This article follows on with the theme developed in "Obama's Amnesia: Afghanistan and the Cold War."
At this juncture, the argument I was pursuing diverges from the original path because events happen so quickly. Today's news is tomorrow's history. Modern Western man has a very short attention span, and more and more I despair of people taking notice of anything that requires a modicum of thought.
Ever since the tragic events of 9-11, American attention has been forcibly drawn to the nation of Afghanistan, a place that would not otherwise rise to the awareness level of anyone save State Department minions and foreign policy wonks. Over the past few years, Western leaders have been forced to learn more about this unfortunate part of the world than they ever wanted to.
Afghanistan cannot be examined in isolation, however, as the Obama administration seems to have realized with its new formulation of "AfPak." Today we'll look, not directly at Afghanistan, but a deliberate detour that encompasses more of Pakistan - a nation which, for reasons that will become apparent, has probably become the key to the struggle against the Taliban.
In some respects, Pakistan is a higher-order problem for the US and allied forces: because of rapid changes occurring across a nation which possess atomic bombs, it is a very fluid situation fraught with unpredictable outcomes.
The arc of instability to which I referred comprises, alphabetically: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - all cricket-playing legatees of the British Raj - but the national boundaries were artificial. Nothing has demonstrated this fact more than the "Talibanization" of parts of Pakistan, and that unhappy nation now teeters on the brink of collapse for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, Pakistan is a Muslim state; in 1956, the country was formally declared the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Unfortunately, despite being unified by what should be a common religious faith, Pakistan is fragmented along tribal and geographic lines. In addition, there are divides within society between peasantry, a thriving bourgeoisie and merchant class, along with those who believe that they are born to rule.
The history of Pakistan is fraught with struggles for power between various political and tribal elements and inevitably, the armed forces. Notionally democratic elections are held but civilian government has always been a tenuous proposition. In fact, after Pakistan became detached from India as an independent country in 1947, military strongmen have had a tendency to seize the government depressingly often.
From 1958-69, there was considerable political instability. Civilian rule was overturned by General Ayub Khan who took Pakistan to war with India in 1965. He was succeeded by another general, Yahya Khan (1969-71) who had to deal with a cyclone which killed 500,000 people if not more. In 1971, a Civil War led to the foundation of Bangladesh.
Civilian rule was re-established after elections in 1972 under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the left of center Pakistan People's Party but continuing instability and corruption saw the military intervene again under General Zia ul-Haq. He introduced brutal Islamic Shar'ia law, which had almost immediate effects on the military and the civil service. The bureaucracy was largely secular, heavily influenced by British colonial rule, and did not look with favor upon the imposition of Shar'ia. By dint of his absolute power, General ul-Haq commenced a nuclear program.
Despite a trial that was widely condemned as unjust and which caused considerable unrest, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was sentenced to death and hanged. That introduced his daughter Benazir Bhutto into the political mix, albeit from virtual exile: highly intelligent, she was British educated, followed by study at Harvard University and then Oxford University in England. Her formidable talents led her to become the first Asian woman to be the president of the prestigious Oxford Union debating society.
She was motivated by many factors, not the least being the desire to clear her father's name, but also to restore democracy and advance women's rights. This desire on her part was hardly calculated to win her favor among the Taliban or more orthodox Muslims.
Zia ul-Haq's presidency was greeted with relief in the West which saw the left-wing socialist views of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as a potential security problem, particularly since India was already in the orbit of the Soviet Union. The US supplied arms and training to the Pakistani military while the Soviets provided arms and advisors to India. The ever-present tensions between the two nations developed into a race to develop missile technology and nuclear weapons.
To the consternation of many, India took the lead and tested its first nuclear device in 1974. This was followed by the further development of nuclear weapons, including thermonuclear devices.
No Indian government has seen fit to ratify the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which, under some circumstances, could be seen as an understandable if not entirely acceptable course of action. However, the Indian government has concluded a number of bilateral treaties with the US government about the peaceful use of nuclear power. The Indian government has a "no first use" policy in regard to nuclear weapons, but given regional instabliies, lingering questions remain about plans for pre-emptive strikes.
Not unexpectedly, India rapidly developed missile technology capable of putting satellites into orbit or acting as weapons delivery systems. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it expanded its naval forces considerably, which included the acquisition of aircraft carriers and amphibious landing craft and more recently nuclear armed and powered submarines.
