Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Right Reason To Critique The Peace Deals

Since Pakistan has now assumed major-issue status in the global media, there is a lot of nonsense being bandied about. To tackle all these misconceptions would take too much of my time, but there is one issue I wanted to quickly mention: that of the peace deals with the Taliban, and why they were a bad idea.

A few pieces I've read lately (sorry, too lazy to go back and find the links at this time) have basically posited that suing for peace with the Taliban was a bad idea because it challenged the writ of the government in previously "settled" areas, and conceded too much to the Taliban. This is silly. First of all, the very fact that the Taliban had an armed and political presence in the areas by definition meant that the government had no writ in these areas; to use Weber's classical language of what a state is, the government did not enjoy a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Pakistan's sovereignty wasn't challenged by the peace deals but by what necessitated the peace deals. Once the Taliban were in, claiming sovereignty in the face of evidence to the contrary was simply foolish. All the peace deals did was recognize that there was no functional difference between a de facto and a de jure recognition of Taliban power in these areas.

Second, whether or not too much was conceded to the Taliban was a tactical question. In a difficult war, no options -- whether they be military, economic, or diplomatic -- should ever be taken off the table. If conceding Swat, for instance, would end the war forever and ever, and satisfy the Taliban such that they would no longer spread violence and their system of "government" toward other areas of Pakistan, then it would have to be considered a worthwhile option, especially considering the levels of terrorism that average Pakistanis suffered in 2007 and 2008. Of course, residents of Swat would disagree with that claim, but my point is only to suggest that the efficacy of such a concession would have to be judged on how successful it was in winning the larger conflict, and not based on honor-based understandings of "never back down".

The right reason to critique the peace deals, as I vociferously did, was that the Taliban would not be satisfied and would push for more. Indeed, this is exactly what happened -- before the ink had even dried on Zardari's deal which basically signed off Swat and its residents, the Taliban used the area as a push for greater control in adjacent areas. The Pakistani military and civilian leadership was in all probability banking on the idea that the Taliban would stay put for a while, and thus allow them (i.e. the state) time to regroup. This was a severe miscalculation, and sadly one that was all too easy to forsee.

If we assume that it was near-certain that the Taliban would push for more once they got concessions, then we can clearly see why the concessions were such an irrational policy in the first place. Consider a simple framework of two actors, A and B. They are fighting over something -- policy, territory, whatever -- represented by the number 10. Let's say A is presently stronger, so it has 8, while B is presently weaker, and has 2. If B threatens A with punishment that is intolerable to A -- say, by an unyielding campaign of terrorism against A's civilians -- then A can cut a deal with B. It can tell B: look, stop the violence, and I'll give you 2, so that you have 4 and I have 6.

This would be fine in and of itself, except it assumes that B would be happy with 4. The problem arises when B is a bit of an asshole. If B is an asshole, then once it has 4, it wants 5, or even 6. But most importantly, A is now less able to tackle B. Before the concession, A had 8, and B had 2, so A was much stronger. After the concession, the difference in strength was reduced to 6 vs. 4.

This framework perfectly illustrates what has happened in Swat. If the Pakistani leadership had actually stood up to the Taliban while they were moving in, it would have been a lot easier to beat them, because the military would have been fighting for the status quo, which is almost always easier to defend. They would have been the 8 fighting the 2. Now that the Taliban have actually moved in, the process of throwing them out is hard. It's a 6 fighting a 4. Instead of defending the status quo, the Pakistani military is seeking to overturn it. Basically, they made their own job harder by waiting. Those hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons who are now refugees in their own country? I promise you they would have had an easier time of it if the military fought the Taliban before granting concessions, rather than after. They are reaping what the government sowed; this is an unfair outcome as well as a wholly unnecessary one.


Aditya said...

There is another reason why B would want more, even if B is not an asshole which is what the World Media is implicitly trying to say. If you agree to give 2 to B that just shows B its methods work.
I know you are trying to make the same point in your post but because the Pakistan Govt. negotiated,gave the Taliban the kind of thrust it needed.It becomes easier for them to motivate their troops citing this very example.

Majaz said...

You know what I'm now suddenly worried about?

Hundreds and thousands of internally displaced people within our own country - hundreds and thousands of unemployed, shelter-seeking, majority-illiterate, desperate people who will now either land in big cities (especially Karachi) for opportunities they won't get or move to smaller towns for shelter that will be hard to fight for too.

This is structural unemployment scenario, an economic nightmare.

I hope Zardari burns in hell.

sg said...

I'm not sure why you're criticizing the 'global media'. Aren't/Weren't they saying the same thing? that it is bad idea to be cutting deals with untrustworthy people. And that is the essence of your analysis. the taleban, in addition to being assholes, cannot be trusted. It's not just their methods and philosophies that I deplore, it's their personal and collective character. These guys are hypocrites and are completely untrustworthy. There is absolutely no honor in what they are doing and even less in how they go about it.

For the folks that like to blame Zardari, I think you're wrong. not that I'm a zardari fan - I'm not pakistani and know nothing much about him. But I think if the government had gone in for the military solution before the peace deal, the whole country would've been up in arms about the government's strong-arm tactics. It is true that the government is now fighting from a position of weakness relative to before the peace deal, but on the other hand it looks like the whole country is behind the government action this time around. And this buy-in from the country is most likely necessary for you guys to have a chance at beating back the taleban.

foolsparadise said...

