September 29, 2011

Michael Mullen: Another Casualty of Real COIN

One of the many tragedies of Afghanistan and Iraq is how quickly its hard lessons are already being discarded. During the haze of Vietnam’s aftermath, U.S. policy-makers and generals avoided a full understanding of its experiences, wishing to put the war behind them and move on to the next one. Laced with unconventional theories from a century of “small wars,” conventional warfare remained in fashion as the U.S. military continued to distance itself technologically from the rest of the world.

Ironically, the multilateral support necessary to sustain a counterinsurgency was lost in the Gulf War’s electronic blur. Washington’s collective mind eased. Counterinsurgency and fourth-generation warfare (4GW) would remain fringe topics, setting up the failures that unfolded in Somalia, North Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen.

Now Vietnam’s memory lapse is on the verge of repeating. With the U.S. and NATO governments failing to apply true COIN to Afghanistan, high-tech counterterrorism (or CT) has reassumed its place atop the military spectrum, a view that automatically creates a dangerous top-down strategy. Because America and NATO allies lacked the resources, regional unity and local understanding to engage all levels of Afghanistan, full-spectrum COIN was never truly applied. Despite David Petraeus’s claim that a government “cannot kill its way out of an insurgency,” the U.S. military attempted to do just that with tens of thousands of night-raids and sorties.

Military operations inevitably bridged the expanding gap between political, economic and social progress, so it’s not accurate to say that counterinsurgency is officially dead. Michael Mullen and all those caught in his vortex are merely COIN’s latest casualties.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is scheduled to resign tomorrow and leave his mess for someone else to mop up. Praised by his higher-ups, peers and admirers, Mullen has been billed as an acute student of Pakistan’s environment and a friendly face to its military. Evidence of these claims runs short in Islamabad. Mullen spent the last several years alienating Pakistanis with his comments, which generally shift the majority of Afghanistan's blame on Islamabad, and his visits often failed to quell the disagreement he was sent to patch. Pakistani officials are too aware that Washington uses them as an automatic scapegoat, and Mullen’s statements have triggered cyclical anti-American protests.

Rather than demonstrate an understanding of Pakistan’s entire sphere, the Admiral once again proved how little Washington has learned about real counterinsurgency. The White House quickly found itself in an exaggerated argument with journalists over whether President Barack Obama personally disagreed with Mullen’s statements, when the White House never contradicted the essence of his warning. Press secretary Jay Carney responded to one question by saying, "It's not language that I would use,” but those urging the White House to directly target Pakistan appear to have missed Carney’s other statements.

“The continuing safe havens that the Haqqani network enjoys in Pakistan and the links between the Pakistani military and the Haqqani network are troubling. And we want action taken against them. And that is a conversation we have had with the Pakistani government for a long time, not just in recent days and weeks... It is also true that our cooperation with Pakistan has been extremely important, and that Pakistan has been very helpful to the United States in our fight against al Qaeda in particular. But they do need to take action against the Haqqani network, to deprive the network of the safe havens that it has in Pakistan.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added that the administration is "in the final formal review" for designating the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization.

Mullen has since been forced to clarify his remarks, organizing a series of media interviews to repeat his story. When asked if he would change what he said, the outgoing Admiral remarked, "Not a word. I phrased it the way I wanted it to be phrased." Except he is treading backwards, telling CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “With respect to the ISI, we enjoy in ways a very positive relationship in some areas, we're focused on shared interests, we've operated together, and from that perspective it's been very positive and actually improving.”

“I’m not asserting that the Pakistan military or the ISI has complete control over the Haqqanis,” he explained to NPR.

These words blur the red line - “veritable” is synonym with genuine or indubitable - meaning Mullen can have it both ways. In an interview scheduled to be broadcast on Sunday, Mullen told Zakaria that, “there are elements I think of the ISI very active with Haqqanis... that are so focused on sending Taliban and insurgents into Afghanistan.” ISI elements are providing the Haqqanis with, “financial support, logistic support and, actually, sort of free passage in the safe haven and those links are part of what enable the Haqqanis to carry out their mission.”

