February 24, 2010

Taliban-ISI Conspiracies Hit the Turbo

Blame the press. Blame skeptics, cynics, dissidents, rebels, terrorists, and conspiracy theorists. It doesn’t matter. The only ones actually at fault are America and Pakistan’s governments and militaries and their past behavior.

No one else is to blame for why so many have questioned whether Pakistan’s joint CIA-arrest of Taliban general Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, along with a handful of mid level al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders, is a “significant development” or not.

For one thing the phrase “significant development” pops up in every US speech, as if keyboards were passed out with a special key for the term. Officialdom speak at its finest.

“There is very little I am going to say here on this subject but it is a significant development,” US envoy Richard Holbrooke told reporters in Kabul last week.

The White House and US military leaders including Mullen, Gates, Jones, and Petraeus would follow suit.

"It is obvious that there have been a number of important detentions in Pakistan,” General Petraeus told reporters in Islamabad yesterday. “It is very clear that there have been some significant intelligence operations. There have been some important breakthroughs. I don't want to overstate this though either, because again there are a number of bad guys out there, but these have been significant.”

Any attempt at multidimensional counterinsurgency should be applauded, and it's hard to begrudge America for launching a propaganda assault after Baradar’s arrest. For too long the US military has ignored the propaganda effects inside a conflict, mainly focusing on influencing propaganda back home and internationally.

The current strategy may not work as planned (their saturation campaign is backfiring, creating the appearance of even greater US dependency), but political and military officials are fulfilling their pledge to be on top of every story inside Pakistan.

Baradar’s arrest is also playing well in America, having corresponded - some might say timed - perfectly with Operation Marjah. President Obama was dying for a boost in Afghanistan and this will do for now. Still the skeptics, or cynics as he often mistakes them for, are numerous and come armed with valid doubts.

The most prominent theory is that Pakistan seized Baradar and Taliban negotiations along with him. Some believe Islamabad is transitioning from manipulating the Taliban on the battlefield to holding them as bargaining chips at the negotiating table, safely away from Washington and Kabul’s clutches.

The BBC reports
, “Sources in Kabul say he and his envoys have been involved in secret talks with the Afghan president in Kabul, his representatives in southern Afghanistan and outside the country.”

“This may be good for public opinion but, for us, it can have a negative impact,” said one senior Afghan official. "It was easier for us to talk to him.”

The BBC also claims, “Reports from Kandahar last month speculated that Mullah Baradar would soon be arrested because of growing tensions with Mullah Omar,” a poor sign in itself that Baradar’s arrest will lead to a real breakthrough against Omar.

Though skepticism must have been anticipated from the Pentagon, or should have, US officials remain irked by the media aftermath.

Many, including Holbrooke, Gates, and Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, have brushed aside doubts as best they can. Petraeus himself dismissed speculation that Pakistan moved against Baradar and others because they were involved in talks with the Afghan government and it grabbed a seat at the table by arresting them.

''I wouldn't share your characterizations that, in a sense, (the Pakistanis) have always had this intelligence,” he said. “What has happened is that there has been some important breakthroughs.''

Yet the notion that Pakistan is stealing negotiations is certainly true to some degree. Why wouldn’t Pakistan want as many Taliban assets in its possession? The reason this is perceived as a problem is because America and Afghanistan want them too.

It’s also more logical that America is trying to sabotage ongoing the dialogue with the Taliban, hoping to defeat it militarily before being forced to negotiate a settlement. Pinning the perception on Pakistan could thus be part of a double-conspiracy.

But Petraeus speaks inadvertent truth when he says, "As always, there's no single factor or explanation for what has taken place. Rather it's a multi-varied equation.”

With all the focus trained on Taliban negotiations, the specter of US threats have flown under the radar.

America demanded action from Pakistan not once but three times, in North Waziristan, Quetta, and Karachi. Each time the message was “do it or we’ll do it.” Pakistan refused to launch another operation in North Waziristan after South Waziristan and the drones launched en masse. The same fate might have befallen Quetta, and the message was relayed again after Bruce Riedel announced the Taliban’s purported Quetta Shura had relocated to Karachi. The US Senate was just briefed on this topic.

Pakistan had to eventually act or America very well could have. It understands the last thing it needs is a CIA raid in Karachi that nabs a Taliban general under its nose. The embarrassment would be a disaster at the political, military, and media levels.

Pakistan, aside from valid reasons to control negotiations, was acting under orders from the barrel of a gun. It had to relieve the pressure from Washington before the CIA or JSOC (or Blackwater) blew.

In support of Pakistan’s alternative motives to assisting America rests a report, without proven validity, that confirms the suspicions of many. Adnkronos Security claims that every Taliban commander Pakistan arrested outside of Bardar had direct ties to the ISI.

An anonymous “strategic analyst” suggests Pakistan took action because, “army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani was looking to win favor with Washington, and create pressure on Islamabad to avoid retirement in November and extend his term.”

Viewing this theory on the grand scale Pakistan is deep in play with its pawns, removing those in danger from the board to shield them or use them on the political battlefield, possibly putting them back into play at a later date, sacrificing those it can or must. In this way Pakistan could relieve pressure from America with well-timed “arrests,” like a submarine ballast, or else risk ending up a volcano.

The single greatest threat of conspiracies is how logical they often sound.

Pakistan apparently concealed its catch from America for several days partially in fear of domestic political furry. Baradar’s arrest may ultimately prove “significant” to US-Pakistani relations, but it stands to reason that, given the absence of growth in any area outside the military sphere, that real progress remains superficial for the time being.

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