That gave India a capability of force projection which concerned many of the smaller nations in Southeast Asia. At one stage, there was even concern that the Indian military could act to protect the Indian population in Fiji.
In short, India remains a power with a potent offensive military inventory, but concerns about expansionism have dissipated greatly, at least in the eyes of the West. With a population of just over 1.2 billion people, it is a country that cannot be ignored in the international calculus.
The Hindu fanatics are unfortunately gaining strength as a result of what is occurring on their borders and especially in disputed Kashmir. US policymakers would be wise to factor in the potential of India to be an ally, provided Hindu nationalism does not take on the form of racial superiority which marks some of their publications.
Given Indian development of nuclear weapons and missiles, the traditional rivalry with Pakistan made it imperative for the latter to seek the same goals, despite the mismatch in terms of population size and relative wealth of the two countries.
Despite or because of his socialist tendencies, in 1972 the then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto called a conference of scientists and military to consider the consequences of developments in India. Unsurprisingly, the decision to proceed was based on a perceived need for national survival i.e. the perceived threat from populous, nuclear-armed India.
Although Pakistan had a number of distinguished scientists working on the project, the one most notorious in the West is the recently released metallurgist, Dr. Abdul Qadir Khan, more usually known as A.Q. Khan. He is seen widely as the father of the Pakistani "Islamic bomb."
Depending on your standpoint, Dr. A. Q. Khan is both a hero and villain. He was convicted in 1983 of using stolen blueprints of foreign origin in the nuclear process and escaped on a legal technicality. He was imprisoned and it took the form of house arrest and he was released in 2008, much to the displeasure of the US government.
There is little doubt that US intelligence authorities would like to have a little chat with Dr. Khan about both his acquisition of the technology that facilitated the process of making nuclear weapons (and was widely believed to be stolen) and about alleged assistance given to North Korea, Iran and possibly Syria.
In 1988 civilian rule returned to Pakistan with Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister. Where she stood on the nuclear program is not exactly clear, but her term of office lasted only 20 months before she was relieved of power under presidential order, on grounds of alleged corruption. In 1993 she was re-elected but three years later removed in similar circumstances by the then Pakistani president Farook Leghari. She went into self imposed exile in Dubai some five years later.
This most gifted of politicians continued to agitate for the return of civilian rule in Pakistan and eventually came to an understanding with General and President Pervez Musharraf, who granted amnesty and dropped all corruption charges. On October 18, 2007, she made a triumphant return to the country and began campaigning for an anticipated general election in 2008. However, leaving the Pakistani People's Party rally on December 27, 2007 she was assassinated.
The debate continues about how she was killed and by whom, although an Al Qaeda commander Mustafa Abu al-Yazid claimed responsibility for the action, describing Ms. Bhutto as "a precious CIA asset." The riots and confusions that followed the assassination obscured charges that an Al Qaeda linked group, the Lashkar -i -Jhangvi, a Wahabi Muslim fundamentalist organization, was behind the attack.
In the interregnum between Ms. Bhutto's exile and return, Pakistan had simultaneously tested five nuclear devices a matter of weeks after the second Indian test of nuclear weapons in 1998. Its delivery systems are less sophisticated than those possessed by India but given the internal instability in the country, the matter of control of nuclear weapons assumes greater importance.
After Mrs. Bhutto's assassination, there was a transfer of civilian power following elections in February 2008, won by the Pakistan People's Party in something of a landslide. President Musharraf resigned six months later rather than face impeachment.
Since then, Asif Ali Zardari, husband of Benazir Bhutto became president. It was not the most popular choice for many people as an air of corruption surrounds the president, known as Mr. 10% in honor of his supposed required minimum commission on all government contracts.
I will not attempt to provide a summary of current conditions in Pakistan because this has been done far better by a person that I consider to be knowledgeable, who writes regularly on the subject, namely Ahmed Rashid. I urge others to read his article published at Yale Global Online in September last year.
Quite presciently and succinctly, he covers the internal politics of Pakistan and the threat from the Taliban. He makes the point that the US relationship with Pakistan was essentially a shotgun marriage in the war on terror announced by then President George W. Bush, following 9/11.
If I'm in any way critical of Mr. Rashid's work it is that he fails to acknowledge in any detail the fact that during the Cold War, Pakistan was used as a counterweight in the struggle between the superpowers. There is very little doubt that the situation has deteriorated sharply in the seven months or so since Mr. Rashid wrote his article, as current headlines amply demonstrate. However, he pointed out that Pakistan's North-Western Frontier Provinces (NWFP) have been systematically infiltrated by the Taliban from Afghanistan and effective control was being lost to the central government.