I think its a fight of definitions, perspectives and probabilities.

(IMO)In current world,

1> religion + anything -- religious
2> perspective + anything -- Nationalities, regionalism, group-ism etc
3> probabilities + anything -- makes it a gamble.

being (sort of) sure of 1 & 2 the game we are watching in Pakistan is of gamble (probabilities + anything).

Bilal said...

Maybe, perhaps, Ashfaq Kayani knew the Taliban would not be satisfied and would try to move to other areas. He also knew that would generate the public support necessary for military action. Can you imagine bombing your own population? This is what he is doing with the support of most of the rest of the population! Pakistan is in an unfortunate position.

Ahsan said...


Not sure I buy that completely. Sometimes you have to give in to violent movements even if you don't like the idea of showing that it works. It all depends on whether or not you think the violent movement will stop being violent if you give them what they want: if so, you give in. On the other hand, if you think they're going to keep demanding more and more, then you don't give in. But that initial decision is key.


Yup, you hit the nail on the head.


Interesting thoughts. I agree with your second point, which is that whether or not it was deliberately designed to be this way, the idea of waiting for the Taliban to overplay their hand has made it easier to unify the public. That point should be considered in any analysis of this, you're completely right.

On the first point, yes some in the global media are saying this, but some aren't. Many people think that signing off sovereignty and the writ of the state is a bad move IN AND OF ITSELF. That position makes no sense to me, because the government didn't enjoy its writ in these areas anyway, so in a way, it was merely formalizing what we knew to be true.

Yawar said...

This is eerily remniscent of the whole Laal Masjid fiasco. Give them an inch, they want a mile.

I agree with Bilal though. The first operation didn't really have public backing. But when Sufi Mohammad came out and said democracy and judiciary had to go, I think people realized the growing monster they were dealing with.

Good post, mate.

somethingrichandstrange said...

great post, ahsan.

princcess said...

a nice post made me to think a lot.

i got an opportunity to look into the mind of the people living in pakistan.

Khan said...

Re-"Consider a simple framework of two actors, A and B." Except this time replace B as America instead of Taliban and A as Pakistan. The era is immediately post 9-11, when B threatens A with bombing A to stone age. B was in a weaker position then than now. By giving concession to B, A will loose everything (all 10) and still don't realize it. B took:
1-Afghanistan, a would-be strong ally for A had A the courage and vision to stick to its guns.
2-6 The Pukhtana of Waziristan,Wana, Mohmand, Bajaur, and Swat who were an asset to A had A the wisdom to know where its treasures are. Do you think the Pukhtana of these areas will consider themselves to belong to A anymore? Does B have any interest in considering the Pukhtana of these areas as human beings?
3- What did A get in a deal with B? Did B prove to be trustworthy people? Has B proved itself trustworthy in the past in dealing with A? So, yes SG, that it is bad idea to be cutting deals with untrustworthy people.
A might or might not have suffered similar consequences had it not given concession and cut a deal with B in the first place, but then it would have been a different story. A story of courage, wisdom, independence and sovereignty for A.

Ahsan said...

Somethingrich and princess:



When the relationship between two states is as asymmetric (in terms of power) as the one between Pakistan and the U.S., "courage" and "independence" isn't usually an option.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis!!!
It proves that Indian govt. is following correct policy in Kashmir.

Anonymous said...

Easier always to critique isn’t it? On the other hand tho, I’m thrilled the govt did it the way they did it because they roped the Taliban with its own rope… they not only made it a popular, mainstream decision of the people but exposed the bloody bastards for what they are.. money grabbing, manipulating jerks who’ve defamed everything Pakistan, Pakistanis, Islam and Muslims stand for..

Anonymous said...

Easier always to critique isn’t it? On the other hand tho, I’m thrilled the govt did it the way they did it because they roped the Taliban with its own rope… they not only made it a popular, mainstream decision of the people but exposed the bloody bastards for what they are.. money grabbing, manipulating jerks who’ve defamed everything Pakistan, Pakistanis, Islam and Muslims stand for..

Butters said...

What about the possibility that the concession was a deliberate attempt to prove that the Taliban are not trustworthy, as an excuse to go to war?

I like your analysis, and am myself noncommittal on the issue, but I think the game theoretical part of your analysis could do with some other variables that it has not included so far. Those include the variable of the perception of the legitimacy of certain levels of force.

So, if A has 8 and B has 2, perhaps A, by appearing to grant or actually granting 2 extra to B, has also in the process crossed a threshold beyond which the desired level of force that A wants to inflict upon B is seen as acceptable. I'm not saying this is necessarily the case but it is worth considering.

Ahsan said...


No, not necessarily. Essentially the question boils down to: do you think the armed non-state group will demand more once you give it concessions, or will be satisfied? If you think it will be satisfied, then concessions become more palatable. If you think they will keep demanding more, then concessions should not be given. So you have to ask yourself which side of the divide the Kashmiri groups fall into.

Anon316 and Butters:

Well, I think that is a very charitable interpretation of what happened. I suppose it is technically possible, but in my mind it's highly unlikely that Zardari and Kayani planned this to perfection the way you're making it out to be. Nevertheless, I think we can agree on the fact that the Taliban DID overplay their hand, and so whether or not it was deliberate is sort of besides the point.