For the vast majority of Pakistan's history, its politics
have been an elite-led phenomenon. There have been three actors in which have
been of prime importance: the military, the land-owning feudal classes, and the
business-owning industrialist classes. Representatives of each have controlled Pakistan at
various times, and at other times battled each other for power. But the
fundamental point would be that each of them remained institutionally divorced
from the issues and concerns of, on the one hand, the professional and middle
classes in urban centers, and on the other, the rural poor. Lip-service to
their demands was paid, to be sure, but little was done substantively to
advance their cause.
This state of affairs did not prove terribly problematic for the ruling classes. Indeed, why would it? The military, by definition, was not accountable to electoral politics. The country's dominant political parties, safely ensconced in the knowledge of secure ethnic-based vote banks, could hardly be characterized as overly concerned with the so-called common man either. In short, Pakistan witnessed regime after regime of accountability-free rule, in all senses of the term.
Where this divide, between the government and the governed, was most stark was in the realm of foreign affairs. Whether it was fighting wars, instigating guerrilla campaigns in neighboring states, signing deals and treaties in foreign capitals, joining international organizations or whatever, Pakistan's leaders conducted business without any real input from its public.
In the last decade, this picture has changed dramatically due to three central factors.
By Ahsan Butt
On the heels of today's
devastating attack in Lahore, which killed 45 people and injured about one
hundred, we were treated to a front page
article in the NYT that would be of interest to many Pakistanis. The
article describes the Obama administration's efforts to cajole the Pakistan
government and military to "do more". In essence, the message that
has been delivered is: do the job, or get out of the way. The administration
has explicitly threatened drone strikes in Quetta
and boots on the ground in FATA if Pakistan
doesn't act against those actors that threaten Afghanistan
and allied forces, but not Pakistan
directly. On cue, the NYT editorial page
joins in the fun, and urges Pakistani military and civilian leaders to realize
that this war is for the nation's survival, and that more must be done in
confronting the so-called Afghan Taliban. Well, I love a good lecture from the
NYT any time I can get one, so I'm grateful for that. But let's deal with some
of the questions that this set of events has engendered.
1. What exactly will it take for opinion-makers and decision-makers in the West to draw a connection between their strategies and the enormous physical toll on Pakistan? To be clear, I am not arguing for or against particular strategies. What am I arguing for is a comprehensive evaluation of the implications of various theories of war and conflict. The NYT and Obama administration both have a theory of this war, and that's fine; everybody does, and who's to say, prima facie, who's right and who's wrong? But surely -- surely -- there should be some allusion to what Pakistanis are going through right now? Some signal that the some two and half thousand deaths in the last two years, the nearly five hundred dead in the last two months, somehow, some way, factor into the calculus?
The NYT editorial comes close, when discussing why the military doesn't strike against the Taliban in Balochistan when it says "In part, they are hesitating because of legitimate fears of retaliation." But why, pray tell, are these fears legitimate? Doesn't the NYT bear some responsibility for educating its readers to explain what real retaliation looks like? Real numbers, perhaps? This is not a minor quibble, though it may look like it is to outsiders because I am picking apart at a sentence or two in an entire editorial. The central point remains that people simply have no clue about the lives lost in this war in Pakistan. So let me help you with that:
By Ahsan Butt
If you've watched The Sopranos, then you've had the experience of being
bemused at the insanity that was the relationship between Christopher
and Adriana (culminating in one of the most memorable hits in the
entire series, when Silvio shot Adriana in a forest after Christopher ratted her out for talking to the FBI).
Well, Pakistan and the U.S. make those two look like Abelard and Heloise. Consider the following facts:
1. Aid from the U.S., and other financial institutions such as the IMF at the behest of the U.S., have helped keep Pakistan's economy afloat at a time of great peril. To that end, the U.S. is promising seven and a half billion more dollars, and yet the reaction to that promised aid -- wrapped up in a maelstrom of nationalistic, ill-founded and uninformed outrage -- would suggest that the U.S. is stealing that amount of money from Pakistan's coffers, or worse.