With the inauguration of Barack Obama as President on January 20, it was expected that a number of policy changes would be enacted fairly swiftly. The impression given in the Western press was that the President hit the ground running.
He announced a number of new initiatives canvassed by other writers at Scragged.com. With Sen. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, his grand tour of Europe began, and during its course some surprise announcements were made.
President Obama had already announced that America was not at war with Islam (this came as news to a great many on the right in US politics and the around the world, largely because we tend to identify terrorism with Islam or least fundamentalist Islamics) and went on to make a speech to the Turkish parliament in that vein. He also announced that he wanted to press the "reset button" in relations with Russia, much to the apparent delight of the Russian government, although there was some mirth when Sen. Clinton met President Medvedev and a trick button was used for a photo-op. Presidential politics is not a game and comes with no shortage of critics and naysayers.
The Australian tradition is to give someone "a fair go" which basically means a reasonable shot at the job before shooting at him (metaphorically speaking of course). Thus, the statement by President Obama that he wanted to engage in a dialog with "moderate" elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan induced a certain amount of personal hilarity followed by a sense of shock and disbelief.
Undoubtedly, there had been prior consultation behind the scenes before the public announcement and the President had been engaged in discussions with the military, especially General David Petraeus and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But once the initiative hit the press and was revealed in presidential speeches, especially on 28 March, to use a popular saying, it was "on for young and old." As usual, I sat back and reviewed the foreign press including the US, the UK, Australia and Afghan and Pakistani English language press.
I had read with a certain amount of interest and sympathy Secretary of State Clinton's speech and statement about seven years of commitment to Afghanistan being wasted with little progress being made. In some respects this criticism was more than justified because the US was primarily engaged in Iraq, leaving Pakistan to deal with Afghanistan; a task that has proven to be beyond them especially as the wolf is at their door in the form of the Taliban.
On the basis of analysis, reading and intelligence chatter, I came to the conclusion that the Obama initiative could be called courageous but inadvisable. It rests on what I would define as specious reasoning: It assumes that there is a moderate Taliban prepared to deal with the West. It is patently obvious that the works of experts like Dr. Walid Phares are not read widely.
Now, there is a school of thought that holds that not all Afghans are particularly fond of the Taliban and many Taliban members would be amenable to a negotiated settlement, especially if they considered the possibility of an unexpected visit by a Predator drone: that tends to clarify one's thoughts rather effectively, even among the most block-headed tribesmen. Some commentators were very quick to point out that the Taliban was not a monolithic organization and therefore, it should be possible theoretically to detach some elements and persuade them to either desist from fighting or join the struggle against the hardliners.
The superficial attraction of this argument is undeniable but a couple of minor points appear to be left out of the equation.
The first is that the links between Al Qaeda and the Taliban are very strong; membership overlaps between those two groups and others with similar objectives, such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Pakistani Taliban Increasingly known as Tehrik-e-Taliban, this latter group is apparently led by Batullah Mehsud, a capable, dangerous and ruthless opponent.
It should never be forgotten that Osama bin Laden has always spoken approvingly of Afghanistan under the Taliban as being the ideal model for an Islamic state and a caliphate, nor should it be forgotten that a senior Taliban leader Mansoor Dudallah gave an interview to the German media in which he stated quite unequivocally that the Taliban and Al Qaeda stood united, "hand in hand."
The other factor comes back to tribalism - the Taliban are overwhelmingly Pashtun and they are spread out across the arc of instability. Maps and boundaries cannot so easily be redrawn, so the military will have to deal with the problem as it stands.
In addition, looking at the names of some of the Taliban leadership with whom negotiations would have to be conducted, there are very few grounds for confidence. One of many who was fêted by the world press in fighting the Russian tyranny was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: a seemingly charming photogenic thug, killer, probable psychopath and militant Islamist from the Panjshir Valley, he was given a star role in the Australian version of 60 minutes in the early 1980s where he displayed his prowess with weapons and a disarming personality for media consumption. The medium certainly was the message!
If the Soviets learned one thing fighting in Afghanistan, it was that even if it was possible to engage with a tribal grouping, loyalty was dubious. Many supposed Soviet allies would also be allied with the mujahedin, and it made no difference to them whether they were armed by the Soviets or the US.
