Amid the controversy over America’s use of armed drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, all parties agree on at least one point: psychological warfare.
The US military, on top of killing militants, hopes to frighten new recruits from joining. Locals on the ground, even if opposed to Taliban rule, shutter at the buzz of a Predator patrolling their village at night. And while anti-American elements within Pakistan wield drones to bash Washington’s extensive influence in the country, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has written them into their recruiting propaganda.
But September’s barrage - at least 21 strikes - has magnified another psychological objective recently disclosed by Bob Woodward in his new book Obama’s Wars. Recounting an Oval Office meeting on November 25th, 2009, Woodward describes how President Barack Obama, annoyed by Pakistan’s persistent fence-sitting, told his strategic team that safe havens would no longer be tolerated.
“We need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan," Obama ordered, arguing that escalation in Afghanistan was necessary "so the cancer doesn't spread there."
Although this trend developed before Obama’s fall review, September has crystallized the fact that Washington is employing drones as psychological warfare against the American and NATO publics. Foreign sanctuary is undeniably decisive in counterinsurgency, and appetizing logic for someone looking to shift the responsibility from one conflict zone to another. But Washington is also using drones to excuse Afghanistan’s homegrown conflict by diverting attention to Pakistan.
Yet history demonstrates that America, if not the real cancer, injected Pakistan with its current malady, now misdiagnosed by Obama and applied as psychological warfare. And the truth disproves another of Obama’s political slogans in Afghanistan - the concept of a “good war.”
Like so many of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s current woes, the TTP's origins begin with the ill-fated, US-induced invasion of the Soviet Union. The war turned West Asia into a militant hotbed, not just for al-Qaeda leadership but Pakistani tribesmen and Uzbeks who fought along side their Afghan mujahideen “brothers.” After the war they returned to Pakistan and laid relatively dormant through six years of Taliban rule - until 9/11.
Afghanistan’s war hasn’t simply been under-resourced; its flawed planning stacks up with Iraq’s strategic errors. Although Afghanistan’s justification may appear more legitimate than Iraq’s, the prior US policy of militarization and neglect render this concept a fallacy. America's invasion in 2001 never intended to correct historic and moral wrongs, only to retaliate against al-Qaeda. Washington quickly shifted its attention to Iraq once the Taliban government collapsed, revealing how little America cared of Afghanistan’s “liberation.”
And the Obama administration has similarly abandoned “democracy” in Afghanistan, claiming that securing Pakistani nuclear weapons is the main objective.
Failing to realize or plan for the regional militarization that would follow “regime change” in Afghanistan, the Bush administration’s reaction to 9/11 spawned what would eventually become the Pakistani Taliban. Tribal and militant leaders connected with the Afghan Taliban, primarily the charismatic Nek Mohammad, quickly mobilized logistics support and shelter for Afghans fighting and fleeing the US invasion. During the war’s initial years these groups gradually began offensive operations against US troops in Afghanistan. Pakistani tribesmen believed that America had come to conquer and no one disproved them.
Washington did immediately perceived the TTP’s military threat in 9/11’s aftermath, leading to a controversial exchange between Richard Armitage, former US deputy Secretary of State, and ex-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. But whether Armitage actually threatened to “bomb Pakistan back to the stone-age” if Musharraf didn’t attack militants on his side of the border is irrelevant. Washington applied its political and economic pressure, yielding the same failed counterinsurgency in the 1990’s.
Unsurprisingly, the nuclear weapons so feared in Pakistan trace their origins back to America; Islamabad had developed its first nuclear weapons with Chinese uranium in 1983, promised by Mao Zedong before his death in 1976. Though opposed for a variety of geopolitical reasons unrelated to nuclear proliferation (India had tested its first bomb in 1974), Washington begrudgingly ignored Islamabad’s program as it funneled America's proxy war against the Soviets.
