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Saturday, November 21

Pakistan-U.S. relations: Why General Stanley McChrystal is going straight to hell

On or about August 30, 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates received a detailed assessment of the military situation in Afghanistan that included a request for additional U.S. troops. The report was from General Stanley A. McChrystal, Commander, Nato's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan. But as noted on the first page the assessment was a joint effort representing input from ISAF staff and the component commands.

On the matter of Pakistan the report noted:
Afghanistan's insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, are linked with al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan's lSI.
A year earlier McChrystal's predecessor, General David D. McKiernan, delivered a franker assessment of the same situation. He stated flatly that he was certain there was a "level of ISI complicity" in the militant areas of Pakistan and within organizations like the Taliban.

McKiernan's observation came on the heels of a secret visit by a top CIA official to Islamabad; the visit was to directly confront Pakistan's most senior officials with new data about ties between the ISI and militants operating in Pakistan tribal areas.

It seems the CIA met with the same stonewalling Britain's government encountered in 2006 when they brought virtually the same charges to Pakistan because their next move echoed the one taken by Britain's Ministry of Defense: the CIA leaked news of the trip to a major press outlet -- in their case, The New York Times.

These naive attempts to embarrass a government comprised of terror-masters, dope dealers and professional beggars skilled at wheedling billions in aid out of the West came to nothing, beyond the ISI's decision to outsource more of their oversight of terrorist attacks on NATO troops to front agencies such as the SSG.

And General McKiernan hardly needed to study a classified CIA report to know the score. Over a period of years many intelligence analysts and journalists from India, Pakistan, Europe and the USA, not to leave out Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and his intelligence advisors, have spent years publishing books, churning out reports, and generally doing everything they could think of to impress on Washington that Pakistan is the biggest problem.

However, look at it from Washington's viewpoint. You know how it is when you can't find the keys you lost inside the house: you go outside to search because the light is better out there.

So Washington continues to search high and low for solutions in Afghanistan that don't address the biggest problem there.

Fine. Understood. The United States has been covering Pakistan's ass for 60 years, on one excuse or another. It is a matter of public record that starting in the 1950s the U.S. government was aiding and abetting Pakistan's machinations against India; that since the Carter administration the U.S. government knew of A. Q. Khan's activities to sell nuclear weapons technology to any buyer and took no action to roll up his WMD network until 2003; and that the U.S. government helped the ISI sweep Daniel Pearl's murder under the rug.

But you need to draw the line when it comes to cooperating with a government that's ordering the shooting and maiming of your own troops, or you need to face a charge of treason.

The situation of Pakistan-directed attacks on ISAF troops has not been resolved. I believe that to call for more troops under such circumstances is criminally negligent.

General McKiernan might have broken rank or trod on the State Department's turf by publicly speaking about the ISI in blunt terms. Whether this might have added to Gates's displeasure with his performance, I don't know. The reasons given for the very unusual decision to fire a commander of his rank and under such circumstances have never stacked in my eyes.

I will not explore the decision here, beyond asking whether the Department of Defense thought to do a study analyzing the increased attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan in light of any increased ISAF intelligence-sharing with Pakistan's military.

Another question I'd like answered: were any known instances of ISI spying on ISAF movements analyzed in light of the increased attacks during the same period?

From all the accounts I've read, it seems the U.S. government's public response to Pakistan's duplicity tends to echo Pakistan's claim that "rogue" elements of the ISI and military are responsible for any attacks on NATO troops. Such claims would fly in the face of history.

Writing for the January 2, 2008 edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review, Alan Brody gave the clearest summary I've ever come across of the Pakistan-backed rise to power of the Taliban.

Brody, a graduate of Harvard and the University of Iowa, worked for UNICEF for 22 years before his retirement in 2006. In 1993 he was assigned as the planning officer and deputy head of office for UNICEF in Afghanistan to deliver humanitarian aid. The periodic outbreaks of war between factions occupying Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, prevented him from living in the city. He worked from an office across the border, in Peshawar, in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province -- itself a very dangerous a place, a place of "intrigues," as Brody observed. But he commuted to Afghanistan and his position gave him a bird's eye view of the battles for Kabul during that era, which the Pakistan-backed Taliban forces finally won.