There was never any sense of fidelity, loyalty, or even gratitude to a benefactor. The weapons provided were used to settle old scores before being turned on the infidel.
At the risk of being particularly gloomy, in October 2007, Lord Paddy Ashdown, a former leader of the UK Liberal Democrats who served with the British SAS (and knows something about combat) declared quite bluntly that "NATO has lost in Afghanistan" and furthermore, failure to bring stability there could provoke a regional sectarian war on a grand scale.
Those were grimly prophetic words in many respects, because, somewhat foolishly but probably for pragmatic reasons, there had been an accommodation made between the Taliban in the Swat valley of Pakistan and the regional administrators a month before the Obama initiative. In fact, some commentators had suggested that this agreement was the model upon which President Obama was basing his hopes. The terms of the deal were fairly simple: the Taliban would disarm and refrain from extending attacks more deeply into Pakistan and in return, Shar'ia law would be introduced in that area.
In an ominous sign of things to come, President Asif Ali Zardari, realizing that his armed forces were no match for the Taliban in the porous border regions, saw fit to agree to a truce in mid-February, which kept the Pakistani army in its barracks. There was no turning back when he signed a bill introducing Shar'ia law in the area on April 13, 2009.
Even before the Pakistani president formally agreed to Shar'ia law in the Swat Valley, it was abundantly clear that this was a one-sided deal. Naturally enough, the Taliban did not disarm but instead visited a repeat of its brutal rule in Afghanistan. Girls' schools were closed down; women were stoned for breaches of Shar'ia law; and beheadings of men who opposed the new rulers became frequent.
The proposed dialogue with the Taliban was described earlier as being a deal with the devil. Proof positive came a matter of hours before President Obama's March speech, when a suicide bomber blew up a mosque on the Khyber region of the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Killings continue to the extent that creeping "Talibanization" of Pakistan is one dire prediction. Even worse is the thought that Pakistan as a state will fail and nuclear weapons will find their way into the hands of ruthless fundamentalist Islamic groups.
In the interim, Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to experience violence, the most dramatic attack being on the second day of the third cricket Test Match between Sri Lanka and Pakistan in Lahore. For many observers, this attack was a betrayal of sport and although no cricketers were killed in the attack on the team bus, that was only because a rocket propelled grenade missed the bus and ricocheted from a wall. The death toll was comparatively minor: six policemen and two civilians died, while a number of cricketers suffered minor injuries.
The similarity between this attack and that in Mumbai last year was startling. There were 14 masked, well-trained, well equipped and heavily armed attackers (RPGs, AK-47s, hand grenades etc.) who arrived by rickshaws and cars. The well-timed attack lasted about 15 minutes and the assailants escaped by various means, without any losses to themselves.
Although a number of arrests were made subsequently, it would appear that none of the terrorists were included. It was all captured on CCTV and film and is readily available on YouTube.
The distinguished professor and expert on terrorism Walid Phares predicted this form of urban jihad. The reason that I mention this particular incident is because cricket is one of the most widely played and watched sports in the world.
Rather alarmingly, it was driven from the pages of the media by other matters, especially economics. I am not charging the world media with racism but if this had been an attack on the Boston Red Sox or the New York Yankees or a leading UK soccer team, the story would have run for days.
It is a most disturbing fact that Pakistan is an extremely dangerous country to visit or live in at present. To redress the balance a little, a similar group of heavily armed men attacked the Police Academy in Lahore, the same locale as the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, killing 11 and injuring close to 100. On this occasion, responsibility was claimed by Batullah Mehsud on behalf of Tehrik-e-Taliban.
I have mentioned in other articles and in other journals my profound distaste for the predilection of the intelligence community to talk of Al Qaeda franchises. Organizations like the Taliban have similar objectives and collaborate on joint operations.
Irrespective of the wishful thinking that goes on in certain quarters, the Taliban has a Pakistani wing and its personnel cross the border into Afghanistan whenever necessary. The armed forces of Pakistan appear powerless to stop these movements.
While I respect US fighting men and the use of Predator drones, I find myself forced to reiterate the point that a dispersed enemy is much more difficult to handle than standing forces. Just like Mao Zedong's communist guerrilla forces, the Taliban are of the people and move among them with apparent impunity.
