protected civilians. Indeed, it was the Conventions that led to what is now an almost world wide ban on landmines and may end up eliminating cluster weapons in the future. The fact that laws don’t always work, or that people of ill will figure how to contravene them, is an argument for greater adherence to the rules, not ignoring or contravening them.

The danger is that the U.S. is blurring the difference between civilian and military, and that is a dangerously slippery slope. We already have a former general running the CIA, and former CIA Director Leon Penetta heads up the Defense Department. If we reach a point where there is nothing to distinguish our military institutions from our civilian ones, then all of us are fair game.

Conn Hallinan can also be read at



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