Writing elsewhere Brody has observed that the mujahideen groups in Afghanistan during the early 1990s were "bickering and fighting among themselves, with support to these different factions coming from their patrons in Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia."

There were indeed different mujahideen factions, but it was Pakistan's Taliban that finally overran Kabul then took over much of the country until the combined U.S.-U.K. operations in 2001 routed them.

And for those who don't remember it or never knew, the U.S. sponsored evacuation dubbed "Operation Evil Airlift" made it clear that Pakistan -- a vaunted U.S. ally -- was at war with U.S. and U.K. during the 2001 invasion. I've provided the entire Wikipedia article on the operation at the end of this post. If you're new to the story and have relatives serving in Afghanistan, better belt down a stiff drink before you read it.(1)

One may lay the blame for Operation Evil with Vice-President Dick Cheney, and his act could be construed as treasonous if one doesn't know it was par for the Cold War course. But the Cold War is long gone, and Cheney has been gone for office for close to a year. Yet still the U.S. government continues to downplay that Pakistan did not create the Taliban to fight the Soviets; they did it because they saw the U.S.-led effort against the Soviets in Afghanistan as their means to take over the country without running into stiff international punishment.

And the U.S. government continues to mix apples with oranges: there are surely "rogue" elements in Pakistan's military and intelligence agency -- "rogue" meaning Pakistanis who want a Taliban-style government in Pakistan. But the entire Pakistan defense establishment and the civilian government are united in support of their decades-old cold war against India. As part of that war they want to regain the control of Afghanistan they lost because of Operation Enduring Freedom.

I think Islamabad's determination to control their neighbor has only increased with the recent discoveries of vast oil and gas reserves and key industrial/ military-use metal lodes in Afghanistan. With development, Afghanistan's fabulous store of natural resources can make the country one of the richest and even a major world power.

As long as the United States was chiefly preoccupied with Iraq, Pakistan's military was content to allow things to bump along in Afghanistan. But once the United States signaled a serious intention to build up Afghanistan's military and civilian government; once the U.S. began a close cooperation with India's external intelligence service, which provided the U.S. defense establishment with considerable evidence about Pakistan's actions against Kabul and the ISAF; and once it was evident to Islamabad that the CIA was not going to neutralize Hamid Karzai, who had allied his government with India's, the targeting of U.S. forces had to be stepped up.

The ISAF assessment tip-toes around the situation:
Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.
I'd like to know what part of Indian aid is not benefiting the Afghans. And there's no "likely" about it; any doubts that regional tensions are already exacerbated, study the two suicide bombings outside the Indian embassy in Kabul.

No amount of bribing, either from the USA or any other government or agency, is going to change the situation. Pakistan's government will take the bribes -- either in cash, loans, or military equipment -- then continue on as they've done. Why not? They have history to guide their confidence that they can play the WMD blackmail card whenever the NATO countries bring pressure on them. That's what they've been doing since 2001; without a significant change in U.S. policy they'll continue in exactly the same pattern.

Those who assume Pakistan is turning over a new leaf because of several Taliban attacks on the ISI or military facilities need to read B. Raman's crash course on Taliban factions, which he dashed off in May 2009 for Forbes magazine. He wrote in answer to a reader who asked why Taliban attacked the ISI (if the ISI indeed controlled them).

The answer has to do with internal disputes -- with tribes and sub-tribes who're mad at Pakistan's government -- and who're also mad at the USA for helping to prop up the government. (Take special note of Raman's mention of the Lal Masjid massacre.) The tribes in the pay of the ISI who attack ISAF troops are a different story.