That the ISI possesses no links to the Haqqanis and Taliban is non-sense; Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the ISI’s chief, responded to Mullen’s claims by declaring, "We have never paid a penny or provided even a single bullet to the Haqqani network." Instead he pushes the blame onto India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), arguing, “There are other intelligence networks supporting groups who operate inside Afghanistan.” This counter-claim may hold a kernel of truth, but ignores the central issue that the Haqqnis represent a nationalist insurgency, not a transitional jihadist threat.

“The Haqqanis run that safe haven,” Mullen says of Pakistan’s tribal sanctuaries in North Waziristan. “They’re also a home to al Qaeda in that safe haven. And I am losing American soldiers. The Haqqanis are killing American soldiers. And from that perspective, I think it’s got to be addressed, which is the reason I spoke to it.”

Thus the Haqqanis qualify as a terrorist organization not because they’re harboring al-Qaeda cells, or killing Afghans and Pakistanis - but killing American soldiers. Occupying soldiers, to many. To these people, the solution isn’t to open another front but for America to increase the pace of its withdrawal. In amplifying the focus on the Haqqani network, the U.S. is tacitly admitting that its drone campaign failed to significantly weaken the group, which became the Predators’ objective after Islamabad consistently vetoed an operation into North Waziristan.

Drones have reduced al-Qaeda’s network, but they are ineffective in eliminating a nationalist entity like the Haqqanis, which is rooted in Afghanistan’s environment. Former Pakistani ambassador Ayaz Wazir remarked, “Jalaluddin Haqqani was part of the Taliban right from Day One, I would say. Haqqani and Taliban are one and the same thing.”

U.S. officials will never successfully persuade Islamabad or a sizable number of Afghans that the Haqqanis are “separate and distinct” from the Taliban shura. The network has launched few attacks on Pakistan forces, instead concentrating the bulk of its operations against U.S. and NATO targets. Breaking the Haqqanis’ away from the Taliban’s network is part of the mad scramble after drones failed to degrade their sub-network. This trend precedes the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a major Tajik leader. The U.S. never intended to sincerely negotiate with any part of the Taliban, only pound it into submission.

Pakistan inherently disagrees with this strategy. One intelligence official rhetorically asked, “Why would we shoot ourselves in the foot? After 2014, we’ll be left right where we were after the Afghan jihad.”

What U.S. officials are demanding simply cannot, and will not, be done. “I just think those links have to be broken,” Mullen said, adding that this would be a long-term process. “But if they’re broken, I think that fundamentally changes the viability of that safe haven and the overall strategy.” As sensible as his thinking appears, Mullen simplifies the fundamentals on Pakistan’s side. The Pentagon would sacrifice all non-military dimensions to achieve a military objective, readying the most unpopular assault possible. Estimates put the Haqqani network between 5,000 and 10,000, and most could avoid a fight. Those that aren’t in Afghanistan could easily cross the border.

The Haqqanis, contrary to mainstream reporting, have also diversified beyond North Waziristan after anticipating an invasion for several years. No pure military solution exists.

Washington is ultimately demanding that Pakistan assume all of the risk in North Waziristan and eastern Afghanistan. Pakistan must fight half of America’s war against the Haqqanis and TTP, one created by the Soviet invasion and the other after 9/11. Washington expects Islamabad to “trust us,” when the Pakistani haven’t been offered the proper incentive to break a truce with one of Afghanistan's largest, most well trained groups. And if the U.S. can’t financially support the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan has no chance of picking up the economic slack.

"Pakistan cannot be pressured to do more, but the doors are still open from our side for talks and discussion," said Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani. "We reject these allegations. God willing, we can face these challenges with unity. We are committed to defend our independence and sovereignty."

Yet the disarray between the U.S. and Pakistani governments may be exceeded by the chaos now overrunning the U.S. media. Far from a productive policy debate, the war of words within Washington has further deteriorated confidence in U.S. leadership and strategy. With divisions consuming Washington and Islamabad - and Kabul in crisis - South Asia remains a Bermuda triangle of political and information warfare. The Haqqanis’ media feud benefits the Taliban more than any attack that induced Mullen to call Islamabad out - this division may even be the Taliban’s primary objective.

The U.S. is revealed as desperate, potential Taliban recruits may sense weakness and the insurgency can react to ongoing public statements. Such is the brilliant counterterrorism of Mullen and company.

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