An Indian settled in the US got into a heated debate with me when I said US only messed up the Af-Pak region further and created a dangerous situation for all except the terrorists. Afghan is no safer than it was, Osama Bin Laden may be dead, but terrorists have mushroomed all over, Pakistan is more unstable than it ever was, Pakistan’s policy of messing with neighbouring countries by means of proxy wars is intact…. and the US itself is trapped in the region fighting a war that is endlessly looking like a macabre treadmill.
He says US bashing is easy, but it is the US who steps up to fight the bad guys.
I think that IS the problem. The US measures the world as per its own values. You cannot expect people who haven’t even heard of the great American values to measure up to them…. or want to… or even vaguely admire them. They are simply not a part of the culture of that place.
Does that mean nothing should be done, or that the US shouldn’t meddle?
Of course not. But it does mean having a more agile response. You can’t go around calling everything a nail because your favorite tool is a hammer. It doesn’t work. And it is not working in Afghanistan either.
Nor can you bribe someone into suicide. If Pakistan sees a strategic depth in culturing terrorists for proxy wars, threats, aid and bribery may create some collaboration on non-crucial matters, but they aren’t going to destroy (or allow destruction of) what they see as their national interest. They will bend enough to avoid the stone age. The powerful will suck up the money flowing in, but the country is simply not on the road the US wants it to walk.
Pakistan is becoming more and more brittle, and the few voices of sanity are being rendered increasingly irrelevant. Even the insane trolls spouting their bizarre versions of history are falling quiet on the internet. While I hated them, this is pathetic. It is sad. And it is helping no one.
And while the US continues to insist on its hammer, this will continue, because the problems aren’t really nails.
So this friend challenges me, what would you have done if you were US?
Now…. that is a big question for a war that has become so hideously complex. And I can’t see the future, but looking at the culture of the region, here is some things I wouldn’t have done.
- I wouldn’t make Pakistan the “frontline ally” or ask them to do any fighting on the behalf of US. Sure, there had been years of collaboration, and transportation access was needed, and that should have been negotiated for an appropriate price – with or without the threat of “stone age” etc.
- I wouldn’t have started a war. How do you hope to win a war, when you don’t even have your own land in the vicinity to begin with? Capturing or occupying only gets you so far. The people don’t start feeling a loyalty for something halfway across the world that they barely understand, even if they appreciate being liberated.
- I would not have taken charge of the region, because any gains I made would apply to my authority in the region, which was useless as an ultimate goal. – We see this happening today, where the Afghans are simply not prepared enough to take charge of their own country – a massive vacuum waiting for exactly the same people that got kicked out. Not to mention a humiliating failure at the end of a decade, a massive boost in confidence for the bad guys.
- I wouldn’t deal with the internals of Pakistan – understanding the “good” guys and complaining about the “bad” ones. If they claim sovereignty, I would take their word and hold the official leadership accountable. That would add power to their authority instead of undermining it. Sure, it would mean less aid to Pakistan, but it would mean that any changes were changes in Pakistan, not a helpless compliance. The changes would be less dramatic, yes, but they would be theirs and not resisted by the people. Wouldn’t provide fodder for radicalization.
What would I do? Mentioning only things that can still be done:
- Distance from Pakistan as an ally in this war. Be clear that terrorist attacks are originating from there and be clear that sovereignty means that the government is accountable. Stop the enabling of a policy of terrorist attacks that can be disowned by the country. Make pacts for transportation or other things, but don’t micromanage. Stop paying Pakistan to attack its own citizens or save them. Let them figure out what needs done, and how to do it. Cut the strings – even strings that control to US advantage.
- Stopping Pakistan being called ally does another useful thing. it prevents the country fracturing with radicalized people nurtured on hatred of the west on one side and country officially moving in support of the west on the other – turns people against leaders and gives power to anarchists – which in this situation is terrorist supporters. Also provides their Army with a very convenient smokescreen from what they are or aren’t up to.
