02 November 2009

Taxicab Confessions Part II: Putting the Attacks in Context

As I pounded the pavement tonight with some of the DC Striders (a great running club I'm in; check them out here), I tried to put the recent conversation I had with my Pakistani cab driver into a broader context. All I was left with were some initial thoughts and more questions, but I wanted to share them briefly:

Clearly, the recent surge of attacks across Pakistan (primarily targeting security forces and civilians in the major urban centers of Islamabad, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, and Lahore) is quickly turning public opinion against the Pakistani Taliban. Hundreds more died today in several attacks and it feels like momentum for more attacks continues to build. As I ran through the dark streets of DC (thanks to Daylight Savings Time), I tried to understand how the Pakistani populace must feel. Ultimately, I think a "siege" mentality must be setting in or at least beginning to form. Remember that most of these areas are not used to any violence beyond the normal crime of a major city. Now, seemingly everywhere they turn, suicide bombers are blowing themselves up. So, who is winning and who is losing in the eyes of the populace:

Pakistani Government: The current government, headed by Ali Zardari -widower of Benazhir Bhutto - is quickly losing face as its unable to provide security. According to many reports, the local populace places most of the blame on the government's inability to stop the Taliban.

Taliban (Pakistan Wing): The dramatic surge in attacks since the beginning of October has likely alienated all but the most radical supporters of the Taliban. Most of the locals view them increasingly as puppets of AQ proper (bin Laden and cronies). So far, they are the biggest losers. What I still can't quite understand is whether their continued appetite for violence is really a tragic flaw (that will eventually end them) or whether they have some grand plan that has yet to play out? I'm not sure what the calculus of the new leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, is yet...or if there is any?

Pakistani Army: With the Army making a huge PR show of its ongoing operations in Waziristan, the local populace continues to most strongly support the Army (as it has for many years in this country - thus their propensity for coups). As the government continues to lose support, we must ask who will gain it? The logical answer is the Army, led by Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. Quickly becoming a rising star, and reportedly an increasingly outspoken critic of Pres. Zardari, Kayani is a major player.

So, the logical question (at least for us conspiracy theorists out there) is: When a new trend starts occurring, we must consider who stands to benefit most from it. In this case, it seems plausible (although not certain) that the Pakistani Army is gaining significant support from these attacks - especially when combined with the perception amongst the populace that they're the only ones trying to do something to stop the attacks (the Waziristan operation). I hate to ask this: but is it possible that some elements within the Pakistani Army (or its ruthless intelligence wing, the ISI) could be responsible for the surge in attacks? I wouldn't necessarily put it past them...


  1. Loving the two-part Taxicab Confessions Pat – got me thinking about a few things that I want to offer, really, as questions to the group. Your comments here were first, uplifting. The Pakistani Cab Driver’s story about his old mother traversing her own country fighting for women’s rights hits home with me. The increased violence there will only hamper similar endeavors there – and any strides in women’s rights will likely, of course, extinguish if Taliban in Pakistan truly take over.

    While considering this new increased violence in Pakistan I am reminded of two things: first, the book “Tipping Point” and only useful exercise of the MICCC which examined an insurgency as it is just growing legs. To confront the violence as it gains momentum in Pakistan we need to first identify what that tipping point is right now. What would the US involvement be, in stopping it? Can we influence properly now to control or stop it’s spread? What are the most creative ways we can do this? Should we?

    Of course the US has an invested interest in Pakistan, highlighted here by the NPR Fresh Air interview on 28 OCT 2009 between Greg Jaffe (the Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post and co-author of the new book “The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army”):

    But I don't think we really care about Afghanistan, but for the fact that it's next to Pakistan, which is a place that has nuclear weapons.

    So, I mean, that's a huge concern. I think to the extent that you have unrest and the Taliban expanding their havens in Pakistan, it makes your problem in Afghanistan exponentially harder. If you can get the Pakistani government to move on some of these Taliban havens to disrupt the Taliban over there, it makes your problem in Afghanistan significantly easier. So, the - Pakistan is critical, not just because it's got nuclear weapons, but it also, I think, has a massive effect on what the realm of the possible is in Afghanistan.

