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Entries in Barack Obama (57)


Pakistan: Who’s Calling Who A Failed State?

Collateral Damage "Collateral Damage"

A disturbing picture is emerging of one of the countries at the center of the Global War on Terror, a terrifying confluence of events which constitutes a “perfect storm” of instability. This country, which President Bush formerly praised as a “leader” in the fight against militant Islamism in Central Asia, now appears to be increasingly ungovernable, what we in the West commonly refer to as a “Failed State.”

A porous border facilitates the funneling of arms and resources to a booming narco-insurgency next-door, an insurgency which takes the lives of innocent civilians, militants, soldiers and police on a daily basis. In the halls of power and government, corrupt western-educated oligarchs continue to, in the midst of catastrophic economic collapse, wildly pillage the state treasuries while their rural fundamentalist constituencies, and the militant industries they patronize, fuel money and weapons to the neighboring insurgency, often with the explicit help of state intelligence services. And yet even though the citizens have recently achieved some modest democratic gains, the central government seems oblivious to their cries for justice against members of the criminal ex-regime. Meanwhile, a brutal domestic terrorist outbreak, flush with recently unemployed recruits, continues without mercy, killing over 50 civilians and security services in a series of suicide attacks over the last month.

This is not Pakistan.

It’s the United States.

The narco-insurgency? It’s not the Taliban in Afghanistan, it’s the drug cartels in Mexico. And those corrupt western-educated oligarchs aren’t the bumbling US allies in Islamabad, it’s the elites calling the shots in Washington, DC. I’ll let you do the rest of the math on your own, but the last figure commands special attention. The Associated Press reports, “A string of shootings in the US in the last month alone has claimed the lives of 53 people” starting with a gunman in Samson, Alabama who killed 11 people including himself and ending in Graham, Washington with a man who massacred his 5 children before finally killing himself.

So is this to say that America is really some kind of “Failed State?” Absolutely not. Rather this semantic bait and switch is intended to serve as a catalyst for western experts, analysts, and academics, those typically thought of as foreign policy elites, to rethink their perceptions of Pakistan and the role it is playing in the War on Terror. In particular, this is an antidote to the endemic tendency to paint Pakistan as weak, corrupt, and ungovernable, also known as a failed state. Far from being a dangerous, failed state, Pakistan is actually a thriving democracy with more in common with its allies in the West than either party would be comfortable admitting to presently.

I don’t expect this change of perspective to be simple. Western elites have a long history of despising democratic governments while at the same time enabling the militant and authoritarian undercurrents of society within the countries they govern. The names are well known: Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, Panama, Iraq.  All of these places at one point in time had democratic governments, albeit messy and tumultuous ones. Western expertscharacterized them as weak, corrupt, and ungovernable, however, and used this rhetoric as a jumping off point for violent intervention. The reward was a foreign policy timeline punctuated with the blowback of war, mass killings, and terrorism.

Pakistan, one of the largest Muslim democracies on the planet, doesn’t have to be next.

Take for example the recent public demonstrations in Pakistan over the disqualification of the Sharif brothers from politics. Nawaz Sharif, placed under house arrest by the government, defied his detention and marched with thousands of people in the streets, eventually forcing President Zardari to reinstate the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. That Supreme Court then agreed to hear an appeal of the political disqualifications. In the west, this was seen as a horrifying example of Pakistan’s  weakness, corruption, and inability to be governed. Thomas Friedman seemed on the verge of soiling himself when he breathlessly exclaimed on the CBS political talk show, Face the Nation, “they’re rioting in Pakistan!”

The western narrative is that Nawaz Sharif, agent of Saudi Arabia and staunch ally of the Islamic political parties, led an angry mob in the streets to de-stabilize the weak US-backed President and threaten the US campaign against al-Qa'eda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A more reasonable view would be that Nawaz Sharif, a typically-corrupt religious politician, the Pakistani parallel of Newt Gingrich or Tom DeLay, led a grassroots public protest against the lame duck, unpopular (think low approval ratings) President, forcing him to restore the power of the judiciary as a check and balance against legislative power, not to mention the Pakistani military. What elites in the west saw as an angry mob destabilizing a weak, corrupt government was actually a shining moment for democracy, more akin to a Pakistani version of Marbury v Madison than anything else.

Rioting Mobs "Rioting Mobs"

When mass public demonstrations are called “destabilizing” and  “riots,” the west undermines the confidence and ability of the population to determine its own government, which in Pakistan hampers their ability to strengthen the judicial system to the point where it can hold the civilian and military leadership accountable, and in effect discredits the entire democratic political philosophy. The result is that terrorist elements are legitimized and authoritarian elements in the government are forced to crack down on the population.

