Why are we fighting in Pakistan?

The Afghanistan War is absurd.  Extending our wars into Pakistan is insane.  For more moderate expressions of essentially the same view, here are essays from a diverse range of sources.

  1. ‘”Legends of the fail“, Manan Ahmed, The National, 7 May 2009 — About the decades-old tradition of experts predicting that Pakistan will collapse any day now.  Also see his other articles listed below.
  2. Pakistan and the U.S. Still at Odds over Taliban Threat“, TIME, 4 May 2009 — Revealing the truth to Americans, rebuttal to government agitprop.
  3. Frontier wisdom“, Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times, 24 April 2009 — Interview with Owais Ahmad Ghani,Governor of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province.
  4. Secretary Doomsday and the Empathy Gap“, Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, 7 May 2009 — The Everyday Extremism of Washington.

Other valuable articles about Pakistan, no excerpts given:

The conclusion of Coughley’s article at Informed Comment perfectly sums up the situation, IMO:

“What {Pakistan} and its army need is quiet, structured support from Washington. All the noisy and insulting public pronouncements by Clinton and others might make good headlines in western newspapers, but they are entirely counter-productive as regards the citizens of Pakistan, who see America as a preaching bully rather than a helper in this time of deep crisis.”


(1)  Legends of the fail“, Manan Ahmed, The National, 7 May 2009 — About the decades-old tradition of experts predicting that Pakistan will collapse any day now.  Excerpt:

The notion of Pakistan as a “failed state” has roots far deeper than the last few years; it was first deemed to have “failed” in the early 1960s, and this framework has dominated discussion of Pakistan in America from the days of the Cold War to the War on Terror. The surprisingly long history of the rhetoric of failure reveals that America’s engagement with Pakistan has rarely, if ever, transcended narrow strategic aims – and that, for the United States, the solution to Pakistan’s problems has always been, and will always be, the strong hand of a military ruler.

… This decades-long tendency to reduce Pakistan’s complexity to either “failure” or “stability” reflects, above all, a glaring poverty of knowledge about the real lives of 175 million Pakistanis today. Since 2007 alone, they removed a dictator from military and civilian power without firing a single shot, held the first national election since 1997 – in which right-wing radical parties were soundly rejected – and launched a secular movement for justice.

None of this matters, we are told, because Pakistan is facing “an existential threat” from “violent extremists”, as a State Department spokesman said on Monday. US generals and media commentators are hinting that a military takeover may be the only way to arrest the imminent “failure” – to combat the “Talibanisation” of Pakistan and keep the dreaded nukes from “falling into the hands” of terrorist groups.

A comically exaggerated version of reality underpins such concerns. There are roughly 400 to 500 Pakistani Taliban fighters in the Buner region (the area deemed to threateningly close to Islamabad) and 15,000 to 20,000 operating in the region between Peshawar and the north-west borders of Pakistan. Meanwhile, the number of active Pakistani army personnel ranges around 500,000, supported by an annual budget of approximately $4 billion. In comparison, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan make an estimated yearly revenue of around $400 million from the heroin trade – only a fraction of which makes it to the Pakistani wing in the rural north-west of the country. As a threat to a large and diverse nation-state, 40% of whose population lives in urban centres like Karachi (with its 18 million residents) the rural Taliban fighters are not terribly intimidating.

Pakistan is neither Somalia nor Sudan, nor even Iraq or Afghanistan. It is a thoroughly modern state with vast infrastructure, a fiercely critical and diverse media, an active, global economy and strong ties with regional powers such as China and Iran. It is not a “failed state” – it even has met its debt payments to the World Bank and IMF at the expense of providing electricity to its citizens. It has a deeply entrenched civil bureaucracy. The “failed state” rhetoric obscures these realities. It hides the fact that religious-based parties have never garnered more than 10% of the seats in any election.

According to its 1973 constitution Pakistan is an Islamic state, but it is home to multiple forms of religious expression, and the majority of Muslims in Pakistan embrace a model of Islam more syncretic than the Deobandi Salafism of the Taliban. The majority province of Punjab is ethnically, linguistically, politically and economically far more diverse than the northwestern valley of Swat – and it is home to a well-entrenched landed elite unlikely to cede authority to the Taliban. Sindh has its own landed elite – as well as a powerful urban political party, MQM – neither of whom show any inclination to welcome the Taliban.

… The monotonous drone of “failure” implies that the fragile democracy currently in place is not worth preserving. It encourages the marginalisation of the civilian government and boosts the claims of both the military and the militants. Pakistan’s salvation has never been and will never be in the military’s hands. The country’s future lies with the millions of Pakistanis who are working to sustain democracy – and what must be defended is their resilience and strength, to prevent the self-fulfilling prophecies of failure.

