America’s Shadow War on Terror

The heavy military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is driving terrorists to seek shelter elsewhere. In almost a dozen “failed states” in Africa and Asia, they find conditions to meet their needs, granting different terrorist networks fresh safe havens from where to launch attacks against the United States and its allies which are left with the nigh impossible task of nation building in countries too safe for terrorists but too violent for civil society to take shape.

America’s “shadow war” on terror around the world would seem to contrast sharply the administration’s imminent retreat from Iraq and its scheduled departure from Afghanistan starting less than a year from now. No matter hopes of another “surge”, this time against the Taliban but executed by the very general, David Petraeus, who successfully subdued the insurgency in Iraq in 2007, the United States are preparing for defeat in Afghanistan as the notion of allowing the Taliban a foothold in the south and southwest of the country gains widespread acceptance.

Shifting the focus of the counterterrorism campaign to Central Asia, West Africa, Pakistan and Yemen does make sense though. While terrorist networks, Al Qaeda included, operate in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, in Iraq, they don’t operate from it. The mountainous and porous border separating Afghanistan and Pakistan represents an excellent stronghold for the insurgents to organize and coordinate their efforts from instead. Similar conditions — a terrain that is difficult for traditional armed forces to penetrate and the near or total absence of government — prevail in parts of Algeria, the Sudan, Somalia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The New York Times reports:

In roughly a dozen countries — from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife — the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.

The stealth war that began during the Bush Administration has expanded considerably under President Barack Obama, without explicit congressional approval; indeed, often without being publicly acknowledged.

In West Africa, the administration has found an unlikely ally. Long opposed to the American war effort in Iraq, Paris declared “war” on Al Qaeda after a French aid worker was murdered by the terrorist network’s North Africa branch in July. President Nicolas Sarkozy promised that the perpetrators would “not go unpunished,” his rhetoric being matched with an attack upon a terrorist base camp in Mauritania.

France has long been discreet about its counterterrorism efforts in the region, quietly cooperating with former colonies as Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger to curb the growth and evermore violent campaign waged by what is now known as the Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. Formerly dedicated to overthrowing the government of Algeria, this coalition of Salafist militants has, in recent years, killed dozens of Algerian and Mauritanian soldiers and police officers and abducted and murdered European tourists and humanitarian aid workers.

In Central Asia, particularly in Tajikistan, landlocked between Afghanistan and China, the United States are intensifying intelligence gathering missions and building up a military presence. Besides Tajikistan, the Pentagon is participating in strategic construction projects in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Each of these states is struggling with ethnic division and a specter of foreign interference as both China and Russia have an interest in extending their influence in the region.

Pakistan and Yemen are each plagued with resistance movements that are able to operate almost autonomously in remote parts of the countries. Pakistan’s hopeless predicament is perpetuated as long as Islamabad can’t decide whether to continue to act as an American ally, attempting to crush the insurgency along its western frontier at the risk of civil war, or seek some sort of peace agreement with the Taliban and its affiliates, which would leave it badly compromised in the unlikely event that the United States manage to impose a central authority in Afghanistan, ruled from Kabul, possibly by Hamid Karzai.

In Yemen, the Americans have been carrying out missile and fighter strikes against suspected terrorists camps and strongholds as they have in Pakistan. According to the Times, American officials believe that they are benefiting from “the Yemeni government’s new resolve to fight Al Qaeda” but it is difficult to tell whether they realize that there are two different wars going on in the country: one against Al Qaeda in the central south, another against a Shiite uprising in the north. The Yemeni government, no matter its “resolve,” is using foreign funds to quell the northern rebellion while negotiating with Al Qaeda about a ceasefire, pretending the two conflicts are intertwined.

Pakistan, too, has been taking American dollars and spending them simultaneously on fighting some militants and funding others. Mauritania, in 2005, urged the West to supply it with military equipment in order to combat “the terrorist surge in the African Sahel.” Other governments in Central Asia and West Africa may soon come to realize the rewards to be reaped from being designated a battleground in the War on Terror. The United States, in the process, risk becoming party to local power struggles, forced to pick sides that could further undermine its standing with radical Islamists who quarrel with their secular though often oppressive national leaders.