To give a further idea of the degree of violence in Pakistan, well over 300 people have been killed by Taliban forces in the first three months of 2009. The situation of the Pakistani government is unenviable and unviable. It is well-known that the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) is comprehensively penetrated by Islamic fundamentalists, who acted as conduits during the Afghan war against the Soviets and now appear to be more than willing to act against the policies and directions of their own government.
There are signs now that the Taliban is branching out and affecting areas deeper inside Pakistan. A report of April 23 notes that Pakistani paramilitary forces have been deployed to protect government buildings and bridges in the northwestern city of Buner, adjacent to the Swat Valley and about 60 miles from Islamabad.
This is a strategically important area and quite possibly indicates that if effective control by the Taliban is achieved, then Islamabad is in considerable danger. The New York Times has stated that this move is "another indication of the gathering strength of the insurgency and the raised new alarm about the ability of government to fend off an unrelenting Taliban advance towards the heart of Pakistan."
More disturbing in the New York Times report was the claim that the militants (note the terminology) were helped by the actions of the Commissioner of Malakand, Javed Mohammad, who is also the senior official in the Swat Valley and was appointed on the recommendation of the Taliban. The Washington Post reported the blunt statement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Congress that the Pakistani government "is basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists."
I do not believe the weasel words of the Secretary of State to be any more acceptable than those of the Secretary for Homeland Security. During something over 25 years or more in intelligence work, I have learned that yesterday's terrorist is today's freedom fighter and tomorrow's statesman. I tend to type a rather jaundiced view of not calling a spade a spade: a terrorist is a terrorist and there should be no mistake that Islamic fundamentalists are terrorists whose mission is to destroy the Western way of life.
The situation in Pakistan is critical and the US government has very few options but to prop up the government of Asif Ali Zardari, while at the same time addressing the promised aid to the government of Afghanistan which means a combination of boots on the ground in the form of troops and civil assistance programs. There is no guarantee that aid from non-combatants and NGOs will be allowed to continue: they have been thrown out of areas of both Pakistan and Afghanistan and their humanitarian work has been superseded by the tender mercies of Shar'ia law.
Unfortunately for the Pakistani president, he has a nuclear arsenal which cannot be used but is a tempting prize for the Taliban. The reliability of the Pakistani armed forces in control of nuclear weapons cannot be assessed from where I sit but the US administration would be well advised to examine Pakistani appeasement towards the Taliban and heed the words of Winston Churchill, who stated: "An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last."
The basic question is how the Western military response to the fragmentation and possible collapse of Pakistan should be handled. One suggestion is to provide aid and assistance via India and at the same time assisting Indian forces to upgrade in both weaponry and training against insurgency, something that was clearly lacking during the Mumbai attack.
The situation must be getting rather desperate when the Pakistani English language newspaper the Daily Times can quite baldly state that Pakistan is ready to hold talks with India to widen anti-terrorist mechanisms. In years gone by, such a statement would be anathema to the Pakistanis; the fact that the newspaper quoted the Foreign Minister who openly made the comments on TV suggests a growing desperation.
The military situation is one that I can only monitor via the Internet and news channels. So much material is sanitized that the true state of affairs can only be a matter for speculation. However, in an upcoming article, I intend to examine the other side of the battle against Islamic fundamentalism - the one that is being fought on the home front and appears to be hamstrung by a number of factors including political correctness.
In 1941, America suffered a dreadful attack at Pearl Harbor which is generally believed to have been a surprise, despite the best efforts of revisionist historians, including to my chagrin some of my fellow countrymen. Future historians will offer no such excuses to American leaders of today.
There can be no doubt that Al Qaeda and allied terrorist organizations will continue their attack on the West at home and abroad; Osama bin Laden is believed to have declared war on America once the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan, and he has not ceased his efforts from that day to this. The attack on the World Trade Center was, or should have been, a defining moment for America and the Western world.
We face a challenge from an enemy that threatens our freedoms and way of life. The solution is in our hands, if we're brave enough to use it and stay the course. It requires a cooperative approach by the US and Western allies.
To the "Nervous Nellies," some of whom regrettably are found in the ranks of American conservatism, I offer one last observation. The United States, leader of the free world, cannot retire to the sidelines and sit out this conflict.
The Taliban and its allies have been making alliances of convenience with certain South American governments. Inevitably, this will present another front for the US. It is far better to hit them hard in the AfPak theater of war than sit back and wait.
There is no doubt that the Obama administration faces many tests on many fronts, but the fight against terrorism is by far the most important and the most difficult.