    Also, I overheard another recent NPR broadcast (can’t remember the date/time or title) that argued that there must be a certain degree of nefarious activity, criminal activity, that the US must be willing to accept while we work to support these countries through bloodshed and toward self-sustaining legitimate governments. We cannot think like Americans and expect American outcomes in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq…or Pakistan and Iran… To a degree we have to work with our enemies and overlook where we know some portions of the money goes in exchange for outcomes of the greater good variety - the larger change toward a better solution, although not an 100% American solution. This is interesting to me given the opium problem in Afghanistan. We know it funds the Taliban. Now we know that Karzai’s brother – a man on the CIA payroll – works in the opium trade… What do we do with that?

  2. Pat, one flaw in your theory. The Army is benefiting, not the ISI. Also, you are presuming that the the Taliban are rational, which I have no reason to doubt, but also that they knew a priori that these attacks would make them unpopular.

    However, to take your theory a step further, it is also possible that the Taliban actually wish to remove the democratically elected gov't, in favor of a military regime.

  3. Jen: Thanks for the great comments. I think your recognition of the need to identify a "tipping point" is critical...but of course, easier said than done. Looking back at Iraq, we can identify several critical points where the insurgency gained steam, but how could we have recognized them at the time? Even more difficult, how could we have intervened to prevent them? Honestly, I'm not sure that we could have. Sometimes, just by virtue of our presence, we exacerbate the situation, no matter how well we execute population-centric COIN principles. So, I guess in my opinion, maybe we just need to sit back and watch (to a certain extent) at the Pakistani Taliban continue to lose popular support. The less we are perceived to be interfering, the better. Unfortunately, the recent Kurry-Luger Aid Bill hasn't helped matters any and is perceived as another American encroachment on the sovereignty of Pakistan.

    I really like your point about defining what level of corruption is tolerable. In the case of Ahmed Wali Karzai (who is not only the President's brother, but also the provincial council chair for Kandahar province), I think that is corruption taken too far. If we were able to legitimately build a case against him and prosecute him (while all the while giving credit for this to the Afghan government), it would go a long way towards reducing the perception by local Afghans that Karzai's regime in so corrupt. For a more detailed discussion, check out the NY Time's online discussion "US Options and the Karzai Brothers" at http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/02/us-options-and-the-karzai-brothers/

  4. Dave: Thanks for weighing in. Good point about drawing a distinction between the Army and the ISI. Who ultimately pulls the strings of the ISI behind the scenes?

    In regards to Taliban intentions, I do think they are rational, but that they might have miscalculated in their belief that these attacks would increase their support. In cases where attacks ended up killing/wounding mostly civilians, the Taliban never formally claimed responsibility. However, in cases where mostly police/Army were hurt, they quickly claimed the attacks. So, it seems they are trying to de-legitimize Zardari's government by highlighting the lack of security (just like AQI recently did in Baghdad with their twin suicide bombings last week).

    As far as their long-term aims, I have yet to see any open-source reporting or documents that lay out their vision for the future. However, I believe they desire an Islamist-run government (similar to their brothers in the Afgan Taliban). I don't think they would want an Army-run Pak government. If anything, this situation would make it even more difficult to achieve their desired endstate of an Islamic "caliphate"

  5. I really don't think that Pakistan is in any real threat of having an Islamic regime take control of the government. I also believe that the Army will be the “big winner” from all the violence. But I would disagree that the Army has anything to do with supporting the fundamentalists. Pakistan has a history of unstable civilian rule, followed by stable rule by the military. The civilians just straight up don’t run Pakistan well. If we leave Pakistan alone and just worry about Afghanistan, it will take care of itself in time. It is not likely a coincidence that Pervez Musharraf left power and Pakistan’s Islamic extremist violence went up.

    Pakistan simply needs another Pervez Musharraf to step forward and take power in order for that country to remain relatively stable, improve the lives of the common citizen, and effectively fight terrorism. If you just take a look at the economic numbers from Pervez Musharraf's time in power, it is astounding how well he did to improve that country. It is also remarkable how much corruption he did away with and how effective he was in leading that country.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pervez_Musharraf - great breakdown of the advances in Pakistan during his rule.