No sooner had the Soviets withdrawn did US President George Bush, invoking Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, cut off funding to Islamabad and effectively quarantine the country throughout the 1990’s.
Among the many counterproductive effects against US-Pakistani relations, this short-sighted policy ensured that Pakistani tribes remained disenfranchised and primed for an anti-American jihad when 9/11 struck. Yet Washington doubled down on a militaristic policy instead of recognizing Islamabad’s (and thus America’s) need to win over Pakistani tribes. So while Iraq was just beginning to reveal its own insurgency to a shocked Washington, the Bush administration had already committed a strategic sin in Afghanistan by making the same error twice.
This backwards counterinsurgency should have been evident from the beginning. As Mohammad, an Ahmadzai Wazir, gathered strength from the reputable Wazir tribe, Washington decided that military operations would suffice to destroy a popular insurgency. Meanwhile Pakistan didn’t launch its first invasion of South Waziristan until 2004, demonstrating a late reaction to the insurgency. Mohammad mounted a stiff enough resistance to force a ceasefire that he broke shortly thereafter, but this fact doesn’t absolve America for eliminating him in a drone strike weeks afterward.
Mohammad’s victory and martyrdom rallied thousands of Wazir and Mehsud tribesmen to the TTP banner then taken up by Baitullah Mehsud, who would drop it only after five years of active support for the Afghan Taliban.
From before 1990 to the first major battle in 2004 to another unproductive encounter in 2008, Pakistan’s tribal areas received relatively no attention and resources from Islamabad or Washington. Corrupt remains a leech on the system. It wasn’t until 2009 that caring for tribes became a priority for Pakistan, although its actions have yet to meet its promises, a running theme. The TTP has dealt itself the most damage, reducing its once high approval by eliminating of hundreds of tribal elders, bombing Pakistan’s cities, and ultimately displacing their own tribes.
Guerrillas often wound themselves due to the extreme pressures involved, but relying on their disorganization is more luck than counterinsurgency.
Unfortunately this futile cycle continues to signal repetition. While Washington has made a point of increasing humanitarian aid to keep up with massive military expenditures, Pakistan’s tribes continue to suffer political and economic marginalization. Rah-e-Nijat, South Waziristan’s latest operation, was supposed to follow with a social initiative, but the combination of economic turbulence and environmental disaster wiped out whatever plans existed.
Meanwhile Islamabad’s ceasefire with Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the TTP’s commander of North Waziristan, has survived, meaning that the government’s authority remains absent. Militants from South Waziristan have based themselves out of the north, cycling in fresh teams to wage an insurgency against Pakistani troops in the south, while the Haqqani network uses North Waziristan as its own sanctuary to raid Afghanistan. And Washington remains unsatisfied with its drone fleet. CIA director Leon Panetta recently complained after three cross-border helicopter raids, "We can't do this without some boots on the ground. They could be Pakistani boots or they can be our boots, but we got to have some boots on the ground."
But none of these options offer the best way to gain authority over the political, economic, and social realms of Pakistan’s tribal region, which are the keys to establishing military control.
After 30 years of systematic neglect, the reality is that America played a significant role in creating both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Establishing Pakistani sovereignty over its tribal agencies requires tens, perhaps hundreds of billions in economic and social programs, along with a vast number of qualified civil servants. These funds must coincide with the re-establishment of tribal authority, a daunting challenge with Pakistan’s government in disarray. As for long-term political representation, only when a new generation of skilled representatives can advance tribal needs at the national level can full order be restored.
Permanently denying the TTP its population and territory could easily take a decade, likely longer.
The Obama administration has relied on fallacies in Afghanistan from the beginning. A “good war” wouldn’t have spawned a cancer in Pakistan, and while Obama is partially true when he argues that Afghanistan was neglected, the time-line goes back further than 2002. Though quick to state the war “is just beginning,” US officials don’t welcome the same discussion on Afghanistan between 1980 and 2001.
Where all of the conflict’s roots lie.