Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Never Quiet on the Western Front

I've been meaning to talk about the security situation on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border for a long time now. Thankfully, Fareed Zakaria wrote this column that reminded me that I've been meaning to talk about the security situation on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border for a long time now. As usual, Pakistan is blamed for Afghanistan's troubles.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his counterpart in Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, have openly quarreled about the cause of the Taliban's re-emergence. Musharraf blames Karzai's incompetence and weakness. Karzai argues that Pakistan has been tacitly—and often actively—supporting the Taliban along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and in Pakistan itself. Having spoken to a number of senior Western officials and independent observers in both countries, I think it's clear that, in the words of a senior U.S. administration official who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject, "the weight of the evidence supports President Karzai."

Americans want to believe that all good things go together. But here is a telling example of why that's not always true. President Musharraf is a genuine modernizer who has saved his country from becoming a failed state. Despite the compromises he has had to make, he has been more forward-looking on economics, law, religion and even women's rights issues than any government in Pakistan since the early 1970s. But having confronted Islamic extremists on such matters, Musharraf seems to believe that one area where he need not actively thwart them is in their goal of jihad against Karzai's government and its Western backers.

This attitude is part of a traditional Pakistani world view. The Islamabad strategic elite, which essentially means its top military officers, believes that establishing "strategic depth"—having some sway over events in Afghanistan—is crucial for Pakistan. This mechanistic view comes out of the cold war, when India and Afghanistan tilted toward the Soviet Union, and has gained ground as India and Afghanistan have both become pro-American.

There are even those in Islamabad who believe that to counter these trends, Pakistan should help drive Western forces out of Afghanistan— even establish a pro-Pakistan, Taliban government in Kabul. That would explain Islamabad's constant refrain that the Taliban must be rehabilitated within the Afghan political system.

There are a couple of observations to be made here. First, where is Mr. Zakaria getting his information from? By his own admission, it is "senior Western officials and independent observers in both countries". How impartial are "senior Western officials"? I don't know. I do know three things, though. One, that "senior Western officials" are more likely to support Karzai than Musharraf because Karzai is their guy and he wouldn't be in power if it weren't for the actions of other "senior Western officials". Two, they are likely to be averse to saying anything that might undermine his government at a particularly tenuous time for it when the success of said government is vital to their strategic interests. Three, Pakistan doesn't enjoy a particularly sterling reputation among Western circles (intelligentsia, media, bureaucracies etc). Whether such a reputation is warranted or not is beside the point; the point is if you're a parent and you have two sons and you like one of them more than the other, you're more likely to blame the son you don't like as much for breaking the vase when you weren't home, even if you don't know who did it with anything approaching certainty.

The second observation to be made is the complete lack of context with which Western media presentations of Pakistan-Afghanistan border issues are made. Just once, for my sake if nothing else, I would like the New York Times to mention in one its scathing editorials about how Pakistan "needs to do more" that we have stationed more than 70,000 troops in the region. Just once, I'd like to see an article mention the losses we've had to take in the fight against the Taliban. Perhaps Zakaria could have found space in his column for the fact that less than a month ago, Pakistan lost 42 troops while they were exercising. Surely it wouldn't take that much effort, would it? "On the other hand, Pakistan has 70000 troops in the region and has lost more than 400 soldiers in its fight against the Taliban and its sympathizers over the last few years, including 42 in a vicious attack less than a month ago." See? That wasn't that hard! I know you can go over your word limit by 43 words, Fareed. I know you can. Fuck, you're the editor of the International edition, no one's going to mind if you put in 43 extra words. Come on, Fareed, let's make this happen.

Despite protestation's from a reader and Alien Panda about a disclaimer recently, I'm going to give one more here. None of what I have said precludes the possibility that there are elements within our security apparatus who favour a return of the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan. In other words, I am not disputing the contention that we deserve some of the blame for what the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan (though I do dispute the contention that support for the Taliban is coming all the way from the top, i.e. Musharraf). I am only decrying the one-sided and patently unfair way in which Pakistan-Afghanistan border issues are dealt with by Western officials and media. In essence my claim is: not everything is our fault, so stop trying to make it sound like it is. Pay attention to the facts. Pay attention to the number of Pakistani troops who've been in the region and who've died. If you have a problem when our government cuts a deal with the Taliban on our side of the border, and want to splash it all over the front page and editorialize about it, fine. But if you're going to do so, then please explain the near defeaning silence with which you greet a similar agreement reached by the Afghan government on their side of the border. If the Afghans themselves are doing it, then perhaps there might be something to the tactic, yes? (I should say for the record that when the agreement was first made, I was strongly against it. I'm still not convinced of its efficacy, but I am less against it now than I was then. For whatever its worth). Blaming Pakistan has been the all-too-easy option for many people lately, whether its the Indian government vis-a-vis the Mumbai train blasts (what happened about that anyway? Oh yeah, the claim was bullshit) or the Karzai government vis-a-vis the security situation on the border. It needs to stop.

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