Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sovereignty, American Incursions Into Pakistan, And The So-Called War On Terror

I was watching an investigative report on the 2006 terrorist plot to blow up several airplanes over the Atlantic ocean on BBC's Panorama a few weeks ago, and one particular sequence crystallized for me the reasons for the very difficult situation the U.S. and Pakistan find themselves in today. The sequence I'm referring to came toward the end of the program, and concerned the infamous Rashid Rauf, alleged to be the ringleader (and the liason between militant organizations in Pakistan and the sleeper cells in Britain) of the entire plot. This sequence, if you don't have an entire hour to spare - though in my view, you should make the time to watch the entire program - occurs from around the 7:00 mark on the fourth video clip linked above to around the 5:00 mark on the fifth.

A reasonable synopsis of events is outlined thusly: British intelligence agencies had their eyes and ears tuned in to the sleeper cell in Britain. They did not, however, want to move too quickly to arrest the members of the cell, and wanted to wait to gather as much prosecutable evidence as possible. The Americans, it is implied but never directly stated, forced their hand by pushing Pakistani authorities to arrest Rashid Rauf, who was on his way to Multan at the time (thought to be disappearing to the tribal areas). When the Pakistani police, on the orders of the Americans, arrested Rauf, it forced the British to arrest the plotters in Britain a lot sooner than they would have liked because they (the British) knew that the plotters would discover Rauf's arrest and would either panic and/or disappear. The basic point of the arrest of the plotters is this: the British were trying to be smart and were lying low, waiting for the right opportunity, and the Americans had ants in their pants, throwing a wrench in their well-crafted plans.

Of course, we know what happned to Rauf. He escaped late last year, as the video describes, from the back door of a mosque (!) when allowed to perform his prayers. You can read more on this bizarre escape in this story in Dawn, which I will quote from below:
The latest details of his escape will likely come as further embarrassment for the government, which was considering a British request for Rauf’s extradition in an unrelated 2002 murder case.

The senior security official said Rauf’s uncle, Mohammad Rafiq, had convinced the two police escorts to make the drive back to jail in Rafiq’s more comfortable van -- instead of in a police vehicle.

The official said that on the way to jail in Rawalpindi, Rauf asked for permission to stop at a fast-food restaurant -- where the uncle bought a meal for all of them.

Then Rauf asked to visit a mosque for prayers, which was also allowed.

While the prayer service was going on Rauf and his uncle disappeared.

The thing to note in the video is one American official's reaction, recorded around the 6:30 mark of the fifth and final clip, when he says he felt "anger and disappointment" but that he "can't say he was surprised". The basic point of Rauf's escape is this: Pakistani competence, if not willingness, to tackle the militant threat has every reason to be questioned by reasonable observers of the last seven years. (You can read more of this questioning in this provocative feature in the NYT Magazine a few weeks ago).

These conflicting tendencies - American ham-handedness, and Pakistani incompetence - highlight exactly why we are where we are today, with U.S. incursions into Pakistan becoming a regular occurrence and with U.S. and Pakistani forces shooting at each other.

On the one hand, the inability (or the unwillingness) of certain elements of the Pakistani state to tackle the militant threat has meant that non-state actors such as the Taliban and their local affiliates have attained and secured bases from which to organize, plan and execute attacks against ISAF/NATO forces in Afghanistan, and possibly against civilians in Western cities. This state of affairs understandbly has the U.S. and its Western allies concerned, and truth to be told, placed in the same position, any other government would think the same way (especially if faced with the prospect of high value militant targets eating at McDonalds and then escaping through back doors of mosques). This concern, in turn, has led to the following theoretically-reasonable position: as our ally, and recipient of oodles of aid, we expect you to fulfill certain tasks. If you cannot, or do not want to, fulfill these certain tasks, we will do the dirty work - just make sure to get out of the way.