Does all this mean there is no actual insurgency in Afghanistan, just a proxy war being fought by Pakistan, and spillovers of tribal rage toward Islamabad? The answer is to first thin the forest of Pakistan's actions in Afghanistan, then see how many trees are left standing.

Things have turned very ominous in recent months because Afghanistan's north, including the region's biggest city, Mazar-e-Sharif, is coming under increasing attack from Taliban, who are bribing unemployed locals to work for them. There is a mystery attached to the situation:
[...] Karzai ... stunned the country in October when he announced that there would be [inquiries] into reports that helicopters had been transporting Taliban fighters to the north, adding that he had known about the action for some time.

It is widely believed that such air transit could only have operated with the knowledge of local and foreign powers who control air traffic. So conspiracy theories blossomed.

People wondered if southern politicians were stirring up the rebellion to undermine their northern rivals, or if international forces were fanning the flames of violence to provide an excuse for staying the country and exploiting its mineral wealth.

The regional head of the Afghan Human Rights Commission, Qazi Same, believes that “invisible hands” may be trying to destabilise the area. But he dismisses as completely illogical the idea that either local or international armed forces are involved,

“They suffer casualties every day. That they try to spread insecurity, logically that’s not believable,” he says. [...]
I agree with Same, but his observations suggest the "invisible hand" belongs to Pakistan. They backed the Taliban's struggle to conquer Mazar-e-Sharif prior to Operation Enduring Freedom. If Taliban had won the city they would have controlled the region, and that would have consolidated Pakistan's hold on the entire country.

If my analysis of the allover situation is correct, it would indicate the U.S. needs a different plan than the stepped-up counterinsurgency operation the ISAF report recommends, or at least a greatly altered plan.

It would also indicate that General McChrystal needs to yell at the top of his lungs, in public if necessary, about a holdover Cold War-era relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan that's getting many U.S. troops killed and injured for no good reason. And wasting billions of U.S. dollars.

There are a few other things the U.S. command could do in the short term to deal more wisely with Pakistan. That would include ditching the uninformed and self-defeating "Afpak" strategy. But I think I've given you enough reading material for one day, so I'll leave further discussion for a subsequent post.

1) Operation Evil Airlift, Wikipedia (See the article for the footnotes.)
The Airlift of Evil refers to the evacuation of thousands of Pakistani military personnel, Afghan sympathizers, and some members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from the city of Kunduz during the week before its capture by the forces of the Northern Alliance during the early days of the War in Afghanistan (2001-present).

The idea that the American military had aided the escape of potentially dangerous individuals was politically contentious, and sparked a debate in the western media. The first reference to the term appeared in a column on msnbc.com. It is generally thought that the airlift was an attempt to avoid destabilizing the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who, although an ally in the War on Terror, had historically supported the Taliban.

In 2008, more details have emerged in Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid:

"One senior (U.S.) intelligence analyst told me, "The request was made by Musharraf to Bush, but Cheney took charge -- a token of who was handling Musharraf at the time. The approval was not shared with anyone at State, including Colin Powell, until well after the event. Musharraf said Pakistan needed to save its dignity and its valued people.

Two planes were involved, which made several sorties a night over several nights. They took off from air bases in Chitral and Gilgit in Pakistan's northern areas, and landed in Kunduz, where the evacuees were waiting on the tarmac.

Certainly hundreds and perhaps as many as one thousand people escaped. Hundreds of ISI officers, Taliban commanders, and foot soldiers belonging to the IMU and al Qaeda personnel boarded the planes.

What was sold as a minor extraction turned into a major air bridge. The frustrated U.S. SOF who watched it from the surrounding high ground dubbed it "Operation Evil Airlift."

Another senior U.S. diplomat told me afterward, "Musharraf fooled us because after we gave approval, the ISI may have run a much bigger operation and got out more people. We just don't know. At the time nobody wanted to hurt Musharraf, and his prestige with the army was at stake. The real question is why Musharraf did not get his men out before. Clearly the ISI was running its own war against the Americans and did not want to leave Afghanistan until the last moment."

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