January 15, 2010

Playing God

A new day brings an old game. US and Pakistani intelligence scramble to confirm the death of TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud, but we’ve seen this game before and we know how it ends. It doesn’t end.

While US officials keep telling Americans that they understand counterinsurgency, their actions continue to show us they don’t.

First play the game. TTP spokesman Azam Tariq took an unusual step of calling the Daily Times, AFP, and Reuters to inform them that Mehsud had escaped a flurry of Hellfire missiles that rained on the Shaktoee area, which straddles North and South Waziristan.

“These media reports are just lies, and I have spoken to Hakimullah... he is safe,” Tariq told reporters. “Hakimullah Mehsud was present at the same place in Shaktoee where the drone struck... but he had left the area already when the drone attack took place. He is alive and completely safe.”

A deliberate media campaign is one of two things: an attempt to preempt the Western media before it starts running, or confirmation that Mehsud is in fact dead. Calling anyone from Waziristan is risky so if Mehsud was still alive, why not just sit back and let the world bicker?

Several Pakistani officials leaned towards Mehsud’s survival; the AP news agency quoted intelligence officials as saying that Hakimullah was not among the victims, but those sniffing Mehsud’s death outnumbered them. A high government official claimed, “I can 80 per cent confirm that he is dead but I am waiting for more credible evidence.”

Let’s make this easy.

If Mehsud is alive he’s alive, but assume for now that he’s dead. Now what? Is Pakistan safer tomorrow? Does America’s war in Afghanistan look a little brighter? On the contrary, killing Hakimullah appears to be either inconsequential or a mistake.

Back in August a great cheer went up as Baitullah Mehsud, the former TTP chief, was killed in a drone strike. US and Pakistani officials declared a small victory. though many more realized the ugly truth: the TTP goes 10 deep in its leadership ranks.

The same reaction is playing out over Hakimullah. As big as the fish is, the tank is still full of sharks. But even this view misses the deeper point.

The TTP’s leadership isn’t just stalked with willing commanders, though we will get to that shortly. Pakistan has become America’s experiment where it tests the latest counter-terrorism tactics and technology. Yet this experiment, rather than a formal scientific investigation, has the feel of a child and his ant farm, subject to fits of madness.

America is trying to play God in Pakistan, an impossibility.

When asked about Hakimullah’s death, US envoy Richard Holbooke responded that, “He’s a very bad person. He either is or was a very bad person and either way he’s as bad a person as there has been in this region for a long time.”

What Holbrooke leaves out is that Baitullah’s death opened up the throne for Hakimullah - a pure al-Qaeda disciple. It’s not just that Baitullah had many possible successors, changing the TTP’s leadership is inherently dangerous. Pakistan exploded in violence after Hakilmullah assumed power as he attempted to merge al-Qaeda with the TTP.

Taking out Baitullah made the situation worse, not better.

To an extent Hakilmullah played into America’s hands by turning all of Pakistan into a war zone. Bad for Pakistanis, but good for Washington since the TTP’s popularity finally plummeted. The time was ripe to be a good partner with Islamabad, if only President Obama was sincere.

But he and his officials have been as quick to dictate to a dictator as to the democracy that overthrew him. Controlled chaos became exposed and US popularity failed to increase as the TTP’s decreased.

Conversely, eliminating Hakimullah seems to serve Pakistan’s interests, but not America’s. Next in line is Wali-ur-Rehman, commander of South Waziristan, followed by Faqir Mohammad of Bajuar. Both maintain a distance from al-Qaeda in comparison to Hakimullah, are older, considered wiser, and low key.

They’ll be harder to kill than the free-wheeling Hakimullah - and they probably want him out of the way. Rehman in particular is said to oppose bombing Pakistanis, meaning he’s likely to tone down the war in Pakistan. This should theoretically dampen anti-TTP sentiment, if just a little, which may impact future army operations.