The problem with this position is not its moral justifiability but its operational viability. Put differently, the problem with this position is not that it's "wrong" but that the Americans generally have no idea about what they're doing on the ground. It is similar to the predicament that supply-side economics faces: fine in theory under heroic assumptions, but highly problematic in reality. For one thing, such a position is predicated on the assumption that the "actionable intelligence" we hear so much of is accurate. If the Iraq WMD debacle was not enough to cast serious doubt on American intelligence, their actions in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan should settle the debate. There are too many examples to recount of the U.S. using a hatchet where a scalpel would be more approriate, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama. For our purposes, just one will suffice.

On the night of August 22, the U.S. conducted a military strike in the Afghan village of Azizabad and killed more than 90 civilians (I highly recommend reading this brilliant report filed by the NYT's Carlotta Gall, I also recommend reading Glenn Greenwald's blog post on the incident). I want to quote one particular passage from Gall's report:
The villagers and the relatives of some of the people killed in the raid insisted that none of them were Taliban and that there were no Taliban present in the village. Eight of the men killed were security guards supplied by Reza Khan to a private American security company and did possess weapons, said Gul Ahmed Khan, Reza Khan’s brother. Two other security guards and three members of the local Afghan police were detained by United States forces during the raid. Four of them were released a week later.The Khan brothers are from the most prominent family in the village and were hosting the memorial ceremony for their brother, Taimoor Shah, who was killed in a business dispute a year ago. They had cards issued by an American Special Forces officer that designated each of them as a “coordinator for the U.S.S.F.” Another brother, Haji Abdul Rashid, blamed a business rival for falsely telling the Americans that their family supported the Taliban.

Such lapses have been all too regular on both sides of the Durand Line, and result from a complete lack of familiarity with the area, its people, its traditions, and its historic tribal and regional cleavages. Unlike the British in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Americans simply do not know how to do empire properly. The British would send officers, bureaucrats, and trade missionaries for years on end; these representatives, by settling in the colonies and raising families, became locals for all intents and purposes, and consequently understood what the hell they were doing. By contrast, the Americans have mid-level CIA officials who've been there two months, as well as random bureaucrats sitting in Washington, making important decisions such as "Should we bomb this village based on intelligence provided by a local informant who may or may not have ulterior motives for providing us this information?"

In concrete terms, what the employment by the U.S. of overly blunt instruments in this war means is a serious complication for Pakistani attempts to quell militancy within its borders. Under the new civilian regime, the Pakistani government has inculcated a much more broad-ranging strategy than that of the Musharraf government, and has brought to bear political, economic, and military tools to the problem. The success of such a strategy, however, is predicated in part on non-interference from external actors; every time the U.S. kills civilians in the tribal areas of Pakistan, it makes the Pakistani strategy that much more likely to fail.

So this is where we find ourselves today: the Americans feel compelled to escalate their role in the region because Pakistani authorities allow things like Rashid Rauf eating a Happy Meal before escaping from the back door of a mosque. When the Americans escalate their role, they invariably do so clumsily, invariably kill civilians, and invariably cause Pakistan more problems in carrying out its mission, which leads to the war becoming even more of a political millstone, setting off a vicious cycle. The riding of this vicious cycle is what we experiencing today, with both the U.S. and Pakistani governments entrenching themselves further in their mutually exclusive positions. The vicious cycle has the potential of easily spiralling out of control.

I should also stipulate for the record that the violation by the U.S. of Pakistan's sovereignty - the notion that a state practices exclusive control of territory within its borders - in FATA is a red herring, for three reasons. First, the Pakistani state's sovereignty in the region since independence has been tenuous at best; the area has largely been left to its own devices under the stewardship of local- and district-level tribal governments. Second, even if the preceding sentence was not true, Pakistan's sovereignty in the region was chronologically and historically first violated by the Taliban, and not American drones and soldiers. Like virginity, sovereignty can logically only be violated once; once the Taliban established a quasi-parallel administration in the region, it became a political and legal reality that Pakistan does not lay claim to controlling the area. Third, the uproar about sovereignty concering American actions in the reigon in the last few weeks ignores the fact that the Americans have been doing this for well over two years now; it is only the fact that (a) it has become more overt, and (b) it is being done more frequently that seems to be the root of Pakistani anger. Neither (a) nor (b) have anything to do with the violation of sovereignty per se and have everything to do with the way the violation of sovereignty is conducted.