2. Pakistan has paid enormous costs, both in treasure as well as in blood, in taking on militant outfits on its soil. And yet the near-constant refrain of "do more" from the U.S. continues unabated. Most recently, the visiting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she disbelieved that the government was doing all it could to eradicate the presence of al-Qaeda from Pakistani soil. "Al Qaeda has had safe haven in Pakistan since 2002. I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to." Such statements, especially two days after one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in Pakistan's history, smack of insensitivity from someone who is supposed to be the highest diplomat of her country.
3. On the one issue where both governments seem to agree -- that of drone attacks -- the Pakistani populace is angry, both at the civilian toll exacted in the attacks as well as the the perceived incursions on Pakistan's sovereignty the attacks represent. Depending on which poll you trust, between 75 and 90 percent of Pakistanis oppose the use of drones in the tribal areas. This anger was manifested in townhall-style meetings Secretary Clinton held with Pakistani students and professionals on her visit. The strange thing about this anger is that the Pakistani government has, in effect, signed off on the use of drones, and so the logical place for the populace to direct their ire is toward the leaders they democratically elected, not the foreign country those democratically elected leaders have found an agreement with. But that is clearly not the case.
I don't have any broad policy-specific recommendations here. I just wanted to highlight what I consider to be an extremely strange state of affairs. With the abnormally high levels of distrust present in this relationship, it has to be the most bizarre alliance I have ever come across in international politics. Secretary Clinton's visit has brought this vision into sharp focus; it is unclear, from this vantage point, what exactly the three-day tour accomplished, or was meant to accomplish.
It also begs a broader strategic question: if the U.S. and Pakistan cannot cooperate or see eye-to-eye when their security interests overlap for the most part (the dismantling of militant networks on Pakistani soil), when huge amounts of aid are transferred, when diplomats from both countries try to sweet-talk the other to considerable lengths (for every Holbrooke or Clinton reference to seekh kababs, there is a Husain Haqqani or Shah Mahmood Qureshi reference to a "long-term partnership"), is there any hope for this relationship?
Don't shake your head; it was a rhetorical question.
A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
By Ahsan Butt
None of the following are particularly ground-breaking
insights, but I wanted to collate a couple of thoughts on this conflict today.
1. None of us can know how the war is actually going.
Both the Taliban and the Pakistan Army are opaque organizations that do not like revealing too much about themselves at the best of times. In a guerrilla war, however, you can amplify those instincts a hundred-fold. The war for public opinion in such wars is absolutely vital. Not just in terms of justice and the question of which side is "right" but also in terms of winning and the question of which side is on top. This is especially true of militant organizations such as the Taliban in civil wars, as they must keep morale high for recruitment purposes. If it becomes clear that one side is losing, it will make it very hard to sustain the war-fighting effort.
So with all that said, we will hear a lot of conflicting casualty statistics in the coming days. Both sides will claim that they have killed or captured x number of the other. We simply will not know which of these claims is true, which approximate the truth, and which are simply and outrageously false -- though we can always proffer educated guesses. The fact that journalists and other independent organizations are not heavily represented in the operational theater of war makes the entire thing incredibly murky.
2. The non-fighting aspects of the war will be as or more important than the fighting.
There were mistakes and negligence with respect to internal refugees during the Malakand and Bajaur operations, to be sure, but -- under the circumstances -- the authorities did a fair job of registering families and ensuring they return to their homes as soon as possible. That is not to say they enjoyed Trump Tower level accommodations, but that epic-level disaster was avoided.
The same level of effort will be required here. In some ways, the job will be easier, because the Waziristan agencies are sparsely populated relative to Malakand, so there will be simply fewer people to take care of. On the other hand, the job will also be harder in the sense that this conflict is likely to last longer than those operations, which were essentially three-to-four week campaigns. This one, at best, will be about twice as long.
The local populations are key to any guerrilla conflict; that much is a truism. But the logical corollary of that is often missed by decision-makers: to care and provide for at-risk populations to the fullest extent of one's capabilities. The Army is required to fight. The civilians will be in charge of the rehabilitation. Both must do their job.