That Pakistan's government is becoming more responsive to the demands of its citizens should not be called weakness, but rather it's an amazingly positive sign that the concept of law and order is alive and well in Pakistani society. Indeed it is this concept that fuels a great majority of Pakistani protests against the ongoing US drone attacks inside Pakistani territory. While classified in the west as strikes against “high value” terrorist targets, they are nevertheless strikes against Pakistani citizens who have their constitutional rights violated every time the US extra-judiciously executes them for crimes they’ve never been accused of, tried, and convicted for in Pakistani courts.

And even this war crime doesn’t factor in the extreme human cost, those innocent civilians who are slaughtered as “collateral damage.” That the Pakistani government approves of these extra-judicial killings, in fact providing the US full basing rights to conduct its military campaign, doesn’t make it any less illegal. Certainly in the light of elected representatives allowing such cruel and unusual capital punishments, Pakistan’s democratic battle for the credibility of its legal system takes on a whole new urgency.

Of course the analysts, experts and academics who conduct the foreign policy assessments in the west aren’t directly responsible for these crimes, but they did ask for them. Indeed, President Obama’s “AfPak” strategy is nothing so much as a regurgitation of foreign policy conventional wisdom from the last few years.

Corrupt civilian government "Corrupt civilian government"

The vast majority of this strategy was laid out during Vice President Joe Biden's Democratic primary run in a speech on November 15, 2007 at Saint Anselm College. In addition to calling for a “surge” of the troops and advisors, the plan called for tripling US aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion, for the US to condition its military aid to Pakistan on benchmarks measuring success or failure in quelling the insurgency (as opposed to spending it all in an arm's race with India) and for broader diplomatic engagement with regional players such as Iran, Azerbaijan, and India.

These ideas didn’t come to Biden in a stroke of genius, they came from a politician’s typical pedestrian reading of contemporary foreign policy publications. One part of the plan in particular, calling for an influx of 4,000 advisory troops, seems to be lifted directly from a June 2007 paper John Nagl wrote for the Center for a New American Security, an elite foreign policy think tank, titled Institutionalizing Adaptation: It's Time for an Army Advisor Corps.

President Obama first called for the extra-judicial killings of Pakistani citizens in a speech on August 1, 2007 at The Woodrow Wilson Center. Citing the danger posed by al-Qa’eda safe havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, Obama said, “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [the Pakistani government] won’t act, we will.”

Again this was a standard action called for in foreign policy publications. President Bush was consistently attacked in the press for appeasing the Musharraf regime, who was seen as too hesitant to strike terrorists inside Pakistani territory. Naturally, the response from elites was to urge the use of military violence. As far back as 2003 analysts for Jane’s Defense Weekly and Newsmax were lamenting the inability of the US to strike al-Qa’eda targets in Pakistan.

Clearly the narratives of Pakistan created by foreign policy elites have real world consequences, and thus there is a responsibility to ensure that any analysis offered into the debate should be reasonable and accurate, and not grounded in western fallacies of weak, corrupt, and ungovernable failed states. When experts called for strikes against al-Qa’eda in Pakistan, they weren’t offering realistic counterterrorism solutions, they were calling for the equivalent of Canada dropping 500lb bombs on criminals in Detroit, Michigan. They were advocating illegal vigilante justice.

Collateral Damage "Collateral Damage"

Now the foreign policy debate has turned to even greater existential questions about the fate of Pakistan. Experts casually run the cost-benefit analysis of wider military action against Pakistani criminals, while at the same time using frequent instances of mass killings and terrorism as impetus to question the very governability of Pakistani citizens. However, these questions could be answered, presumably without such depraved and violent solutions, by simply accepting the perspective that Pakistan and the West are far more similar than they are different. Quite simply, follow the golden rule, and treat others the way you would expect to be treated.

Remember the suicide attacks in the United States, those that have killed 53 Americans in a single month? The reactions from citizens have been confused, hurt, and frightened. There is a general difficulty comprehending the purpose of so much tragedy and bloodshed. In response to one of the attacks in Binghamton, New York, a local resident told WIVB-TV, “This is crazy - 13, 14 people dead. I never dreamed I'd wake up to see this, to hear this, you know?"

Similarly, in response to a recent string of violent attacks, Adil Najam wrote in the Pakistaniat, “For the life of me I cannot understand how the US thinks it will root out terror by lobbing bombs at Pakistani women and children. Nor how these militants think they are helping Islam or fighting America by killing Muslims and Pakistanis, bombing girls schools, or terrorizing civilian populations…All we know for sure is that innocent Pakistanis are dying. For what? For whom? Why?”

