March 30, 2011

Obama Administration Sucked Into Information Vacuum

They probably would have protested anyway. A few million dollars to pay off what are perceived as three cold-blooded killings. Numb to the Predators that pound Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the case of CIA agent Raymond Davis pushed anti-American sentiment to dizzying heights. After fatally shooting two Pakistanis on the night of January 27th, Davis was due to hear his immunity status when Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah announced his pardon.

Along with the price: a modest $2.3 million split between 19 relatives.

Once again the U.S. government had gotten away with murder. Pakistan’s most nationalistic and religious elements rejected the idea of America exploiting the Islamic principle of diyat. They, along with a broader section of society, denounced Islamabad’s political folly and breach of sovereignty, and even those wishing to move on with Washington’s relationship lamented Pakistan’s dependency. Resonating at all levels, several of Faizan Haider and Muhammad Fahim’s law-studying relatives spoke eloquently of justice - and how America paid no attention to their families’ honor. Broadly translated, Pakistanis believe America assigns a lower value to their lives.

Ibad-ur-Rehman’s case was particularly offensive. Struck by Davis’s frantic rescue party as it drove against oncoming traffic, Rehman's killers immediately fled the country and into the black hole of U.S. secrecy, although his relatives were compensated.

The street protests that followed, then, were inevitable. But when conducting a political experiment, replaying events and altering the future yields applicable knowledge in Pakistan and across the Muslim revolutionary wave. Controlling the message is such a fundamental law in fourth-generation warfare (4GW) that it shouldn’t need repeating, except the rule obviously hasn’t sunk into the White House. Alternate history comes alive when diverged at a single point, and Hillary Clinton missed a unique chance to significantly limit Davis’s fallout.

Although the Secretary of State and subsequent U.S. officials thanked the victims' relatives soon after Davis’s release, they staunchly denied any questions relating to payment. Their I.O.U. ruse with Islamabad quickly surfaced through Pakistani sources, and the motive not long after. U.S. officials soon began to claim that the court released Davis out of goodwill, not compensation, preserving Washington’s outlandish definition of diplomatic immunity. But no guarantee exists that Davis’s outcome will uphold America’s militaristic loopholes.

Clinton's non-denial denial, rooted in the simultaneous events over 24 hours, produced a political butterfly effect in Pakistan: one minute spawned disproportionate restrictions on policy. The U.S. and Pakistani governments, particularly their militaries and intelligence agencies, have “moved on,” but at what cost when many Pakistanis haven't? Were America to admit its diyat upfront and issue an apology, protests would hover at stable levels. Instead Washington and Islamabad stitched their own political and military wounds while leaving a gaping hole in the public sphere.

And the costs will come around. Successfully shaping a counterinsurgent’s image increases control over political policy, furthering control over military policy, while the converse holds true as well. Washington might see a Pakistani invasion into North Waziristan if Pakistanis viewed the U.S. government in a favorable light. But the CIA launched a drone strike less than 24 hours after Davis’s release, killing over 40 civilians and one replaceable militant commander. No acknowledgment, let alone an apology, was issued.

This is not counterinsurgency.

How much damage can one spy inflict? Beyond the victims and their families, Clinton’s denial fused with rumors of forced confessions, disappearing relatives, and silence from Islamabad to generate an information meltdown. The uproar over the relatives’ location particularly demonstrates how poorly the White House communicated to the Pakistani people. Part of the agreement stipulated future resettlement of family members in America or a Gulf state, yet this stipulation goes unnoticed amid the controversy. Rather than taking command and determining its image, Washington has ceded control of its message beyond the average miscommunication.

Now Islamabad’s situation exceeds the outcome of an apology in hostility and distraction to the Pakistani government. Not even strategic considerations can excuse this expedient policy. It was simply ill-conceived and improperly delivered.

Justice Chaudhry Iftikhar Hussain of the Lahore High Court (LHC) recently issued notice to the federal government regarding petition for recovery of the families of Faheem Shamshad and Faizan Haider. The following day Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) submitted an adjournment motion in the National Assembly to discuss Davis's release. The motion accused the government of, “deliberately hiding the facts about the Raymond Davis case and keeping the people of the country in the dark.” It also noted the increased resentment amongst the public and that, “it should be discussed... and the facts be brought out before the masses.”

