Thursday, December 28, 2006

Counterterrorism: Now In Bite Sized Pieces!

Barnett Rubin has written an extremely informative piece on the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, and provided a concise account of the history which is crucial to understanding the various actors and interests. The situation is, to say the least, dire. Echoing the concerns expressed by Anthony Cordesman (pdf), Rubin warns that the Bush administration's neglect of Afghanistan in favor of operations in Iraq has left Afghanistan vulnerable to a resurgent Taliban, and allowed the central government's authority to erode - creating lawless pockets of failed statehood susceptible to al-Qaeda's infiltration. Like Cordesman, Rubin believes that the situation cannot be stabilized without the dedication of considerably more money and other resources.

Rubin also focuses considerable attention on the role that Pakistan plays in nurturing the Taliban's insurgency in Afghanistan (a story that has been covered by Brian Ulrich with some frequency on American Footprints, for example here, here, here and here). In fact, while he argues that the lack of economic development, lack of security, rampant corruption and other factors are exacerbating the situation, he concludes that cooperation from Pakistan is the sine qua non of successful counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan.

The strength and persistence of the insurgency cannot be explained solely by the sanctuary the Taliban enjoy in Pakistan. But few insurgencies with safe havens abroad have ever been defeated. The argument that poverty and underdevelopment, rather than Pakistani support, are responsible for the insurgency does not stand up to scrutiny: northern and western Afghanistan are also plagued by crime and insecurity, and yet there is no coordinated antigovernment violence in those regions.

The seductively "easy" thing to do in this situation would be to publicly decry Pakistan's meddlesome role, and attempt to kow them into cooperation through a series of forceful threats and related bellicosity. Demanding that Pakistan withdraw support from the Taliban is, after all, morally defensible and a strategic imperative - an ample foundation for "muscular" confrontationalism. This approach, however, as similarly applied with respect to Iran and Syria's involvement in Iraq, Lebanon and the region generally speaking, is as emotionally appealing as it is ineffective.

It is doomed by the twin maladies of solipsism and hubris - it simultaneously subordinates complex and deep seated local conflicts to the whim of the hegemonic outsider (us) while at the same time vastly overestimating our ability as the unipolar power to secure and maintain cooperation in these matters through mere threat of force (and/or limited application of force).

Instead we must recognize and appreciate the fact that each side has legitimate - or at least what it deems to be vital - interests at play. As such, and due to comparative geographical proximity, their resolve will likely outlast ours, even if we are able to achieve some level of assistance in the short term. In order to forge lasting solutions, we must account for each party's objectives, and attempt to craft compromises whereby each party wins to some extent. Adherence to the zero sum game model of international relations hasn't been serving us all that well over the past six years.

A brief synopsis of Pakistan's concerns:

Pakistan's military establishment has always approached the various wars in and around Afghanistan as a function of its main institutional and national security interests: first and foremost, balancing India, a country with vastly more people and resources, whose elites, at least in Pakistani eyes, do not fully accept the legitimacy of Pakistan's existence. To defend Pakistan from ethnic fragmentation, Pakistan's governments have tried to neutralize Pashtun and Baluch nationalism, in part by supporting Islamist militias among the Pashtun. Such militias wage asymmetrical warfare on Afghanistan and Kashmir and counter the electoral majorities of opponents of military rule with their street power and violence.

The rushed negotiations between the United States and Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 changed Pakistan's behavior but not its interests.

Rubin seems to endorse the strategic model for treating the "war on terror" as a global counterinsurgency, as discussed on this site. In particular, Rubin supports the "disaggregation model" - rather than lumping all potential enemies into one category and treating them in an undifferentiated manner as monolithic "terrorists," instead we should treat each particular crisis and group separately, and narrowly tailor our responses to address the particular cultural, regional and historical grievances giving rise to the symptoms of terrorism. Lift and separate, as I put it. Rubin offers a prescription for action:

NATO and the coalition members have...failed to devise a common course of action, in part out of the fear that doing so could cause Pakistan to reduce its cooperation on counterterrorism. But failing to address Pakistan's support of the Taliban amounts to an acceptance of NATO's failure. The allies must send a strong message to Pakistan: that a lack of forceful action against the Taliban command in Baluchistan constitutes a threat to international peace and security as defined in the UN Charter. Pakistan's leaders, who are eager to show that their government is a full participant in the international community (partly in order to establish parity with India), will seek to avoid such a designation. Washington must also take a stand. Pakistan should not continue to benefit from U.S. military assistance and international aid as long as it fails even to try to dismantle the Taliban's command structure.

On this issue, as on others, Washington should reverse the Bush administration's policy of linking as many local conflicts as possible to the global "war on terror" and instead address each on its own terms. A realistic assessment of Pakistan's role requires not moving Pakistan from the "with us" to the "against us" column in the "war on terror" account books but recognizing that Pakistan's policy derives from the perceptions, interests, and capabilities of its leaders, not from those of the U.S. government. The haven and support the Taliban receive in Pakistan are partly a response to claims Afghanistan has made against Pakistan and are also due to Islamabad's concern about both Indian influence in Afghanistan and Afghan backing for Pashtun and Baluch nationalists operating across the Durand Line.

Accordingly, unified pressure on Pakistan should be accompanied by efforts to address Islamabad's core concerns. The United States and its allies should encourage the Afghan government to open a domestic debate on the sensitive issue of recognition of the Durand Line in return for guarantees of stability and access to secure trade and transport corridors to Pakistani ports. Transforming the border region into an area of cooperation rather than conflict will require reform and development in the tribal territories. And Washington should ask India and Afghanistan to take measures to reassure Pakistan that their bilateral relations will not threaten Islamabad. If, as some sources claim, the Taliban are preparing to drop their maximalist demands and give guarantees against the reestablishment of al Qaeda bases, the Afghan government could discuss their entry into the political system. [emphasis mine throughout]

It is unrealistic and self-indulgent to presume that every nation should put their interests aside and bend to our will simply because of our status as a superpower. Our hegemony might be able to engender tepid support for certain of our initiatives, but that support will be half-hearted and withdrawn at the first sign of inattention on our part - as is the case with Pakistan's "cooperation" in Afghanistan.

Instead, we should use our clout to attempt to forge regional bargains that can drain the venom out of conflicts that serve to destabilize entire territories, making land, and people, ripe for exploitation by jihadists. Finding these solutions won't be easy, and satisfying all applicable parties will require patience, ingenuity and diplomatic finesse (in other words, we might have to wait until after 2008). But attempting to bully other countries into forsaking their interests and adopting ours as their own is fool's gold.

The gains are chimerical at best.

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