Pakistan is not a failed state, it is a vibrant democracy, and it is not weak and ungovernable, it is a fellow law abiding member of the international community. Until pundits, analysts, and academics in the foreign policy establishment, and those in the halls of power who feed off their conventional wisdom, can break with their western superstitions about the weakness, corruption, and chaos of developing democratic countries, they will be incapable of providing any answer to these questions. If the foreign policy elites wish to engage in Pakistani politics and tackle issues of counterterrorism, they should do so in a manner that acknowledges the democratic and legal values of the Pakistani citizens.

When we call a country a failed state, it leads to extra-judicial killings and exorbitant numbers of civilian casualties. This illegal violence undermines the democratic institutions, strengthens the militant and authoritarian factions within society, and like so many times in the history of western civilization, leads to the blowback of violent, extremist terrorism. Quite frankly, the next time a Pakistani gazes upon the scenes of carnage from a US drone strike and asks “why,” we’d better have a damn good reason.


US Army Intelligence: We're Losing In Afghanistan (and Al Qa'eda is Not Reason Number One)

afghan-insurgency-mapAmidst all the flurry of Presidential announcements and Congressional hearings on Pakistan-Afghanistan, this is the most important document to sneak onto the Internet this week.

Wikileaks has posted a report of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, circulated on 1 March 2009. TRADOC is based in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where General David Petraeus developed his counter-insurgency approach before returning to Iraq in 2007 and then becoming head of US Central Command.

The document is burdened by acronyms, not to mention confusion over the numerous insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but a careful reader can pick out the high (or low) points:

"Permanent Taliban presence [heavy Taliban/insurgent activity now amounts to 72% of the total landmass", as of November 2008. The figure in 2007 was 54%.
"4 main highways into Kabul compromised by Taliban; Taliban infiltrate Kabul at will."

"IEDs [improvised explosive devices attacks rose late summer 2008 and continued to rise in 2009....Winter violence are at highest levels since 2001 invasion."

The number of US troops Killed in Action rose 50 percent in 2008.

All of this is depressing but unsurprising. Even more revealing are some other numbers and statements that will not be mentioned by any Obama Administration official:

Number of Al Qa'eda in Pakistan-Afghanistan: 2,000. On its own, that figure is frustrating --- how many members does it take to constitute a "global terrorist organisation" --- but it takes on some significance when compared to Taliban in Afghanistan (30,000), the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan led by Baitullah Mehsud (15,000); the [Jalaluddin] "Haqqani Network" (unknown, "numbers are included in Taliban of Pakistan‟s total strength"); and "Warlord Militias" (tens of thousands).

The most significant role of Al Qa'eda, according to the document, is to provide "funding, foreign fighters and other assistance" to an "enemy [which] is primarily Pashtun in nature and Sunni Muslim (Wahhabi and Deobandi)". However, the insurgency is also funded by drug economy and Gulf Arab money.

"This enemy is trained and assisted by ISID or ISID affiliated elements". The acronym hides the impact of the statement: "ISID" is Pakistan's intelligence services, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.

Syd Walker blogs that the report is "more like a teenage scrapbook than an official ‘Intelligence’ document....It might work as a motivational Powerpoint Presentation for rookies." He's got a point, given the analysts' attempt to get over complexity with an "Insurgent Syndicate" linking, rather than differentiating, between Al Qa'eda and local movements (not to mention inaccurate conflations of those local movements, such as the asserted alliance between the "Haqqani Network" and Baitullah Mehsud).

Still, the devil of significance is in the detail lurking in the pages. And it's that detail, beyond the spectral 2000 Al Qa'eda, that show the shallowness of an Obama rhetoric of "an al Qaeda network that killed thousands on American soil" and is "still plotting today".

Petraeus v. Obama (Part 158): Israel and Iran

There was a bit of a media rumble this week over an interview that the new Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. Netanyahu made it quite clear that he held open the option of an airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilties.

This is not dramatic news. Tel Aviv has been shaking an aerial fist at Tehran for years, but a unilateral Israeli operation, even if technically possible, risks an Iranian political and military response --- and reaction from other countries and groups --- throughout and beyond the Middle East.

So, at the least, Israel needs the US to cover its back. And the Bush Administration, despite all its pro-Israeli and anti-Iranian sympathies, refused such support in summer 2008.

This is where America's other President, General David Petraeus, enters the scene. Even as the Obama Administration has been pursuing engagement with Iran, Petraeus --- both directly and through acolytes --- has been loudly talking about Iranian support for insurgent operations against US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, the General went a step further. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “The Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take preemptive military action to derail or delay it.”

This may not be an outright endorsement of a Tel Aviv strike, but it is comfortably close to acceptance of an operation. Petraeus didn't risk the usual (unsupported) pretext that Iran is close to a Bomb; instead, he stretched justification to “Iranian officials have consistently failed to provide the assurances and transparency necessary for international acceptance and verification”.

