September 27, 2011

Taliban Outmaneuvering U.S. Information Operations

The Haqqani network is terrifying. Responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Afghans and Pakistanis - whether through IEDs, raids or provoking a Shia-Sunni divide in Pakistan’s Kurram Agency - the Haqqanis have spread instability across the Durand Line. Yet they also lack an expressed agenda to attack any targets outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and don’t abide by a global fatwa. The Haqqanis weren’t involved in 9/11. While conjoined with al-Qaeda elements, they’ve stayed true to nationalist insurgency from the beginning of their resistance.

To classify the Haqqanis as terrorists simply because they’re attacking an occupation is part of the longstanding rhetorical war between governments and guerrillas. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, goes the cliche/truism.

Revolutionary maxims, like the wars they attempt to explain, seem to take longer to die. The differences between guerrilla warfare in the 1960s and 2010s have become steadily pronounced, particularly in regards to technology, but the basic convergence between political and military factors remain unchanged. For instance, insurgents invariably seek to cross international borders and acquire foreign support (state or non-state). South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham also displayed how little U.S. Senators have learned from Vietnam, injecting himself into a heated debate by announcing his support for unilateral actions into Pakistan. Few Senators back the war with greater vigor, except pressuring Islamabad in such a manner offers a quick path to stalemate or defeat.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will resign from his post on September 30th, leaving everyone else to put out the fire he started last week. After an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the assassination of Tajik leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mullen accused Islamabad of direct links to the Haqqani network and demanded action. His partner, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, took this as a cue to promise a response to the Senators, who nodded in agreement. Ultimately they have a negligible understanding of guerrilla warfare, indicated by their demands for immediate military action to conceal Washington’s non-military shortcomings.

"Certainly they expected more results from Afghanistan, which they have not been able to achieve as yet," Yusuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, told Reuters. "They have not achieved what they visualized."

Regardless of their military progress against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Pentagon and CIA would concede this point in private (and under a heavy dose of truth serum). The Obama administration’s militarized surge was planned from the start, but this trend increased as the Taliban’s resiliency kicked in and the White House began to run out of time. U.S. strategy is based on the principle that America needs to grab what it can get, militarily speaking, before the public’s alarm expires - including a campaign into North Waziristan and Kurram, the Haqqanis’ main sanctuaries in Pakistan. These operations would displaced hundreds of thousands of residents, cost a similar amount in millions and trigger potential retaliation from the network, which maintains a longstanding non-aggression pact with Islamabad.

“The United States will suffer more losses than they did in Afghanistan,” Sirajuddin Haqqani warned in a recent interview, daring U.S. forces to enter North Waziristan.

The Pakistanis have refused to add such a heavy meal to their full plate since the Obama administration ordered its surge in 2009. Beyond maintaining relations with Afghan Taliban for strategic purposes and limiting local attacks, Pakistani policymakers and civilians alike feel that the country shouldn’t pay for all of America’s mistakes. They quickly point out that Washington funded Jalaluddin in his jihad against the Russians, and now seeks to eliminate him because he’s fighting American troops. This double-standard of occupation persuades few Pakistanis. Most supporters of military action support operations in the tribal agencies on national grounds, in order to avoid U.S. retaliation and preserve economic ties.

"The negative messaging, naturally that is disturbing my people," Gilani said in the interview. "If there is messaging that is not appropriate to our friendship, then naturally it is extremely difficult to convince my public. Therefore they should be sending positive messages."

U.S. officials shouldn’t expect to get anywhere by openly threatening Pakistani officials, yet they continue to do so despite counterproductive results. The same outcome applies to placing the Haqqanis on America’s terror list, and by definition punishing Pakistan as a state-sponsor. Some, though hardly all, of Washington’s problems in Afghanistan stem from across the border, and moving against Islamabad actually shields the Haqqani network’s bubble. The Taliban, on the other hand, are acutely sensitive to these developments, as evidenced by Sirajuddin’s cryptic denial of recent attacks. In contrast to the U.S. policymakers and generals trampling on Afghanistan and Pakistan’s information spheres, the Taliban’s shura has decided to defer to Islamabad while rallying its own nationalist elements.

Many Afghans and Pakistanis will blow the Taliban’s statement off as propaganda, however the group is clearly attuned to the Haqqanis’ significance in the media: “The respected Maulawi Jalaluddin Haqqani (the group’s founder) is (one of the) Islamic Emirate’s honorable and dignified personalities and receives all guidance for operations from the leader of the Islamic Emirate.”

U.S. officials have cast the Haqqanis as independent of the Taliban for two main reasons: to corner Pakistan into military action, and to portray the Taliban’s central network as weaker than it truly is. The Haqqanis are integral to the Afghan Taliban, and often clash with the Hakimullah-led faction of the Pakistani Taliban.

“America wants to spread chaos in Pakistan through various means, weaken its government and make it dependent upon them,” read the statement. “That is why it is trying to make this government collide with its citizens and with this excuse, make them fight each other to show that there is what they like to call terrorist sanctuaries there.”

The Taliban’s ability to incorporate Western complaints into its own rhetoric also demonstrates the potential for U.S. pressure to backfire amongst neutral Afghans. The shura would call out “American officials and especially General Petreaus” for “repeatedly lying and feeding wrong information to its nation about them having the upper hand in the Afghan situation.” Instead of “baseless accusations, more casualties and a constant attempt to conceal losses and failures,” the Taliban advises, “it would be better for America and her allies to put an end to the occupation of Afghanistan as quickly as possible and do now what must inevitably be done.”

Although the Taliban initially denied involved in Rabbani’s assassination, the group had every reason to carry out the hit. This message is very simple, carries farther than America’s and appeals to many Afghans, Pakistanis and Americans: the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces is non-negotiable.

1 comment:

  1. Good Militants/Bad Militants is a concept the Pentagon understands. Unfortunateley for them there isn't much goodwill left in Pakistan for the West and why would there be? The Pakistan authorities, imo, have played a dangerous game with the Haqqanis and other militants by turning a blind eye to the point where it is now doubtful whether they could put the genie back in the bottle. Vast instability and a very messy civil war of the wildmen is not far I fear. Cue more paranoia from Mullen, NATO and Obama (when he gets round to it).