The risks, according to the reporters of The New York Times, are great indeed. They include:

the potential for botched operations that fuel anti-American rage; a blurring of the lines between soldiers and spies that could put troops at risk of being denied Geneva Convention protections; a weakening of the congressional oversight system put in place to prevent abuses by America’s secret operatives; and a reliance on authoritarian foreign leaders and surrogates with sometimes murky loyalties.

America is no stranger to the latter and should avoid making that mistake yet again, in part because it is exactly what fuels anti-Americanism. Having the American military regarded by local populations as an instrument of their own authoritarian government plays right into the rhetoric of extremists who like to portray the United States as an imperialist power, determined to conquer and subjugate the Muslim world.

Surgical strikes against individuals and organizations that threaten the United States are perfectly justifiable and preferable to full-scale wars that cost America dearly and put entire peoples in harm’s way. But time and again it has proven a mistake to enlist foreign governments in that endeavor. Any state pursues its own interest. It would be unrealistic to demand of countries which harbor terrorist that they imperil their own security and social order because it might serve the United States.

Selfish India

Living in one of the fastest growing economies in the world where opportunity lurks in almost every marketplace, it is little wonder that the people of India are finding new reason to take pride in their country and in themselves. Another way of putting it is that India is becoming self-centered or selfish.

At The Diplomat, Sanjay Kumar fears that his country is increasingly “lost in its own world” and he blames it for not bothering about its “responsibilities and moral duty toward its neighbors, even when they’re in crisis.”

The neighbor which Kumar refers to is Pakistan which is experiencing one of its worst natural disasters in recent history. While international aid efforts are underway, “India seems to be aloof and blind to the tragedy affecting Pakistan,” according to Kumar.

Kumar points at the United States which are mobilizing relief efforts though he admits that these may be more selfish than they appear on first sight: “the Obama Administration wants to win the trust of a Pakistani public that often sees the United States as working against their interests.” Dan DePetris made the argument for helping Pakistan for that very reason. “In fact,” he wrote earlier this week, “the floods should be perceived by the White House — and Congress — as a ripe opportunity to bridge the gaps between the millions of Pakistanis who view America as a hostile force and an American government whose dependence on Pakistan is growing by the day.”

India should be helping too, according to Kumar, and his argument in favor of it is a typical mix of moral highbrow and trying, in vein, to appeal to the supposedly selfish mindset of his fellow countrymen.

What Kumar neglects to mention is not only that India is suffering from flood damage itself, with hundreds injured and hundreds still missing amid the debris in Kashmir Province; he assumes that humanitarianism on the part of India will somehow change the minds of Islamic extremists operating not in the areas of Pakistan most affected by the flood, but along the mountainous frontier with Afghanistan from where they regularly launch attacks against Western coalition forces, their fellow Pakistanis and the people of India. Just how Indian aid win “the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people” after decades of intense nationalist strife, Kumar doesn’t say. If the Pakistani Taliban are any indicator, India will have a hard time winning their “hearts and mind.” They have urged Islambad to reject all foreign assistance.

No matter talk of “responsibilities” and a “moral imperative” on the part of India, its government is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing: looking after its own people. No state has any “duty” to care for its neighbors. No government has any obligation to place the interests of neighboring people above those of its own, nor demand that its own people sacrifice for the sake of a nation that has repeatedly and constantly waged war on them and continues to terrorize them up to this very day. India is pursuing its national interest and has a full right to do so.

A Chance for US to Build Trust in Pakistan

Pakistan cannot catch a break. As if daily killings from sectarian and terrorist groups were not enough to inflict mass casualties on innocent Pakistanis, tremendous rains have caused huge floods that continue to plague the country’s western frontier (that’s right, the same border where the Pakistani military and American drones are hammering extremist strongholds).

Pakistani officials estimate that as of now, close to 1,200 people have died, with thousands more displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands of houses in the tribal areas have either been damaged or swept away in the wreckage, which is prompting the Islamabad government to label this flood the worst in the country’s history.

