Lines on a Map: Five Examples Worse Than Sykes-Picot

The centennial of the Sykes-Picot Agreement has flooded the better-informed parts of the Internet with everything from the depressingly familiar (blaming the treaty for all the Middle East’s problems) to the refreshingly critical. There seems to be more and more of the latter, which is heartening.

Sykes-Picot was after all not the only plan to partition the Ottoman Empire after World War I, as Middle East expert Adam Garfinkle writes in The American Interest. And blaming it, or any Western design, for imposing “artificial borders” on the region is a dangerous proposition, as the Atlantic Sentinel has argued. Taken to its logical conclusion, the idea that only borders that perfectly encompass certain ethnic groups are legitimate invites more conflict, not less.

The Middle East is not the only part of the world that can attest to that. Here are five examples where drawing lines on the map caused even bigger problems. Read more

After Month of Unrest, Pakistan Back to Square One

Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif speaks with his British counterpart, David Cameron, in London, England, April 30
Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif speaks with his British counterpart, David Cameron, in London, England, April 30 (The Prime Minister’s Office)

For the last month or so, most of South Asia has been transfixed on the situation in Pakistan. Except for minor diversionary hiccups involving the Islamic State and its victories in Iraq, the subcontinent’s media has been focusing on the shenanigans of Imran Khan and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri — before predictably losing interest and moving onto other things.

In Pakistan, the press found mundane stories to report, such as the forced deplaning of former interior minister Rehman Malik by the irate passengers of a Pakistan International Airlines flight that was delayed because of him. In India, prime ministerial visits to Japan and Chinese presidential visits to India grabbed the headlines while in Sri Lanka, a dispute with trespassing Indian fishermen quickly took over.

The waning interest, even in Pakistan, is symptomatic of the merry go round that is Pakistani politics. What we see is not any real movement to change the status quo but rather the usual shadowboxing of civil-military relations that is now in its umpteenth rerun.

There are three factors that point to this. First, that the civilian government is completely defanged. Second, that the “challenger” is not challenging the policy status quo — just the ruling dispensation. And third, the fact that the army is back in the driver’s seat.

The events of the last month have largely put to rest the wildly misplaced euphoria of Pakistan’s first democratic transfer of power. Combined with this was the belief that the new army chief was somehow supine to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and had shifted his focus from traditional enemy India to far more dangerous internal security problems. The belief was that these two developments in tandem had somehow decisively shifted the balance toward democracy.

Clearly that was not the case. Imran Khan’s impressive showing in last year’s parliamentary elections was largely believed to have been engineered by the intelligence services, as is his supposed mass base. Yet he was convinced by the usual conspiracy theories that are the hallmark of South Asian politics that far from being the runner up, he had in fact won the election and been cheated out of his victory by those who favored the status quo. So began his day of rage — which has now flopped after a month of rage.

The aim was to force Sharif to quit in order to have an “impartial” investigation of the election. Of course, why the majority of Pakistanis should have voted for Imran Khan remains a mystery since he has no new policies and his party is aligned with some of the most corrupt, feudal and regressive landlords of the country, as well as some of the most pro-jihadi, pro-army strategic analysts around. (His chief “strategic advisor,” Shireen Mazari, claimed last year that smog from India’s factories was an attempt to cause cancer in Pakistan since it was wafting across the border.) Clearly his protest had very little to do with the status quo.

However, what his protests achieved was the complete defanging of the Nawaz Sharif government which is now on the back foot in spite of commanding a parliamentary majority.

It could hardly order the police into the crowd to shoot down unruly protesters. That would have provoked a far greater conflagration and required the army to take control — in effect inviting the military back into politics. Not ordering the police to be tough, on the other hand, meant that some of Imran Khan’s threats to burn down the prime minister’s house might have been followed up on.

Complicating matters, it seems the government’s rapprochement with India is in tatters, given that the ambassador to India — apparently acting on army orders but defying Nawaz Sharif’s — held talks with Kashmiri separatists despite a clear warning from New Delhi that peace talks would be canceled. If the prime minister admits the ambassador acted on his own, he would lose ground in Islamabad. If he ignores the ambassador’s gross insubordination, he concedes ground to the army which has traditionally allowed no interference from the government in defense and foreign policy.

