January 9, 2011

White House Cries Wolf on Pakistan

Finally some good news out of Afghanistan. In a wise decision, President Barack Obama has reportedly pushed back against Pentagon contingencies to deploy inside Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA). While the semi-lawless region provides sanctuary for al-Qaeda leadership and the Haqqani network, part of Mullah Omar’s old guard of Taliban, a major military advance could create as many problems as it attempts to solve.

The White House claims to understand this much - along with “the general view a lot of people espouse,” meaning the Pentagon, a GOP Congress, and Republican voters that lost patience for Pakistan long ago. But Obama and his advisers concluded that Taliban safe havens are "not the only thing that stands between us and success in Afghanistan.”

For instance, a wide push into the FATA - Waziristan, Kurram, Khyber, Mohmand, Bajuar - without the necessary civil structure could result in a mass scattering of Taliban and civilians alike. U.S. forces would need to concentrate on the border to fully contain the spill-over, reducing effectiveness within Afghanistan. Obama could add even more troops to 3,000 emergency Marines, but this runs contrary to alleviating the political pressure surrounding July.

Conversely, remove the military force without noticeable improvements in living condition or government response and the Taliban will return using any failure against Islamabad. Nor is Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s unquestioned leader, and his shura located in the FATA. U.S. intelligence swore he was hiding in Quetta, Balochistan, where political discord runs high, until ex-CIA official Bruce Riedel alleged the shura had relocated to Karachi.

CIA and ISI forces captured Taliban general Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi last February, but Islamabad has repeatedly denied Quetta from Washington.

It’s true that successful insurgencies often achieve their victory through foreign support, whether political, technical, or geographical. According to a 2010 RAND study on how insurgencies end, 23 out of 52 insurgencies that enjoyed sanctuary defeated the governments they were fighting, while only 3 out of 22 insurgencies succeeded without. However a complete lack of sanctuary is rare among insurgencies, and these closed environment usually don’t entail two states of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s magnitude.

An invasion of the FATA doesn’t build Afghanistan’s infrastructure, clean up corruption and militias, heal the political rift between Tajiks and Pashtuns, or mend Pakistan’s own political and economic turmoil. An invasion won’t resolve Kashmir’s political dispute, a cornerstone issue in Pakistan that the White House refuses to touch. It will, however, enrage many Pakistanis who believe Washington fomented their tribulations through misguided policy from the 1970’s onward. And instead of one country to “clear, hold, and build,” Washington would be staring at two.

Done right and a joint U.S.-Pakistani operation has a chance to relieve pressure in Afghanistan. Done wrong and all of these problems could intensify.

"In the long run," said one senior official, "our objectives have to do with the defeat of al-Qaeda and the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. If you're not careful here... you may do something in the short run that makes gains against the policy objective in North Waziristan, but proves self-defeating in the long term."

Thus Obama and his national security team have concluded that Pakistan’s present turbulence bodes ill for an overt operation. Though Washington needs Islamabad to move into North Waziristan now, it also realizes the futility of losing Pakistan for the critical years ahead, as sizable numbers of U.S. troops will likely remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Hopefully U.S. policy has passed this tempting gamble in favor of long-term stability.

Yet hope has failed too often over the last two years.

According to The Washington Post, Obama and his team questioned whether a "classic clear, hold and build" operation is the only means of denying Pakistan’s frontier to the Taliban. Looking into "a range of political, military, counter-terrorism, and intelligence operations" to achieve the same results, the White House still keeps faith in the so-called “off-shore theory.” Everything would work smoothly with Islamabad on board, goes the theory.

However, as much as “clear, hold, and build” demands too much of Pakistani and U.S. forces, it’s likely the only method of regaining permanent sovereignty over the FATA. Drones, intelligence operations, even Special Forces teams and attack helicopters won’t provide a decisive outcome in isolation. The issue isn’t ends but means, which Pakistan still lacks and America can’t provide in full. Already hesitant to pump billions into what is perceived as an unaccountable system, U.S. Congress would need to allocate tens of billions for a proper reconstruction in Waziristan and other border agencies.

Similarly unrealistic is the Obama administration’s plan to "redouble our efforts to look for political approaches,” meaning reconciliation with the Taliban. While the senior official said that Pakistan “must play an important role” in negotiations, Obama has followed the Pentagon’s lead in hoping he can force the Taliban to surrender on America’s terms.

This is unlikely.

And how can negotiations with the Taliban excuse from cross-border raids meant to relieve pressure by July, when Obama and Petraeus intend to sweat out the Taliban past 2011? Clearly no agreement will be reached this year and next year’s odds aren’t much better. With the Taliban’s eyes on 2014, probably not by then either.

So what option is Washington left with to achieve lasting success in Afghanistan, and also create an overpowering image of success by the end of 2011? Though the senior administration official labeled the Pentagon’s proposals "ideas, not even operational concepts much less plans," some of its “ideas” have already slipped into reality. White House and Pentagon officials began clamoring “do more” since Obama came to office.

Despite its supposed gentleness towards Islamabad, the White House’s review repeatedly directed criticism at Pakistan, using it as a scapegoat and to seed U.S. public approval for future operations.

The Obama administration has conducted an estimated 174 drone strikes in the FATA, including a handful beyond the Waziristan agencies. Several drones struck the neighboring Khyber agency 24 hours after Obama’s review, part of Washington’s strategy to gradually widen the area of drone operations. Islamabad reportedly turned down a formal request in November, closely following three NATO raids that yielded a temporary border closure and breakdown in U.S.-Pakistani relations.

These feelers are designed to test Islamabad’s limit, which appears simultaneously deep and shallow, and to provide a slippery slope into semi-conventional operations past July, when Obama wishes to begin withdrawing troops in anticipation of his 2012 re-election campaign. Having failed to treat Americans, Afghans, and Pakistanis with honesty, manipulating contrived reviews to squash dissent towards a vague and open-ended policy, we’re still supposed to believe no means no.

We were initially kept in the dark on drones. Not long ago we were told that no U.S. forces occupied Pakistan, only for a Taliban bomber to strike a Special Forces convoy in Lower Dir. NATO said it understood Islamabad’s red-line - then crossed it. Blackwater is continually suspected of operating inside the country, as are covert U.S. forces laying the groundwork for potential border raids. July is little more than a myth to dampen opposition that could replay until 2014.

Now we’re supposed to believe the FATA is out of bounds. The pressure of this summer says otherwise.


  1. Some great background info here, in case you have not been here.

    I just posted this one.


  2. We've read all about the latest WikiLeaks from the FATA. These leaks are amusing in that many aren't secrets. I know as well as you that "Washington refused to negotiate with Taliban leadership directly after 9/11." This fact cannot be repeated enough though, considering that Afghanistan isn't the "good war" Obama made it to be.

    As for the Pashtun belt and Durand Line, these remain critical obstacles at the macro level. Pakistan and Afghanistan's geopolitics have sealed their fate together.

    But the Durand Line is unlikely to be redefined any time soon. This conflict is infinitely complex.