You could try out the explanation that the Obama Administration is playing "good cop, bad cop" with Tehran; on Tuesday, envoy Richard Holbrooke signals co-operation at The Hague conference on Afghanistan, 24 hours later Petraeus warns of consequences if Iran doesn't accept the extended hand.

That, however, is a fool's approach. The most casual observer could tell you that Iran does not react kindly to blatant pressure. And the consequences of Tehran walking away from talks in the face of Petraeus' threats, given the American position in Afghanistan, are far greater than they were in 2003 when the Bush Administration pulled a similar stunt.

No, the latest Petraeus intervention is as much a response to his President as it is to Tehran.

The General has a previous record on this issue. In 2007, he was serving under the then head of Central Command, William Fallon. The two men didn't see eye-to-eye: a year later, Fallon was gone with Petraeus on his way to succeeding him.

The standard narrative, for those who noted the battle, was that Petraeus had to get his Iraq "surge" past a resistant Fallon. That is certainly true, but more broadly, to deal with regional issues, Fallon advocated a strategy of engaging Iran rather than isolating it. That was also opposed by Petraeus.

Move forward two years. After the muddle in US policy, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clumsily trying to press Iran via the spectre of conflict with Arab states, Washington settles on the possibilities of a step-by-step engagement.

Who doesn't like that?

Israel. And President Obama's most prominent military commander.

Petraeus V Obama: It Ain't Over

In January/February, we paid close attention to a running battle between General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, with his President over Obama's plans in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It appeared, however, that the compromise over the Iraq withdrawal and last week's Obama announcement of the Pakistan-Afghanistan strategy established consensus. Indeed, Petraeus had won a quiet victory. The headlines said Obama had approved an extra 17,000 troops; in fact, if you include support forces, the boost was 30,000, the amount that military commanders had been seeking. No wonder Petraeus even went alongside Obama envoy Richard Holbrooke on the Sunday talk shows to promote the plan.

All right then?


On Wednesday Petraeus was back to his My Way approach on the US military approach in Afghanistan: "American commanders have requested the deployment of an additional 10,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan next year, [although] the request awaits a final decision by President Obama this fall."

Dave couldn't have been clearer: if you want his plan in Afghanistan (which his spin machine is assuring you is the case), then give him more soldiers: "The ratio of coalition and Afghan security forces to the population is projected through 2011 to be significantly lower than the 20 troops per 1,000 people prescribed by the Army counterinsurgency manual he helped write."

How brazen, even defiant, is this? Consider that on Sunday the President tried to hold the line against precisely this "bit more, bit more, OK, a bit more" demand. He said he had "resourced properly" the strategy and pre-emptively warned his generals, "What I will not do is to simply assume that more troops always result in an improved situation ... There may be a point of diminishing returns."

Michele Flournoy, the Undersecretary of Defense, tried to maintain this position in the Congressional hearing. She insisted that the US plan was to concentrate forces in "the insurgency belt in the south and east," rather than (Petraeus' preference) throughout Afghanistan. "Troops would arrive, as planned, in 2010."

The "comprehensive strategy" announced last Friday means different things to the President and Petraeus. For Obama, the troop increase has to be integrated with the non-military measures. If those measures, then the military approach also has to be reconsidered, not necessarily for another "surge" but for an "exit strategy".

For Petraeus, "comprehensive" means military-first. And, if the violence continues and even increases, then that will be his rationale for yet more soldiers into the conflict.

Lace up your boots, folks. There may be a war brewing in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there is also one underway in Washington, D.C.

NATO Summit: The Latest From Strasbourg

The NATO summit is due to begin, with France set to rejoin the NATO fold. Here's what we're hearing so far:

  • US-French relations appear to be strong- Obama says he did not have to drag France "kicking and screaming" back into NATO; Sarkozy evokes France's sense of unity with America post-9/11, and suggests that France may accept a Guantánamo detainee.

  • Obama, under cover of praising French involvement in Afghanistan, has said that, "it is probably more likely that al-Qaeda would be able to launch a serious terrorist attack in Europe than in the United States because of proximity. This is not an American mission, this is a Nato mission, this is an international mission."

  • We reported earlier that the UK was unlikely to send more troops to Afghanistan. Gordon Brown has now said that troops may be sent in a temporary security role for the upcoming Afghan presidential elections- but that they will number in the hundreds rather than thousands.

  • The press is having a field day over the Michelle Obama-Carla Bruni 'glam-off'. (The Guardian has a dedicated live-blog.)

UPDATE (10pm): talks have closed for the night with no decision reached on a new secretary general.