Into this dilemma wades the new, supposedly “averse to politics” and “respectful of civilian authority” army chief Raheel Sharif (no relation to the prime minister) who publicly advises Nawaz Sharif to “share power.”

His role brings a welcome respite from the negative media reports doing the rounds that the army’s campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas against the Taliban was a farce with all the wanted terrorists being mysteriously tipped off before strikes began.

The net result then after a month chaos? A powerful government is reduced to a shadow of its former self, its powers completely whittled away without so much as a shot being fired. A challenger whose movement has all but fizzled out and gone from being seen as the great hope to the great disappointment. And finally an army chief — thought to be supine, anti-jihadi and focused on internal security — who has singlehandedly saved all of Pakistan’s “subconventional assets” (jihadis) for later use while pretending to fight them, raised the threat perception from India, despite claiming to be internally focused, and wrecked the remaining four years of the Nawaz Sharif government, despite claiming to be “respectful of civilian authority.” And so we are back to square one.

Saudi Arabia Seeks Pakistani Weapons, Deepens India Relations

Government buildings in Islamabad, Pakistan, February 7, 2005
Government buildings in Islamabad, Pakistan, February 7, 2005 (Luke Stiles)

Saudi Arabia is reportedly in talks with its ally Pakistan to provide weapons to the Syrian opposition against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.

At the same time, it is deepening its military ties to Pakistan’s nemesis, India. Read more

Kayani’s Succession Follows Familiar Pakistani Pattern

German army chief of staff General Volker Wieker exchanges gifts with his Pakistani counterpart, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in Islamabad, January 18, 2011
German army chief of staff General Volker Wieker exchanges gifts with his Pakistani counterpart, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in Islamabad, January 18, 2011 (Bundeswehr)

Pakistani general Ashfaq Parvez Kayani achieved rather little during his six years as army chief while his replacement this week brings back painful memories of past mistakes and missteps.

Kayani was General Pervez Musharraf’s successor as chief of Army Staff. When he took over in 2007, he was hailed, as is usual in the Pakistani press, as a reformer, a realist, apolitical and whatnot. By Pakistani standards he certainly was, given that the country had its first peaceful democratic transition of power under his watch. He is also credited with unverified reports of midnight diplomacy between politicians and judges to stave off a constitutional crisis.

But militarily he was no reformer. Pakistan’s green book, believed to be the core doctrine of army thought, retains its focus on India. This showed in Kayani’s conduct of counterterrorist operations. Pakistani troops remained just as deliberately ineffective in fighting the Taliban and other radical groups.

Under Kayani’s stewardship, American-Pakistani relations plunged to new lows — especially after terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was found hiding on the outskirts of a Pakistani garrison town in 2011.

He also contributed in no small measure to the intelligence services’ increasing use of the media to malign the United States for conducting drone strikes in Pakistan’s territory only to request more in secret.

The general’s successor, Raheel Sharif, comes with the same stock descriptions used to justify the appointment of every army chief when overruling seniority. “Apolitical,” “not ambitious,” “confidante” of this person or that, “not too smart,” “reformer,” etc. Sadly every one of these epithets has been proven wrong over and over again.

The first such appointment was Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s in March 1976 by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on the grounds that Zia was religious, apolitical and actively detested politics. The following year the “apolitical” Zia unseated Bhutto in a coup and two years after had him hanged.

The next appointment that ignored seniority and was based on personal whims was by that of General Abdul Waheed Kakar in 1993 by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his first term. Following a showdown with the supreme court and the president, Kakkar forced the political leaders to step down, ending Sharif’s first stint in power.

Sharif made the same mistake again during his second term in office. In October 1998, he appointed Pervez Musharraf, superseding several senior generals, on the grounds that Musharraf was apolitical, dynamic and forward looking. Exactly a year later, Musharraf deposed the premier, jailed him and finally sent him into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Evidently the good prime minister hasn’t learned his lesson. Yet again he has appointed an “apolitical” general while superseding three others.

What we know of Raheel Sharif, who is no relation to the premier, is that his elder brother died in the 1971 war with India and was awarded Pakistan’s highest military honor. Yet the general is supposed to have been instrumental in changing the army’s focus from fighting a conventional war with India to fighting militants inside Pakistan. As head of the training command, he apparently rewrote the manuals and initiated the training required for such a strategic shift.

Facts on the ground and sheer logic don’t bear out this narrative.

