The Pakistan is on the Brink Meme

Unfortunately the Obama administration has been falling for this one, putting pressure on the weak civilian government to initiate a massive heavy campaign in the Swat valley, leaving up to a million and a half (you read that correctly) refugees.

One of the chief counsels on this topic to the administration comes from Bruce Riedel from the Saban Center.  He worked on a brief for the President that was part of Obama’s assessment of his Af-Pak (or is it Pak-Af?) policy.  Here’s a summary of his findings via the Brookings Website:

Just before her murder in December 2007 former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said, “I now think Al Qaeda can be marching on Islamabad in two to four years.” Today her prophecy seems all too real.

Al Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan, the Taliban, Lashkar e Tayyba, and other extreme jihadists, are becoming increasingly powerful. They are no longer confined to the tribal belt along the Afghan border but have built strong bases of support in the nation’s heartland, the Punjab, and in the major cities. The mayor of Karachi, a mega city of 18 million, tells me the Taliban alliance is now threatening to take over his city, the country’s only major port and NATO’s logistical supply line for the war in Afghanistan. A jihadist state in Pakistan is neither imminent nor inevitable, it may not be likely, but it is a real possibility.

al-Qaeda marching on Islamabad?  I don’t mean to speak ill of the (tragically) dead here, but what the hell does that even mean?  al-Qaeda is after some Caliphate that will never exist.  In Reza Aslan’s terms they are cosmic warriors.  They hate the state which is to them a sign of Western imperalism. All they can do is destroy.  They are in the truest sense of the word nihilists.  al-Qaeda is dangerous insofar as they can wreck death and destruction; they are not dangerous insofar as their political ideology has no ability ever to be made real.

Now the other groups–what the administration is now calling the terrorist/extremist syndicate–that Reidel mentions some of whom are after a governance.  e.g. Afghanistani and Pakistani Tablian both.  Both again recall that during the Afghan Taliban period of rule, they did not heavily govern as such but rather sought to impose a moral (dys)utopian vision on the country.  Now they are more like a mafia, in which case syndicate is a better term, but one that works against the grain of the US’ own policy in the region.  [i.e. You usually don’t send aerial bombardments and tanks against the Cosa Nostra].

So what is this jihadist state Reidel is talking about?

As Peter Bergen (h/t Juan Cole) points out that it is quite absurd to imagine the Taliban or any such group frontally winning a conventional war against the Pakistani military.  The Pakistani military as the analysts all say is still too built around conventional war (against India) to fight counterinsurgency.  Which is why the Taliban & related groups are never on Allah’s Green earth going to fight them in that manner. Bergen also correctly points out that the Pakistani electorate by and large has rejected politically extreme parties.

But even as sane a commentary (and one from a man who knows the region like few Westerners on the planet) still focuses on this all or nothing, the state is everything framework.  There still needs to be some learning about the post-Cold War world.  The issue is not taking over a state but rather creating a statelet within a hollowed out state from which to operate.

So a better question:  Could Pakistan become hollowed out?  Hollowed is relegated basically to the capital and formally in charge though practically not so much.

A few scenarios that could initiate such a sequence:

A) Regionalism and the breakup of the state along the example of Yugoslavia (with Balochistan maybe first to go).  Bergen’s conclusion here is extremely relevant:

A new Pakistan leader will have to emerge who has the courage to say something like the following: “I have a plan. It is a Pakistani plan and not an American plan. Our main enemy is no longer India; if we go to war again, we may well destroy each other with our nuclear weapons. Our new enemy is the militants claiming to act for Islam in our midst. They do not represent the Pakistan that our great founder, Ali Jinnah, envisioned; a country for Muslims living in peace, not an ideologically Islamist state. We will make no peace deals with the Taliban again. Every time we have done such a deal the Taliban have used it as a prelude to steal more of our land and impose their brutal rule on more of our citizens. We will task and train our military for an effective campaign against the militants, and we will wipe them off our lands.”

i.e. A politician who can articulate the purpose of Pakistan in the 21st century.  A state that would truly become one of the powers that be in the world that its deficiencies currently prevent it from being.  e.g. Feckless, corrupt civilian leadership, the history of the ISI in bed with terrorist elements, the aristocratic feudal plutocracy, and its insane continued focus (near paranoia at points) on India.  The US policy does not help but verify (though not intentionally) the increasing conspiracy theory among Pakistanis that the US is coming to carve the country up.  I’m not sure what the possibility for this occurring is.  Minus someone stepping up and articulating the kind of vision Bergen outlines for the country, then this scenario grows more likely (though by no means inevitable) overtime.  Though I think for now it’s still fairly remote.

