Monday, March 16, 2009

This Is My Mistake, Let Me Make it Good

Stephen Walt looks at recent developments with respect to our Pakistan/Afghanistan policies and has some prescient warnings. For one, as discussed on this site recently, what we are attempting to accomplish in terms of eradicating al-Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan might be a task beyond our ability to complete - and one that we cannot realistically compel the Pakistani government to do for us (assuming the ability of that fractured and corrupt entity).

We learned yesterday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent part of her weekend making phone calls to Pakistani President Asif Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, in an effort to head off a looming showdown. The immediate crisis seems to have been defused when Zardari backed down and reappointed the former chief justice to the country's Supreme Court, but there is no reason to be optimistic over the longer term. In other words, the top American diplomat has been busy trying to manage the internal politics of a country of some 178 million people that is riddled with corruption and conflict, even though Americans have scant understanding of Pakistan's internal dynamics, little credibility with its key groups, an abysmal public image there, and few, if any, levers to pull. It is hard to think of another job for which the U.S. foreign policy establishment is less well-suited, yet we now find ourselves trying to do social engineering in Pakistan.

And yet, one of the primary objectives outlined by the highly influential CNAS think tank (whose members are being sucked up into the Obama administration with some rapidity) - one of the pillars of the proposed troop buildup in Afghanistan which that group advises should last 5-10 years - is the elimination of safe havens in Pakistan. In other words, large scale, time-intensive interference in Pakistan's fraught and unstable internal politics in pursuit of an exceedingly difficult aim. On the plus side, it promises to be an enormously expensive enterprise at a time when our fiscal outlook is dismal at best.

When tracing the five steps that led us to our current predicament, Walt also mentions an aspect of prior policy in the region that gets little coverage despite its importance:

Step 1 was the U.S. decision to back the Afghan mujahidin following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This step made sense at the time, given the U.S. goal of containing and eventually toppling the Soviet regime. However, the policy also involved pouring lots of money into Pakistan, which fueled corruption. Washington also turned a mostly blind eye towards Pakistan's nuclear program, because its cooperation was essential to the war against the Soviet occupation. Saudi Arabia backed the American effort with money and people (with our encouragement), and used this opportunity to fund religious schools and spread Wahhabi doctrines.As a result, the Afghan war became the crucible in which al Qaeda and other forms of jihadi terrorism were forged. [emphasis added]

Osama himself set up shop in Peshawar Pakistan, the city through which much of the Saudi money - and foreign fighters - flowed. The congregation of so many extremist figures, and their radicalizing ideology, had an effect on Pakistani society as a whole. Extremism spread, radicalizing key elements of Pakistani society in the Peshawar region and beyond - elements that are still highly problematic to this day for obvious reasons. So it wasn't onlythat our prior involvement in Afghanistan had some negative effects in terms of nurturing elements of al-Qaeda, but also that it contributed to the proliferation of extremist ideology in Pakistan as well.

At present, it should be easy to recognize ways in which heavy-handed, US-centric policies vis-a-vis Pakistan could have numerous unintended and undesirable consequences - such as weakening potential allies in Pakistan while strengthening the most hardline elements. The question is, does the Obama administration appreciate these risks?

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