Violence within Pakistan remains high with no signs of any deployment away from the Indian border in the last few years. There has been no discernible increase in success in the fight against extremists within Pakistan’s borders which should be associated with a new strategy. Crossborder attacks into Afghanistan and safe havens provided to the Taliban remain in place. Either General Sharif isn’t very good at his job or the rumors about his determination to affect a strategic reorientation are false.

Similarly his “apolitical” nature seems fishy given his stated proximity to the prime minister’s family, a proximity that contributed to his sudden and unexpected triple promotion.

One hopes this time at least Nawaz Sharif got it right. But all the warning signs are flashing.

Pakistan Should Be Wary of Giving Saudis Nuclear Weapons

The Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, December 20, 2007
The Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, December 20, 2007 (Ali Bin Shahid)

Saudi Arabia may want to buy nuclear weapons from its ally Pakistan to deter Iran but the latter can ill afford to sever relations with the same nation.

The BBC’s Mark Urban reported earlier this month that Pakistani atomic weapons were “sitting ready for delivery” to Saudi Arabia, raising the possibility that the oil kingdom acquired such weapons before its nemesis Iran did.

Pakistan promptly denied the report. Zachary Keck, the associate editor of The Diplomat, writes in The National Interest that it has little reason to make the transaction. He believes Pakistan’s fear of alienating Iran is the biggest deterrent to selling Saudi Arabia nuclear weapons.

Pakistan plans to build a natural gas pipeline into Iran, a project that both Saudi Arabia and the United States oppose. If it were to send nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia — which would significantly weaken the advantage Iran gains from developing the capacity to build such weapons itself — the Shia country would surely suspend the project as well as existing gas sales to Pakistan. For a country that is having to cope with power outages that sometimes last up to twenty hours per day, sparking riots and crippling industries, that would be unbearable.

Worse, Iran would likely deepen its relations with Pakistan’s rival India. By selling the Saudis nuclear weapons, “Pakistan would have guaranteed it is surrounded by India on three sides,” writes Keck — because India is also expanding its influence in Afghanistan. “For a country as obsessed with strategic depth as Pakistan, this situation would be nothing short of a calamity.”

The Saudis seem increasingly alarmed by the prospect of a nuclear Iran. King Abdullah exhorted his ally the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes to destroy its nuclear facilities, an American diplomatic cable leaked in 2010 claimed. The king’s former spy chief, Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, warned a year later that the ruling family in Riyadh would “consider all possible options, including the possession of these weapons” to defend itself. But where would it get them? It is highly unlikely that any Western power will supply Saudi Arabia with atomic weapons or even the technology to make them. Pakistan might be its only hope.

The two Sunni countries have maintained an alliance since the 1960s when Saudi Arabia supported Pakistan in its wars against India and opposed the secession of East Pakistan which nevertheless became Bangladesh in 1971. It also collaborated with Pakistan and the United States in supporting the Afghan mujahideen in their resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s when the kingdom financed Pakistan’s military modernization.

Relations have been strained in recent years, however, as Saudi Arabia expanded its trade with Iran. The kingdom is now India’s main oil provider and employs some two million Indian workers. India and Saudi Arabia traded goods and services worth $25 billion between them in 2011 when Pakistani-Saudi trade didn’t exceed $5 billion. The Saudis still provide financial support to the government in Islamabad which they see as a hedge against Iran. But when Pakistan is so dependent on Iranian gas, that doesn’t seem a very compelling basis for an alliance anymore.

Saudi Nuclear Weapons “Sitting Ready for Delivery” in Pakistan

An American soldier guards Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, September 4, 1996
An American soldier guards Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, September 4, 1996 (USAF/Richard M Heileman)

The BBC reported this week that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are “sitting ready for delivery,” raising the possibility that the oil kingdom acquires such weapons before its nemesis Iran does.

The report, by the British broadcaster’s defense correspondent Mark Urban, was promptly denied by Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest petroleum exporter and most conservative of Sunni Muslim states, has resisted Shia Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts through the years which it fears could tip the regional balance in its enemy’s favor when it succeeds in making a bomb. King Abdullah exhorted his ally the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to American diplomatic cables leaked in 2010. The king’s former spy chief, Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, warned a year later that the ruling family in Riyadh would “consider all possible options, including the possession of these weapons” to defend itself.