3. The Taliban are strategic actors, but we do not know their strategy.
Broadly speaking, there are three options available to the Taliban now that the conflict is fully underway. First, they can disperse across the country, weaken their center of gravity, and concentrate on attacking civilian targets across the country in terrorist attacks. Such a strategy, at bottom, will aim at the political dimensions of the conflict. By raising the price Pakistani civilians have to pay, the Taliban will hope that public opinion turns against the war, and the government simply backs off. The Algerian civil war, as an illustration, saw a lot of this.
The second option is to face the military head-on in pitched battles as the military advances. This is the least likely alternative, simply because the very point of being a guerrilla organization is to avoid direct combat with armored militaries, as the Vietnamese will tell you.
The final option is tactical retreat into the mountains and hills of Waziristan and stage classical guerrilla warfare with surprise attacks and isolated offensive in vulnerable areas. In effect, the idea is to draw the military in where they feel least comfortable, and then assault them in unexpected ways. Such tactics exact a high toll not just with respect to actual casualties, but also on the psychological well-being of fighting forces. Anyone who has studied guerrilla war will tell you that armies fighting militant organizations go, for lack of a better term, a little crazy. They don't know where the next attack is coming from, they become suspicious of everything, trust dies, and they start acting in stupid and counter-productive ways.
How the Taliban weigh option one versus option three will determine the price Pakistani citizens pay in this war. In the week preceding the outbreak of hostilities, they clearly chose option one. Now that they have to face the Pakistani military in an actual war, the question becomes: to what extent will they change their strategy?
4. Two foreign actors will matter: the Americans and the Uzbeks.
On the American side, air power and intelligence will remain important in boxing militants in circumscribed geographical areas, where the military can take action on the ground. Taking care to coordinate border security, so that militants don't cross over from Afghanistan into Pakistan, and vice versa, is also crucial.
As for the Uzbeks, they remain the ultimate wildcard. Estimates on how many of them are being imported by the Taliban range from the hundreds to the low thousands. They could conceivably tip the balance against the military, which in turn reinforces the importance of border control on the Afghan side.
ROSHAN KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
By Ahsan Butt
Pakistan is a difficult country to understand for outsiders at the best of times, but this is particularly so when those that are meant to aid in the process of understanding -- such as journalists -- do their jobs badly.
A report published on Time.com is titled "Pakistan's Noncampaign Against the Taliban," which is a title quite curious in its own right, given the recent four-month military campaign against the Taliban which succeeded in routing the entrenched presence of the Taliban from Swat and the rest of the Malakand division, removed the Taliban threat from the major urban centers of Pakistan's north and north west (at least for now), provided the security necessary for the return of more than a million internal refugees to their homes, and boxed the Taliban back into the Waziristan corridor from which they had spread over the last four years.
The report fails to provide this context in the least; indeed, an uninformed observer reading the piece would conclude that the first strike in this conflict was from the American drone that about a month ago killed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Though few doubt that significant work remains to be done in this war, the suggestion that what the Taliban have been dealing with is a 'noncampaign' is simply erroneous.
The report itself is scarcely better than the title. The basic argument proffered in the piece is that Pakistani decision-makers do not wish to fight the Taliban any further because the militant group remains a useful pawn for both external and internal considerations.
Externally, some elements of the Taliban could be used to impose Pakistani influence in post-NATO Afghanistan. Internally, according to Bruce Riedel, whom Time quoted, the Taliban could prove to be useful "to keep civilians appreciative of the need for the army to be getting resources and priority attention." Instead of capitalizing on Baitullah Mehsud's death and fighting the Taliban, we are told, the Pakistan military would like to cut deals with the Taliban, essentially suing for peace from a position of strength only to serve parochial interests, at the cost of Pakistani -- and perhaps American -- security interests.