B) While Reidel acts as if the spread of the extremists is going to lead to some Pakistani jihadi state, what it means in actuality is the possibility of more and more deadly urban terror in Pakistan.  Particularly as a retaliation to the current assault in Swat.  Recall the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the attack on the Marriott Hotel, as well as extended bombings to the Indian embassy in Kabul and the horrible attacks in Mumbai. The jihadis don’t need (or I think even want to) take over the state.  They need to inflict psychological (4th Gen Warfare) damage on the populace, with the fear paralyzing decision-making and information processing thereby breaking the OODA loop between gov’t/ military and getting them to back off, to create their own fiefdom.  Presumably the truce that fell through was exactly this movement.  We will see if this new offensive can really break some of the cross-country networks.  The jury is out on this one.

So if by on the brink is meant a la Reidel on the brink of becoming a jihadi state, then no.  Bergen and Cole are right on this point.  The military, the populace, assorted media/judicial elements are too strong for that to occur.  Basing policy on such a flawed read of the situation will not lead anywhere good seems to me.  The real danger is a weakning of the state, leading to anarchic pockets of criminality and potentially exported terror.  This possibility is real in Pakistan’s case.

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8 thoughts on “The Pakistan is on the Brink Meme

  1. “The real danger is a weakning of the state, leading to anarchic pockets of criminality and potentially exported terror. This possibility is real in Pakistan’s case.”

    Well Chris, the above certainly meets my definition of being on the brink. You’re correct, it’s a “real danger” a real “possibility.” But the title and first line of this post seems to indicate otherwise.

    You seem to equate “marching on Islamabad” to a rather narrow, German tanks entering Paris, view. I don’t think any rational person would dismiss the threat to Pakistan from al Qaeda or the Taliban and you do not.

    I would not venture a guess as to how Benazir Bhutto was using the phrase. She may have been speaking literally or figuratively. Either way her fear seems even closer today.

    Pakistan on the brink is a meme because it’s correct.

    And as for Obama pressuring Pakistan to take military steps in Swat Valley and other areas it seem right to me. It is their country and war. According to an article in the NYT, 5/14/09, the US is now providing “real-time video feeds…gleaned by remotely piloted aircraft….” We can pressure, provide information to assist the army, and continue the decade long build-up of the military but that should be the limit of our involvement.

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  2. I’m not really sure that’s what people like Reidel means, but maybe I’m wrong. But jihadi state to me suggests actual takeover of the government apparatus by jihadis. The more likely scenario is a failed state with jihadis running around in it. If that’s what people like Reidel (or Sec. Clinton) mean by it, then I guess we agree (in part).

    That said, I still think Bergen has a point–that there is more resiliency there than we tend to give credit for. But we’ll see, if the economy continues to tank anything is possible.

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  3. And I’m not really sure what you’re saying here, “I’m not really sure that’s what people like Reidel means….” But if you are referring to the “marching” quote I will speculate to this extent. I think Mrs. Bhutto was familiar with the concept of asymmetrical warfare. I think she realized that the Taliban and al Qaeda were not organized into western style armies, divisions, battalions or however that hierarchy works. So I speculate she was speaking figuratively. Regardless, the result was what she was speaking to, domination of Pakistan by al Qaeda.

    The distinction you draw between “jihadi” states is interesting in an academic sense but practically what does it matter? I would say that Afghanistan under the Taliban would meet your first definition, controlling the apparatus of the state. It was, supposedly, from there, that the 9/11 attacks were hatched and launched. But what practical difference is there if jihadi elements are free to “run around” in a country such a Yemen or Sudan, from whence the attack on the USS Cole was launched? In both cases damages to US interests, and American lives were lost.

    But I’m getting a bit off topic. Or is it you?