Citing Gary Samore, President Barack Obama’s former advisor on weapons of mass destruction, Urban argued that under the most likely scenario, Pakistan would station its nuclear weapons, with their own delivery weapons, on Saudi soil.

This would give a big political advantage to Pakistan since it would allow them to deny that they had simply handed over the weapons but implies a dual key system in which they would need to agree in order for “Saudi Arabian” nukes to be launched.

Other experts deem the scenario less likely because it might undermine Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Arab world when it is dependent on another country to protect it.

Saudi Arabia has intermediate range ballistic missiles of its own that can carry nuclear warheads — but they’re not made to carry Pakistan’s.

The two Sunni countries have maintained an alliance since the 1960s when Saudi Arabia supported Pakistan in its wars against India and opposed the secession of East Pakistan which became Bangladesh in 1971. It also collaborated with Pakistan and the United States in supporting the Afghan mujahideen in their resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s when the kingdom financed Pakistan’s military modernization efforts. The Saudis were also among few nations to congratulate Pakistan when it first tested a nuclear weapon in 1998.

Relations have been complicated in recent years as Saudi Arabia expanded trade with Pakistan’s rival India while Pakistan plans to build a natural gas pipeline into Iran, a project that Saudi Arabia and the United States both oppose.

Terrorist Leader’s Death Sours American-Pakistani Relations

View near Landi Kotal on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, August 2, 2006
View near Landi Kotal on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, August 2, 2006 (Aamer Javed)

By all indications, Hakimullah Mehsud was a terrorist. Despite his relative inexperience as a youthful, if determined, low level fighter, the Pakistani impressed his superiors so much that in just a few short years, he became the head of a major branch of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the country’s largest and most feared terrorist group. After a American drone strike killed its top commander, Baitullah Mehsud, in the summer of 2009, the Pakistani Taliban’s leader met and selected the younger Mehsud to guide the group through a very challenging time in its history.

Through the use of suicide bombers, large-scale car bombings and coordinated attacks against Pakistan’s army and security forces, Mehsud’s status soon rose to an elite level within the jihadist ranks. While Pakistanis were his primary victims, he quickly gained the attention of the United States as well when a young Jordanian who was thought to be a promising intelligence asset for the CIA blew himself up inside of an agency base in eastern Afghanistan. That strike killed seven intelligence agents and was the worst attack leveled against the intelligence agency since the 1983 bombing of the United States’ marine barracks in Beirut.

So after four years of searching, a feeling of relief swept over the American counterterrorism community when a drone finally caught up to the Taliban leader on Friday and hit the vehicle he was riding in.

For the tens of thousands of Pakistanis whose families have been victimized by the Taliban’s terrorism, Mehsud’s death is at least a small measure of justice..

The official reaction from the Pakistani government, however, was the very opposite of celebration. Officials were frustrated, not so much because Mehsud’s death dismayed them, rather because the government’s planned peace talks with the Taliban are now in jeopardy.

Arriving at a deal with the militants has bought some quiet in the past, particularly in Pakistan’s western tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. But after a few months, the agreements typically collapsed, largely due to the Taliban’s unwillingness to lay down their arms permanently and accept the central government’s authority.

There seemed to be little chance of reaching a longer term accord then. Yet there also seemed to be a desire on both sides recently to give diplomacy another try. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who assumed office in June, premised much of his election campaign on the need to end terrorism and violence through dialogue rather than military operations. And a few weeks before his death this weekend, Hakimullah Mehsud acknowledged that he was interested in probing the idea of talking with the government. During a rare television interview with the BBC, the terrorist leader suggested he might welcome a government delegation to the tribal regions to probe whether a peace process was possible.

Mehsud’s killing has likely thwarted any possibility of a peace process starting before it could properly get underway. According to various news reports, the drone strike even occurred just a day before Sharif’s administration was to send a preliminary delegation to the tribal areas.

What impact Mehsud’s death has on American-Pakistan relations in general will depend in large part on how quickly the two countries can settle the latest round of disagreement behind closed doors. For the time being, Pakistani officials are indignant, so much so that the American ambassador was recalled to Islamabad, guidance was given to Pakistani diplomats to register a compliant with the United Nations Security Council and a meeting was set for Pakistan’s ministers, security officials and senior advisors to determine whether ties with the United States should be scaled back.