There are a number of problems with this view. The most obvious one is that the reason for the Pakistan military not going gung-ho in North and South Waziristan is most likely a problem of capabilities, not intentions. In other words, it is not that the Pakistan military does not want to fight a war in Waziristan, it is that it cannot fight a war in Waziristan, at least right now. The last time the military went into Waziristan was in 2004, when it was defeated badly, suffered substantial losses, and accomplished precious little.(Read on)
By Ahsan Butt
Last weekend Richard Holbrooke made another visit to Pakistan in his capacity as Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. More than anything else, what struck me most about this was that Richard Holbrooke made another visit to Pakistan in his capacity as Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There do exist, after all, communication technologies that render the concept of distance between people obsolete. A recent report said that close to 40 percent of Americans hold jobs that could be done at home, communication with their office or headquarters left to digital devices and the like. Surely Holbrooke, whose primary task is to hold talks with stakeholders in South Asia, can be counted as amongst that 40 percent?
It is not just fuel costs which should push Holbrooke to reconsider his traveling. There are sound geostrategic reasons for doing so too.
Simply put, the United States remains deeply unpopular in Pakistan. In a survey released last May, the International Republican Institute - an organization that has been polling Pakistanis regularly for three years - reported that a mere 37 percent of respondents thought that Pakistan should cooperate with the U.S. in its so-called war on terror (to be fair, this was the highest reported percentage since February 2007).
More recently, a Pew survey revealed that only 9 percent of Pakistanis think of the U.S. as a partner, with 64 percent considering it an enemy. A Gallup/Al-Jazeera poll showed similar disenchantment with the U.S. A clear majority of respondents, 59 percent to be precise, consider the U.S. the greatest threat to Pakistan; the corresponding numbers for India and the Taliban were eighteen and eleven respectively.
Why does this matter? It matters because Pakistan's leaders over the last five years, whether they are military rulers or elected civilians, have faced great difficulties in convincing the public that taking on the Taliban is in Pakistan's national interest. Until very recently, the dominant line of thinking in Pakistan held that Pakistan was bullied into fighting America's war in the border regions with Afghanistan under duress, that the Taliban would cease their campaign of bombings and violence against Pakistanis if Pakistan discontinued its alliance with the U.S., and that the billions of dollars that Washington sent Pakistan's way was better thought of as blood money than aid to a beleaguered partner.
Notwithstanding the empirical questionability of these claims, they made it extremely difficult for Pakistani decision makers to launch aggressive action against armed militants in the north west of the country. Such action would surely result in the death of innocent civilians -- as military action invariably does -- as well as in the Pakistani military losing more men, which in turn would produce yet greater anger at the government.
Both Pervez Musharraf toward the end of his tenure, and Asif Zardari in the beginning of his, were constrained by public opinion in prosecuting the war against the Taliban with military means. This is not to argue that public opinion was the only factor in holding back more aggressive action, but it was among the more salient ones.
For a number of reasons, the Taliban's popularity has fallen in recent months, which has made fighting and owning the war against the Taliban easier. Pakistanis are more likely to consider the Taliban a real threat and one worthy of tackling than ever before. But the charge of "America's war" is still one that resonates for many, and just because Pakistanis now rightly see the Taliban as an enemy does not mean that they see the U.S. as a friend.
This is why it is important for Richard Holbrooke to maintain as low a profile as possible. During the Bush years, it became a running joke - think of it as the Muslim equivalent of a drinking game - to predict when Richard Boucher would make his next trip to Pakistan. Holbrooke is poised to break all of Boucher's records; this weekend represented his fifth trip to Pakistan since his appointment as special envoy in January.
Every Holbrooke visit, and every follow-up press conference featuring a Pakistani diplomat telling the assembled media that Pakistan will do all it can to eradicate the terrorist threat, makes it easier to paint Pakistan's leaders as marching to the tune of American drummers. If this is Pakistan's war -- and it is -- then Pakistanis and Americans must act like it. As things stand, the monthly visits from American officials look too much like acts of lecturing and prodding rather than the symbols of close cooperation they are designed to be.
Given that Holbrooke can conduct his business over secure telephone lines or video conferencing (I don't recommend Skype; the connection is often suspect), it behooves him and his office to consider doing more of it behind closed doors. Out-of-sight out-of-mind diplomacy promises the same benefits as the status-quo arrangement, without the appreciable P.R. costs of the latter. It is an option Holbrooke would do well to keep in mind.
Ahsan Butt is a PhD student in political science at the University of Chicago and contributes to the blog Five Rupees.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images