Consequently, a LHC inspection team started an inquiry against the judge who acquitted Davis, Yousaf Ojla. The petition states that Additional Sessions Judge Yousaf Ojla, “did not implement the blood money law in a transparent manner and ignored several important aspects of the murder case.” Either way Washington may be exposed in the end, all the more reason to come clean immediately.

Pakistanis expect a WikiLeaks in the near future.

Worst still, the mystery behind Davis’s release is creating new divisions within the PML-N and between the ruling PPP, as PPP deputy parliamentary leader Shaukat Basra is challenging Punjab Chief Shahbaz Sharif over Davis’s release from the province. Sharif, the PML-N’s president is the brother of PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif. Thus someone in the nationalistic PML-N must be held accountable for allowing Davis to flee to Afghanistan, to a war the PML-N opposes in principle

If this wasn’t complicated enough, Basra further accused Sanaullah of threatening legal cases against anyone who continued to raise Davis’s release. Sanaullah rejected the allegation but faces many challenges for a public debate beyond Basra. Such an array of consequences for Pakistan’s political system because of one man, and not just his actions but the handling of his image.

Although Davis’s toxic mess always needed time to break down, Clinton could have contained most or all of the spill by taking immediate ownership and control. Filling the vacuum prevents it from opening.

Image is nothing new to warfare, whether war paint, Chinese and Christian banners, or the moral battles of World War II and Vietnam. The beginning of the first and second Gulf Wars produced opposite impressions and ended with similar divergence in U.S. foreign policy. As the current state of warfare stands, the 20th and 21st century’s information explosion further amplified the importance of image. In a political battle of wills between a guerrilla movement and a local government (and foreign governments), image can become all consuming. No longer does one fight simply for the government of one’s birth country.

One saying holds that Afghans fight for their tribe first, religion second, and country third. An Afghan chooses to fight for the government or the Taliban based on their perceptions of the two entities. And despite President Barack Obama’s dependence on Pakistan to conclude the war in Afghanistan, he’s initiated no personal outreach to Pakistanis since assuming office.

Libya is another pertinent example. The immediate takeaway from President Barack Obama’s speech is the theoretical increase in support had he formally addressed the nation and Congress before approving military intervention. Lack of transparency over several weeks made a pivotal difference in how U.S. operations are perceived over the long-term, both internationally and domestically. Obama would have no need to defend himself had he been more proactive in defining America’s intentions.

And the double-standard set between the Libyan government and allies such as Bahrain and Yemen are leaving the White House poorly positioned to criticize fresh uprisings in Iran and Syria. Not that the State Department stopped itself from leading off with them while going deathly silent on Yemen, but the consequences will follow right behind.

The similarities between Davis’s case and Washington’s response to Yemen’s revolution demonstrate the systematic flaws in America’s 4GW. In supporting President Ali Abdullah Saleh until his final days, U.S. officials have gone completely silent in relation to other regional events. After repeatedly failing to respond to Saleh’s rising hostility, the White House seems to grow quieter the louder Saleh yells. Both are quick to eat their cake too, raising al-Qaeda’s alarm and the national security risk of a power vacuum to drown out legitimate political concerns. On top of inducing Saleh’s fall through political favoritism and inadequate oversight, Washington is accelerating his collapse and the resulting chaos through joint stall-tactics.

Yemeni protesters aren’t biting on Saleh and Washington’s dialogue and the ongoing contradiction has ripped open a massive information vacuum. Private diplomacy must compliment, not substitute for, public diplomacy during the natural 4GW that is revolution.

No good reason exists for Obama and his administration to treat America’s image so carelessly, especially during a historic period of transition in the Muslim world and U.S. policy's relation to it. Image scores high in international diplomacy and revolution alike, and the effort isn’t forthcoming. Rumors have Obama planning a “Cairo II” since the first speech didn’t work out as planned, but the mere necessity of a redo bodes ill for the future. Obama never got around to leading a sincere push into moving Israeli-Palestinian negotiations - after demanding a two-state solution within two years.

A president whose candidacy is forever linked to image, Obama is deeply struggling to represent himself and U.S. foreign policy. Crazy as the campaign trail is, it has nothing on the real world. And the world is waiting for answers.

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