- The Taliban overthrew one government to come into power. The Northern Alliance has strong motivation and ability (though limited) to hold them off, but if the US leaves without enhancing that, a new government will simply be overthrown again. That won’t happen by directly attacking Taliban by the US/NATO. These are the people who held of without help while the Taliban ruled with Pakistan’s backing. With support, they can. Sure, again that would be slower, not up to “US standards”, but it would be concrete and less easily reversed. Offer training, equipment, but don’t try to fix things to hand over – as though the people living there are caretakers and they need to learn how to run their land in a whole new way, WHILE also defending it. That reduces their authority, splits their resources, puts them on tentative ground.
- Throw power behind the Afghans challenging the Taliban. Put resources under them, commit forces for their requests for assistance, rather than deciding for them. Put resources at their command to use how they are needed till their capacity can be developed. Give them what they need to consolidate the country. In other words, counter Pakistan’s backing for Taliban with backing for countering them, not taking over someone else’s fight.
- Prioritize. There needs to be a sense of focus. From bringing terrorists to book, the description of terrorists has expanded, scope has expanded, even the mission has expanded. Everything from tackling radicalization and militancy to women’s rights and drug patrolling … understand that you can’t fix all at once. If, for example drugs are the problem, help friendlies gain control of networks. Yes, it is corrupt, but it provides initiative to those who will take on the bad guys. It will not only weaken terrorists, it will bring power to those countering them. The best countries have problems policing drugs. Not a benchmark, but a reality check. Also, change invites resistance always – it doesn’t help if someone not supporting terrorists still supports them because they don’t believe in women’s rights – for example – or say.. drug business. It sucks. Big time. But consolidating security will allow a lifetime of rights upholding and crime policing. Stay on track till then.
- The most important thing is dismantling the POLICY of strategic depth of Pakistan and its consistent history of human rights abuse over control of land with the use of proxies. From Bangladesh, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Balochistan…. Always local proxies, human rights abuses, political stakes on land. It is a method. No point addressing individual instances only if they will restart later. There needs to be comprehensive pressure to play straight or suffer rather than complaints about terrorism in specific regions.
- Attacking Pakistan is not an answer, because Pakistan’s proxy war industry thrives on a sense of victimization. Instead, there must be upfront refusals with reasons and conditions laid out, that are difficult to paint as treachery or covert warfare. Sanctions or isolation should be considered rather than strikes. It means nothing to offer military aid and fight terrorists. Militants ARE Pakistan’s informal Army and first option. The main Army will starve before militants will. This needs to be understood clearly.
- All failing, rather than attacking Pakistan, Pakistanis settled abroad should be deported back to the country. Isolation will reduce capacity to strike outside country too. Muslims of India and Pakistan have similar roots. Yet those in Pakistan are among the most radicalized in the world while Indian Muslims are considered among the least radicalized. The only reason this is possible is the isolation. The history of conflict between the two countries has guaranteed that the presence of Pakistanis in India is extremely low. Thus, there is very little interaction or capacity to spread radical influence. Isolation will help prevent attacks if Pakistan cannot or will not do it. This will have the added benefit of more educated voices with experience and appreciation of living in secure societies becoming available to the country to counter radicalism and provide the country with time free of external influence to stabilize.
- Don’t announce any dates for withdrawal. They only serve to make the Afghans anxious, Taliban confident and create an overall air of failure and demoralization.
- Reduce expenses. By supporting the Afghans, much of the cost of the war will be reduced. To be very blunt, living standards in this region are simply not that expensive. Someone is taking the US on a hideous ride if one looks at the resources, people and the money being poured. Reducing expenses will allow for endurance. This isn’t a war where you can draw lines of victory and defeat… it is about endurance.
- Listen to the Afghans. At least on twitter, they have no faith in initiatives to engage the taliban and they seem to feel unheard when these initiatives are made. That won’t work then, even if it seems to.
Many ideas come to mind, but most important to not undermine the authority of the governments in either and start dealing at grassroots levels – there simply isn’t enough similarity of cultures for this to happen sensitively and not alienate people. I had made some ideas for India to deal with Pakistan, that could be useful too.
No, I am not protecting Pakistan, but I do think that the present situation is very comfortable for the perpetrators of the problem with a huge buffer of innocents before they will be harmed. On the other hand, the citizens are in increasingly dire straits. They need a break from the treadmill before they break or it will be bad for everyone.
Also, I am not an intelligence professional, or soldier or politician. There may be many even better ideas possible if an effort is made to think out of the box.