Manan Ahmed has a Ph.D. in a the history of Islam in South Asia from the University of Chicago.  He blogs at Chapati Mystery.

Also valuable is this series by Manan Ahmed:  Will Pakistan Become A Theocracy?

  • Part one, 15 April 2009 — Reasons why the answer is “no.”
  • Part two, 17 April 2009 — Crazy spin in the air about Pakistan; cites Kilcullen as an example.
  • Part three, 27 April 2009 — Dissects articles about Pakistan in the major media.

(2) Pakistan and the U.S. Still at Odds over Taliban Threat“, TIME, 4 May 2009 — Revealing the truth to Americans, rebuttal to government agitprop.  Excerpt:

The generals don’t share Clinton’s view of the Taliban as some sort of external force invading territory the Pakistani military is obliged to protect; on the contrary, odious though it may be to the country’s established political class and to the urban population that lives in the 21st century, the movement appears to be rooted in Pakistan’s social fabric. The Taliban’s recent advances have been accomplished in no small part through recruiting locals to its cause by exploiting long-standing resentment toward the venal local judicial and administrative authorities that prop up a feudal social order.

The military may also be more sanguine about the Taliban than Washington has been because the generals tend to view the country’s political establishment, most directly challenged by the militants’ gains, as corrupt and self-serving. The army, rather than the relatively weak political institutions, is the spine of the Pakistani state, and democracy has never been seen as a precondition to its survival. If the turmoil in civil society reaches a boiling point, the military, however reluctant its current leadership may be to seize power, can be reliably expected to take the political reins.

What’s more, if the Taliban’s goal were to seize state power rather than local control, it would have little hope of doing so. The insurgency is largely confined to ethnic Pashtuns, who comprise little more than 15% of the population. It is unlikely to find significant resonance in the major cities such as Islamabad and Lahore — though an influx into Karachi of people displaced by the fighting in the tribal areas has swelled that city’s Pashtun population, which has in turn raised communal tensions there. While the Taliban is reported to have made some inroads in southern Punjab and has linked up with small militant groups based in the province, it remains a minor presence in those parts of the country where the majority of Pakistanis live. Even in the most generous assessments of their fighting strength, they are very lightly armed and outnumbered by the army by a ratio of more than 50 to 1.

Still, the army is reluctant to launch an all-out campaign against the militants, not least because of a widely held perception in Pakistan that the Taliban’s rise is a product of America’s unpopular war in Afghanistan. There’s little support in the public — or within the ranks of the military — for deploying the military in a sustained civil war against the militants. Many in Pakistan were convinced that the Taliban had exceeded their bounds in Buner and Swat and needed to be pushed back — but not necessarily crushed. Whereas U.S. officials warn of the Taliban as an “existential” threat to Pakistan, the country’s own military continues to reserve that status for India, against which the vast bulk of its armed forces remain arrayed.

(3) Frontier wisdom“, Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times, 24 April 2009 — Interview with Owais Ahmad Ghani,Governor of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province.  Excerpt:

This is a perception that you have from the outside. But let me explain to you in detail. The situation we face has always revolved around this question: Is this a law-and-order issue, or is it an insurgency?

This is the first question I raised when I came here [NWFP]. Law and order is not a protracted activity. It is temporary and there are some immediate issues. It can be criminal issues and it can also be issues of public agitation. For example, against [power] loadshedding, against inflation or political issues.

After some debate we came to the conclusion that this is an insurgency in which there is an attempt to dislodge the state of Pakistan and create space for another state. So we started from this premise. I can today state with a degree of confidence that insurgency has now been downgraded to militancy. But certainly last year in January and February our conclusion was that we were facing an insurgency, and we designed a strategy accordingly.

… In Pashtu it is said “Don’t do shaf shaf … called shaftalu [don’t say half words]. The time has gone to cover up things. We must speak openly about issues. Maybe my viewpoint will be wrong. But here I have a responsibility and assignment and this is how I look at things and this is how I intend to fulfill them.

I told the Americans, Petraeus and Boucher were sitting here. I asked, “Gentlemen, for seven years you have been fighting, what is your result?” We have been fighting. What is our result? So we have had to step back and review our strategy and we have come to the conclusion that we will proceed like this.

However, if you have differences with my strategy, then you had better have a better idea to put on the table. If you don’t have a better idea, then don’t tell me to go back to the old strategy because that patently did not work. Therefore, let me try this, if it does not work, we will come back and discuss it. I told them our strategy was working and we are moving forward. We have turned the tide and it will take some time.