Irrespective of polito-legal questions of sovereignty, the fact remains that the status quo represents an extremely dangerous situation for the Pakistani state. Squeezed by the Americans to do more, by the Pakistani population to do less, and by the Taliban to do nothing, this high-wire balancing act is doomed to fail. The question, however, remains: on which side of the wire is Pakistan going to fall?


Rabia said...

"The problem with this position is not its moral justifiability but its operational viability."

i.e. the devil is in the details, which, if the GWOT was an aesop's fable would be the moral of the story.

Nagarajan said...

Pretty good analysis... just like to add a few more points - i am from India, currently living in the US. Here are the reasons the US is desperate to "show" that it is dealing with this problem.

1. Iraq - the Democrats have now successfully convinced people that the central front in the war is Afghanistan and not Iraq. Hence the posturing from Obama about conducting cross border raids if AQ/Taliban terrorists are in their sight.

2.Most people here are now convinced that Pakistan would be the place where plans for the next attacks on US homeland will be hatched and perfected. Some thing "needs" to be done.

3.This is an election year and there will be a lot more focus on Afghanistan than usual.The political posturing on cross border raids is understandable even though i'd say its IRRESPONSIBLE.

Pakistan will have to deal with Obama in all probability. This may become more interesting than i thought it would.

shariq said...

Excellent post. Pakistan is between a rock, a hard place and a ??? Someone needs to update this saying.

More seriously, I think the only possible solution is for the political leadership to make a concerted effort to convince the public that this not just america's war but pakistan's war as well. Given that the terrorists have increased their attacks in Pakistan this shouldn't be as difficult as it once was.

Check out the bloggingheads b/w Heather Hurlburt and Chris Preble. (Liberal v Libertarian foreign policy). I think that Obama saying that America should be helping Pakistan rebuild its democratic institutions and economy is a good one. However as Chris Preble says, there is a danger that if there is too much American involvement then our own govt and public will say that this is america's war and we are simply assisting them.

Ahsan said...


I don't agree with your assertion that more terrorist attacks in Pakistan should make it easier to make the case that this is our war, and not America's. I think evidence over the last 2 years has shown that as militants step up their attacks, it only cements the misguided (and sadly, majority) view in Pakistan that these attacks show we should stop fighting "America's war" now. While I want to believe you, history has shown the complete opposite to be the case.

Anonymous said...

Wake up Pakistan --it is no longer a question of being Pro or Anti-American.
Though past US policies -- inspired or collaborated in by every leader you have accepted for yourselves -- ARE responsible for the present situation, and should be criticised by citizens and historians, the future is up to you. If you do not deal with your own hate-mongering extremists and their jihad-exporting ways, you invite the world to do it for you.

Anonymous said...

Wake up Pakistan --it is no longer a question of being Pro or Anti-American.
Though past US policies -- inspired or collaborated in by every leader you have accepted for yourselves -- ARE responsible for the present situation, and should be criticised by citizens and historians, the future is up to you. If you do not deal with your own hate-mongering extremists and their jihad-exporting ways, you invite the world to do it for you.

shariq said...

Ahsan, you're definitely right that this hasn't happened in the past. I was thinking that maybe the targeting of the elites would make a difference but as you say there's no reason to think so because elites have been targeted for a while - musharraf, s.aziz, benazir etc.

With all the crap which is going on in the country, i was looking for a silver lining which wasn't there.

Ahsan said...

Yes, dismantling the illusion of silver linings is what we here at Rs. 5 do best.