Sunday, April 27, 2008

Some Questions Concerning The Deal With Mehsud's Militants

Thinking out loud:

What's changed since the fall of 2006? What hasn't?

You will recall that less than two years ago, Musharraf and the military struck a deal with tribal leaders in FATA. It did not work, primarily because neither side could credibly stick to its commitments, and, in classic spiral-model terms, any infringement was seen not as an isolated issue but an opportunity to make a stand and thus be more firm than was necessary in response. Escalation, rather than restraint and concessions, was the name of the game.

So what has changed? We can divide this question into two. First, the structure under which the two parties - the state of Pakistan and militant groups - are interacting. The militant groups have demonstrated their strength in the last eighteen months, and have shown they can wreak havoc on Pakistan's people, infrastructure, and everyday life. So the relative strength and weaknesses of the agents in interaction are a lot clearer - we know who we're dealing with, and they know that we know who we're dealing with.

The second half of the answer concerns the actors and their preferences. First, it is no longer a politically vulnerable but militarily gung-ho Pervez Musharraf calling the shots. Instead, it is the politically gung-ho but militarily circumspect duo of Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif in charge. Second, the previous deal was made with tribal elders who were expected to exercise some control over militant groups operating in the area. By contrast, this deal is made with the militants themselves.

In sum, the relevant changes from the fall of 2006 are: (a) a clearer and more informative environment vis-a-vis the militants' organizational capacity, (b) the preferences of one party (the government of Pakistan), and (c) the identity of the other party (from tribal elders to militant groups).

What hasn't changed since the fall of 2006? First, the pressure Pakistan feels from the international community (read: Uncle Sugar) on tackling the militants has less to do with Pakistan's security than Afghanistan's. The deal made, just to reiterate, says nothing about militants ceasing violent activities across the border. In other words, there's nothing stopping the militants from doing exactly what put Pakistan in this position in the first place. Second, there still exists among the mid- and lower levels of the military and ISI a sympathy for the cause of the militants, a sympathy that sometimes extends to outright support. Third, it remains the stated policy of the U.S. and its NATO allies to stabilize Afghanistan with armed support, and it remains the stated policy of militant groups operating on the border regions to make that task all but impossible.

Whichever of the factors you consider more important and crucial to the violence - those that have changed vs. those that haven't - will probably determine your opinion on whether or not the deal will work.

What do the Americans think about all this?

See if you can make sense of the following two statements. Here's Dana Perino, White House spokesperson:

We are concerned about it and what we encourage them to do is to continue to fight against the terrorists and to not disrupt any security or military operations that are ongoing in order to help prevent a safe haven for terrorists there.”

And here's Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher:
It is important to negotiate with the tribes to end violence, to end suicide bombings and to end the plotting and planning that happens (in the tribal areas).

My guess? That the U.S. is simply kicking the can down the road, aware that it has less leverage with this government than the last (at this juncture anyway) and also aware that any strong displeasure at the deal should be expressed privately more so than in the public eye.

What does "success" mean? Is Pakistan thinking tactically or strategically?

At best, this deal will reduce violence inside Pakistan. Many will think that violence in Pakistan against Pakistanis is all the government of Pakistan should be concerned with, and so that scenario would be an unmitigated success. I won't say here whether I agree or disagree with that assessment. Rather, I will ask two questions:

First, is Pakistan treating this as a tactical move or a strategic move? In other words, is the deal an end in and of itself, or is part of a wider plan to eradicate the area of all militants, not just "foreign" ones? (An aside: in an area that is a de facto if not de jure autonomous state, what constitutes "foreign"?)

Second, what happens if the militants in the area, left to their own devices, continue to launch attacks across the border in Afghanistan? What if they take it a step further, and we see another 7/7 or 9/11 originating directly from territory Pakistan is supposed to control? I'm not asking from a normative standpoint - I know there will be enough people out there who would respond to another 9/11 with a "Who cares, they've done enough killing in the last few years to have earned it". I'm asking from a predictive standpoint: are the people of Pakistan and its government prepared to deal with the consequences, whatever they may be, of such an eventuality?

The answers to these questions, I think, constitute the logic for either being behind this deal or being against it.

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