But it’s not all bad. Donations from a number of countries are pouring into Pakistan while humanitarian organizations have dispatched workers on the ground to deal with the swelling numbers of refugees that are making their way to displacement camps. For its part, the United States have given Pakistani authorities $10 million, over 11,000 pounds of supplies, over 200,000 meals and some kind words from Secretary Hillary Clinton herself.

The aid sounds like a lot, but Washington could be doing much better.

In fact, the floods should be perceived by the White House — and Congress — as a ripe opportunity to bridge the gaps between the millions of Pakistanis who view America as a hostile force and an American government whose dependence on Pakistan is growing by the day.

If recent opinion polls are any indication, America needs all the help it can get to improve its image in the eyes of Pakistanis. According to the Pew Research Center (PDF), only 17 percent of Pakistanis are actually supportive of the United States, with 11 percent regarding America as a partner. Compare this with the 18 percent of Pakistanis who view Al Qaeda in a favorable light, or the 25 percent who support Lashkar e-Taiba (the group most famous for its 2008 attack in Mumbai).

To put it mildly, the United States are not doing so hot in Pakistan — even among educated Pakistanis in urban areas. Pledging more than $10 million to the flood relief effort is a good start, but a concerted effort to put some American boots on the ground would add a human touch. Pakistanis need to witness Americans doing something for the Pakistani people rather than for the Pakistani government.

It’s not going to solve all of America’s PR problems in that corner of the world, but it sure won’t hurt. Sometimes compassion can be a lot more effective than a monetary contribution. If Pakistan is as much of a strategic ally as Washington says it is, perhaps the United States should start acting accordingly.

Pakistan’s Hopeless Predicament

Pakistan is key to the American strategy in South Asia. Caught between winning the war in Afghanistan and winning India as an ally — the United States’ two primary foreign policy objectives in the region — Pakistan is a pivotal but frustrating factor that threatens to undermine both.

The Obama Administration seemed to recognize this fact when it began to regard Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of the same theater of war. The Pashtun tribes forming the backbone of the insurgency move freely between the mountainous and porous border separating the two countries, making eastern Pakistan a dangerous breeding ground for extremism. The United States have no hope of subduing this threat as long as sanctuaries for the Taliban exist on the Pakistani side of the border, supplying and training assaults on coalition forces in Afghanistan. Read more “Pakistan’s Hopeless Predicament”

South Asia’s Fragile Nuclear Balance

The paradigm shaping foreign policy in Washington DC today reads that the futures of Afghanistan and Pakistan are inherently intertwined. The war in the one cannot be resolved as long as insurgents are able to find safe haven in the other while regional stability demands peace across borders. Yet in Pakistan the Americans have to tread all the more carefully because here it runs the risk of intruding on China’s interests.

China has long been a friend of Pakistan’s. Its president visits Beijing regularly, several times a year indeed and although the Chinese preferred to work with his predecessor, the more authoritarian General Pervez Musharraf, they gladly continue trade relations and an exchange of nuclear technology up to this very day. China is already building two nuclear reactors in Pakistan and would like to sell the country two more.

The West doesn’t much like that. As Richard Weitz points out at The Diplomat, Pakistan never signed the nonproliferation treaty while its lack of internal stability raises the specter of nuclear terrorism. The United States, the United Kingdom and India have all protested the sale but their concerns fail to move China, “with Chinese officials perhaps calculating that Washington and others ultimately won’t try to expel China from the [Nuclear Suppliers Group] or retaliate in other ways if the sale occurs because they need Beijing’s assistance on other nuclear nonproliferation issues, including Iran and North Korea.”

What’s more though, the United States set a precedent in 2008 when it forced through an exemption for India from the NSG’s own rules — a wise move from the American perspective because to them, India matters. As far as China is concerned however, “providing comparable nuclear assistance to Pakistan simply helps maintain the nuclear balance in South Asia,” according to Weitz.

There is a good argument to be made for exempting India from the NSG guidelines but not Pakistan. Although not a signatory to the nonproliferation treaty, it has consistently supported the principles underlying it. New Delhi imposes a strict and comprehensive nuclear export control system and has agreed to international safeguards for any future civilian nuclear reactors. Pakistan on the other hand may well have been complicit in the spread of nuclear secrets and weapon designs in the 1990s.