    Your “resiliency” argument seems at odds with your summation in the original post. Forgive me, I’ll quote you once again, “The real danger is a weakning of the state, leading to anarchic pockets of criminality and potentially exported terror. This possibility is real in Pakistan’s case.”

    Where is the resilency in that statement?

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  4. But there already has been anarchic criminality and exported terror. While we fiddled in Iraq, Pakistan has been getting worse. Khan, the Pakistani scientist not the star trek villain, already sold nuke tech. And the Pakistani intelligence services have already supported the Taliban. So some of the fretting is so much shutting the door after the horse has left the barn, wandered down the road, sired a few little horsies and has been to the glue factory for a few years.

    The real question is whether the Army, who has the power, is likely to lose control? They are our ally to a degree. Given that AQ does not have the kind of military power to beat the Army then that answer is no. And the Army wants our support and weapons since it bolsters their power. However their intell service and various other supporters in the military can already cause plenty of havoc and make sure Pakistani policy does not drift to close to us. So how is this offensive going to damage the power of the AQ and Taliban supporters in the gov. I wonder if the Taliban supporters in the gov are using this offensive as a way to eliminate their internal enemies and bolster their power. Our intell on the internal workings/power structure, etc always seems piss poor, so we are often swinging blind.

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  5. Greg, the convoluted picture you paint, I fear, is way to accurate. The ISI, a state within a state, is neither answerable to the Army or any supposed civil authority. A.Q. Kahn sold nuclear secrets to Liberia and North Korea prior to our invasion of Iraq, 2003. (He is accused of selling such information to Iraq, but he denies that charge.)

    AfPack is a holy fucking mess. I don’t blame Bush, entirely. I don’t blame Clinton. I certainly don’t blame Obama at this point. But if Obama is looking for a foreign policy disaster and a sink-hole for more American blood and treasure, a la Iraq, AfPack beckons.

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  6. I think the threat of failed state status is real; I’m not sure I can quantify as percentage out of a 100. Or I guess I could but I’m not sure it has any relevance. I do think however for the serious potential for hollowing out–which again I think is there–there is still some hope remaining for the Pakistani state.

    The distinction between the jihadi takeover of a state and a failed state is important because of the scale of potential attacks. Afghanistan under Taliban rule is exactly the kind of thing I have in mind as a jihadi state and AQ needed that level of peer-to-peer state level contacts in order to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks. From the failed states of Yemen and Sudan (where they had partial acceptance for awhile) they were “only” (horrible word here) launch attacks on localized targets–the Cole, African embassies.

    I think AQ is hemmed in both tactically and strategically more than we normally imagine–to attack the West that is. That doesn’t mean they still couldn’t launch an attack, but it would be far far harder than 9/11 for a whole variety of reasons. Where they can still land attacks is within Pakistan or via Kashmiri militants into India. They’re essentially gone from Afghanistan according to Petraeus. I think the larger question long term is how you get a regional security framework going. AQ is largely parasitic. The Taliban are essentially a narco-mafia insurgency which to me suggests they don’t want to take over a state.

    AQ has largely been subsumed–whatever its stated objectives–to the regional power play. As such talking about al-Qaeda taking over Pakistan is nonsensical. I think even talking about a Taliban takeover is pretty crazy.

    If we are worried about terrorism, then we really need to hone in on what the realistic possibility of AQ launching attacks from the Pakistan tribal areas is and what level of an attack could they launch. For the Pakistanis it might very well be a different calculation given that AQ is essentially now a tool to be used by the Taliban in their fight against the government.

    But I agree with you it is a total ‘effin mess. The Taliban are nasty dudes; they are as hard as they come.

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  7. The big difference in Pakistan is that they are a fairly united country with a common identity. Afghanistan is a collection of violent, tribal groups taht don’t necessarily want to get along. Pakistan has also been a functioning country where Afghanistan has not often been.

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  8. g,

    yes and no. pakistan is certainly not afghanistan. but pakistan has its own identity issues particularly going forward. Balochistan, Punjab, Pashtun-istan (FATA), Sindh, all are quite different, not to mention its Islamic charter. All that plus the difficult inter-relationship with all to the government (e.g. some groups tend to dominate in certain sectors like the Army, the civilian bureaucracy, etc). Pakistan has a history of plenty of dysfunction and more distressingly its lack a political vision going forward.

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