I asked them what they have done in Afghanistan. I told them that they had admitted that 70% of Afghanistan is out of government control. That’s why I told them that al-Qaeda etc does not need Pakistan and FATA, they have plenty of space in Afghanistan to have their bases, their training – whatever is happening is happening over there.

(4) Secretary Doomsday and the Empathy Gap“, Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, 7 may 2009 — The Everyday Extremism of Washington.  Excerpt:

In fact, it’s the sort of thing you can read just about any time when it comes to American policy in Pakistan or, for that matter, Afghanistan. It’s just the norm on a planet on which it’s assumed that American civilian and military leaders can issue pronunciamentos about what other countries must do; publicly demand various actions of ruling groups; opt for specific leaders, and then, when they disappoint, attempt to replace them; and use what was once called “foreign aid,” now taxpayer dollars largely funneled through the Pentagon, to bribe those who are hard to convince.

Last week as well, in a prime-time news conference, President Obama said of Pakistan: “We want to respect their sovereignty, but we also recognize that we have huge strategic interests, huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don’t end up having a nuclear-armed militant state.”

To the extent that this statement was commented on, it was praised here for its restraint and good sense. Yet, thought about a moment, what the president actually said went something like this: When it comes to U.S. respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty, this country has more important fish to fry.

… Of course, to put this in perspective, we now live in a thoroughly ramped-up atmosphere in which “American national security” — defined to include just about anything unsettling that occurs anywhere on Earth — is the eternal preoccupation of a vast national security bureaucracy. Its bread and butter increasingly seems to be worst-case scenarios (perfect for our 24/7 media to pounce on) in which something truly catastrophic is always about to happen to us, and every “situation” is a “crisis.” In the hothouse atmosphere of Washington, the result can be a feeding frenzy in which doomsday scenarios pour out. Though we don’t recognize it as such, this is a kind of everyday extremism.

… We naturally grasp the extremity of the Taliban — those floggings, beheadings, school burnings, bans on music, the medieval attitude toward women’s role in the world — but our own extremity is in no way evident to us. So Obama’s statement on Pakistani sovereignty is reported as the height of sobriety, even when what lies behind it is an expanding “covert” air war and assassination campaign by unmanned aerial drones over the Pakistani tribal lands, which has reportedly killed hundreds of bystanders and helped unsettle the region.

Let’s stop here and consider another bit of news that few of us seem to find strange. Mark Lander and Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times offeredthis tidbit out of an overheated Washington last week: “President Obama and his top advisers have been meeting almost daily to discuss options for helping the Pakistani government and military repel the [Taliban] offensive.” Imagine that. Almost daily. It’s this kind of atmosphere that naturally produces the bureaucratic equivalent of mass hysteria.

… Keep in mind a certain irony here: We essentially know what those crisis meetings will result in. After all, the U.S. government has been embroiled with Pakistan for at least 40 years and for just that long, its top officials have regularly come to the same policy conclusions — to support Pakistani military dictatorships or, in periods when civilian rule returns, pour yet more money (and support) into the Pakistani military. That military has long been a power unto itselfin the country, a state within a state. And in moments like this, part of our weird extremism is that, having spent decades undermining Pakistani democracy, we bemoan its “fragility” in the face of threats and proceed to put even more of our hopes and dollars into its military. (As Strobel and Landy report, “Some U.S. officials say Pakistan’s only hope, and Washington’s, too, at this stage may be the country’s army. That, another senior official acknowledged Wednesday, ‘means another coup.’”)

… And this brings us to perhaps the most extreme aspect of the mentality of our national security managers — what might be called their empathy gap. They are, it seems, incapable of seeing the situations they deal through the eyes of those being dealt with. They lack, that is, all empathy, which means, in the end, that they lack understanding. They take it for granted that America’s destiny is to “engineer” the fates of peoples half a world away and are incapable of imagining that the United States could, in almost any situation, be part of the problem, not a major part of its solution. This is surely folly of the first order and, year after year, has only made the “situation” in Pakistan worse.

Originally published at Fabius Maximus and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

2 Responses to "Why are we fighting in Pakistan?"

  1. Anonymous   May 16, 2009 at 12:02 am

    Syed Saleem Shahzad has rather suspicious ties that might put his credibility as an objective source into question.

  2. Guest   May 22, 2009 at 11:22 am

    sad that you dont know that we are in that region to dominate the path of a pipeline from caspian basin oil and gas to the indian ocean ,ie to china and indiasame old story