This hasn’t deterred China from sharing technology because a nuclear Pakistan serves it own complicated relationship with India. It was China’s first successful detonation of an atomic weapon in 1964 that compelled New Delhi to seek a similar capacity. After India managed to acquire nuclear weapons, Beijing set out to make Pakistan a nuclear power. With China’s help, Islamabad could respond quickly when India finally detonated several deliverable nuclear warheads in 1998.

With American forces stationed across the border in Afghanistan and the situation in Pakistan affecting their security and ultimately, the success of their mission, the United States risk becoming party to a fragile nuclear balance at best — and a nuclear arms involving China in the worst, albeit unlikely, scenario.

The Obama Administration has been grappling with how to balance China’s and India’s roles in Afghanistan against its own interests. Where his predecessor made New Delhi the priority, Barack Obama has understandably been more ambiguous about his commitment; something that certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed with India’s leadership. The president has tried to convince the Chinese that they should pressure Islamabad into crushing the Taliban insurgency along its mountainous Afghan frontier but he can hardly continue to make that case were his own administration to side with India unequivocally.

Both China and the United States stand to gain from a stable Pakistan that can actively support the fight against violent extremism in South Asia. Yet the historic mistrust between China and India as well as the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan demands of both great powers that they take care to avoid being dragged into a cold war that could undermine not just the nuclear balance of power in the region but nonproliferation efforts around the world.

Don’t Pick Pakistan Over India!

Reuters reports that the Obama Administration is grappling with how to balance India’s role in Afghanistan as its archrival, Pakistan, also jostles for influence there ahead of Washington’s planned troop withdrawal next year.

Making India the priority was one of the notable foreign policy successes of the Bush Administration, but America’s relationship with Pakistan has always been a frustrating factor in South Asia.

President Barack Obama was quick to capitalize on the United States’ newfound alliance by inviting his Indian counterpart to the White House last December. But since then, the administration has remained ambiguous about its commitment.

At the time, Fareed Zakaria urged the president not to neglect India in favor of building a stable Pakistan — which may well turn out to be a futile effort anyway. Read more “Don’t Pick Pakistan Over India!”

There Is No “Secret War” in Pakistan

After three soldiers lost their lives in a roadside bomb explosion in northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, American media seem to have suddenly discovered that their country is involved in Afghanistan’s volatile neighboring state as well.

The Huffington Post calls the conflict a “once-secret war” and quotes Wired‘s Noah Shachtman who asks, “Now can we start treating this like a real war?”

Shachtman wasn’t referring to the media’s previous lack of interest in the situation, though. Read more “There Is No “Secret War” in Pakistan”

The Impossible Afghan State

When we asked here earlier this month whether the Western coalition can win in Afghanistan, the findings were ambivalent at best: while the United States could not appear to be scuttling from the country, President Barack Obama did announce a date for troop withdrawal to commence. Throughout his campaign, the president stressed the importance of winning the war in Afghanistan for he knew that this was the place where the War on Terror was really being waged. By including Pakistan in his administration’s approach to the war while putting more soldiers on the ground at the same time, Obama presented the most forward-looking strategy to bringing the war to an end yet.

As Scott Atran notes in The New York Times however, committing more troops to a counterinsurgency effort aimed against a good segment of the Afghan population, with the focus on converting a deeply unpopular and corrupt regime into a unified, centralized state for the first time in that country’s history, is far from a slam dunk.

The present policy of focusing on troop strength and drones, and trying to win over people by improving their lives with Western-style aid programs, only continues a long history of foreign involvement and failure.

What’s helping the Taliban gain momentum is the moral outrage of the Pashtun tribes against everyone who denies them autonomy. They want the right to bear arms to defend their tribal code which rather goes against the intentions of the Karzai Goverment in Kabul. Many Pakistani Pashtuns, too, regard the Western involvement as an invasion and a danger to their century-old sovereignty. Such bias is only gleefully invigorated by Taliban propaganda which claims that the United States intend to occupy Afghanistan indefinitely.