Rehman also issued the unsubstantiated claim that he’s moving fighters into Afghanistan to bolster the Taliban ahead of President Obama’s surge, and is considered closer to Mullah Omar than Hakimullah.

Rehman will likely to shift the focus back on Afghanistan if made TTP chief, then America can forget about Islamabad’s help. It’s already unwilling and incapable of going all out on the TTP when it’s terrorizing Pakistan. Killing Hakimullah is going to put a seasoned commander on the throne.

How does this constitute an American victory?

Counter-terrorism has a place in counterinsurgency, but it should form one slice of America’s ultimate strategy. Not the tip of the spear but the pommel - leading with counter-terrorism nullifies the rest of the spear. America must lead with counterinsurgency, emphasizing political and social progress, and backstop it with counter-terrorist operations when necessary.

Or else the cycle will never end.

We don’t enjoy picking on Senator Levin but he’s literally on fire - whatever he touches turns to flame. Complaining about Pakistan's complaining [of drones], he believes, "creates real problems for us in terms of the Pakistani public and helps create some real animosity towards us – a sense of revenge, the implication that we're violating Pakistan's sovereignty.”

Perhaps if America forged a sincere relationship with Pakistan it wouldn’t feel the need to criticize drone strikes in public every single time.

As the situation stands they have drones, Blackwater, India, airport security searches are just the surface complaints to a highly unpopular American government. A healthy relationship with Pakistan, based on equal interests and trust, might remove the need for Islamabad to criticize any US action, including drones.

But let’s be real. Blaming Pakistan for creating “a sense of revenge” is the cheapest of moves considering America’s history in the region. Don’t blame Pakistan for the mess created by US government leadership in both the executive and legislative branches.

Worse, who’s actually creating revenge? The CIA, who was bombed by Hakimullah.

“Hakimullah's death would be sweet revenge for the US spy agency,” reports the UK’s Independent, indicating who really turns the cycle. A senior Pakistani security official told the Financial Times, "For the Americans, Hakimullah Mehsud is now their public enemy number one. They want to target him at any cost.”

Regardless of whether that cost is Pakistani public perception, relations with Islamabad, and a widening war in Afghanistan. Killing Hakimullah has nothing to do with improving Pakistan or Afghanistan. It’s pure revenge.

There’s no counterinsurgency - and nothing Godly - in that.


  1. Dwight and James: A short blog review: Followed a post from NYT comment page to your blog. Clever marketing. Anyway, I applaud your aims at objectivity and self proclaimed 'expert' status - although I'm not sure why. On the plus side, your analysis is solid. You guys clearly read all the good stuff on COIN related fields and you might have day jobs with lanyards. However, your delivery is off-putting. As a reader I find over dramatic phrases like "The US is trying to play God in Afghanistan, an impossibility" to be patronizing and amateurish. And while I'm at it, what's with the sci-fi/aquaman motif? The black background and terms like "trench", "octopus mt.", and photos of creepy-ass sea creatures are not inspiring. A little too close to D&D for my liking. In short, you are going to have to throwdown a lot more intellectual weight in your posts if you hope to live up to your thematics. Take your foot off the gas. Lighten up the tone.

  2. Thank you for the constructive criticism. We actually agree on numerous areas, being aware this may get confusing at times. Not that we compare ourselves to creepy deep-sea creatures, but at this moment we aren't so different either. We aren't Harvard and don't have the intellectual guns that others may have. That's why we're in the Trench. This is merely a test site, the first phase of a future website we're planning to be clean and centered entirely on foreign policy.

    As for the content, we're searching for a medium here too. We won't deny that we can get harsh, but a lot of what we're dealing with is harsh and ugly. Foreign policy is grimy, not glamorous, and our patronizing is usually a reaction to patronization from US officials. Our writing is still a work in process though and we will improve. We're fairly young, relatively speaking. And for the record we've never played D&D.

    But again, thank you for the feedback. It was pretty on target.