American-sponsored “reconciliation” efforts between the Afghan government and the Taliban may be fatally flawed if they include demands that Pashtun hill tribes give up their arms and support a constitution that values Western-inspired rights and judicial institutions over traditions that have sustained the tribes against all enemies.

As Thomas Barnett sees it, nation building that seeks to subsume the Pashtuns within a larger Afghanistan “is doomed to fail.” The solution? Create something of a autonomous “Pashtunistan” with borders “running within both Pakistan and Afghanistan and with those two states acknowledging a soft border between them.” Not exactly how we like to think of nations and states here in the West but an option that might just work for a country that has hardly ever been ruled in its entirety from one place by one government.

China Can Help in Pakistan

Finally, the United States seems to have found a role for China to play in resolving the war in Afghanistan. As Washington now openly admits, stability in Pakistan is as crucial to winning the fight against extremism across the border as the war effort itself. Throughout the past several years, American military aid has been flowing into Pakistan with, it seems, limited result. Government buildings and local army headquarters are targets of attack every so many weeks still. Unmanned bombing against suspected Taliban hideouts has only helped to aggravate resentment against the American involvement in Pakistan; an involvement that the Pakistani government, also, has begun to question.

The Pakistanis are understandably cautious. They feel that the Americans once left the region to its own devices — which in fact brought about the whole problem of the Taliban — and won’t hesitate to do so again. That fear is not entirely without foundation. Should the surge fail to do for Afghanistan what it did for Iraq, it is not unthinkable that NATO, perhaps including the United States, will abandon the war. Moreover, Pakistan is suspicious of Washington’s increasingly close ties with India: a good thing for Washington but not so good for Islamabad that just recently accused India once again of sponsoring terrorism against it. Read more “China Can Help in Pakistan”

India Matters

Reaffirming American relations with India was one of the few foreign policy successes of the Bush Administration. A nuclear power with an impressive but stable economic growth, India is already the South Asian superpower and likely to become more than that. It works with Brazil and Russia and even with China (the so-called “BRIC”) to strengthen its international position and it plays a pivotal, albeit an oftentimes overlooked, role in the Middle East.

President Obama was wise to invite his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh for the White House’s first state dinner on November 24 — a clear sign that the current administration also intends for India to be part of its “multilateral” strategy. According to the president, India is “indispensable” in the building of “a future of security and prosperity for all nations.”

Singh, as finance minister during the first half of the 1990s, broke with India’s past of moderate socialism and instituted a series of reforms that carried the country out of recession. As prime minister, he continues to promote privatization and free trade while while investing generously in a massive campaign against poverty. Obama recognized these achievements when he declared that, “[a]s leading economies, the United States and India can strengthen the global economic recovery, promote trade that creates jobs for both our people, and pursue growth that is balanced and sustained.”

In another one of the president’s crusades, bringing proliferation to a halt, he also acknowledged the importance of India. “As nuclear powers, we can be full partners in preventing the spread of the world’s most deadly weapons, securing loose nuclear materials from terrorists, and pursuing our shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons.” Both countries have known the “pain and anguish of terrorism,” the president spoke, so they must stand together to “promote the development and prosperity that undermines violent extremism.”

Prime Minister Singh responded in kind when he opined that India and the United States are “bound together” by common values and a shared dedication “to meet [the] challenges of a fast-changing world in this twenty-first century.”

There is an elephant in the room that neither leader spoke of. America is investing in Pakistan to support its war on terror at a time when India and Pakistan are accusing one another of involvements in terrorist attacks in their countries. After fighting three wars the two countries are still engaged in something of a nuclear cold war. Pervez Hoodbhoy notes however on the New Atlanticist, that most of India “would like to forget that Pakistan exists.” Fast on its way to become a true superpower, India “has no need to engage a struggling Pakistan with its endless litany of problems,” according to Hoodbhoy.

That’s not how Pakistan sees it. Islamabad is by no means comfortable with India’s newfound American approval. The Obama Administration will have to carefully balance its commitment to Pakistan against its relationship with India. It needs the first to bring the war in Afghanistan to a successful end but once that’s done, India is really the onle country in South Asia that matters.