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Belmont Club

Both ends and the middle

November 27th, 2008 - 10:49 pm

The New York Times notes the inconvenient truth. Barack Obama’s plan to enlist Pakistan in the fight against al-Qaeda in exchange for improving its relations with India has become one of the potential casualties in Mumbai.

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai occurred as India and Pakistan, two big, hostile and nuclear-armed nations, were delicately moving toward improved relations with the encouragement of the United States and in particular the incoming Obama administration.

Those steps could quickly be derailed, with deep consequences for the United States, if India finds Pakistani fingerprints on the well-planned operation. India has raised suspicions. Pakistan has vehemently denied them. …

Reconciliation between India and Pakistan has emerged as a basic tenet in the approaches to foreign policy of President-elect Barack Obama, and the new leader of Central Command, Gen. David H. Petraeus. The point is to persuade Pakistan to focus less of its military effort on India, and more on the militants in its lawless tribal regions who are ripping at the soul of Pakistan.

A strategic pivot by Pakistan’s military away from a focus on India to an all-out effort against the Taliban and their associates in Al Qaeda, the thinking goes, would serve to weaken the militants who are fiercely battling American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The problem with this strategy is that it is rooted in weakness. It is the alternative that remains after all the other unacceptable alternatives have been ruled out. Going in after terror groups inside Pakistan is out. Directly intervening in the dysfunctional internal affairs of Pakistan is out. Completely starving the Jihadis of material and ideological support is out. Therefore, as Sherlock Holmes once said, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Which is that a West unwilling to risk fighting al-Qaeda directly must somehow find ways to convince Pakistan to combat it in its stead. It’s a strategy that follows from a process of elimination. The problem is whether the desired goal itself may in the process also have been eliminated.

If persuading Pakistan to fight al-Qaeda is not merely improbable but is actually impossible then enlisting Islamabad may be unattainable. Pakistan from the very beginning may have seen al-Qaeda as an indirect way of checkmating the greater power and wealth of India. By creating a threat to America in the shape of al-Qaeda, Islamabad could manipulate Washington into holding back India. The NYT notes that “according to a new book, ‘The Search for Al Qaeda,’ by Bruce Riedel, an adviser on South Asia to Mr. Obama, Osama bin Laden worked with the Pakistani intelligence agency in the late 1980s to create Lashkar-e-Taiba as a jihadist group intended to challenge Indian rule in Kashmir.” Therefore Pakistan may have foreseen that Obama’s strategy before it even occured to him. But the Obama team may have failed to draw the necessary inference. Pakistan not only anticipated that Washington would come knocking at its doorstep but actually arranged for things to work out that way.

Pakistan can continue to dangle the chimerical carrot in front of Obama. ‘Hold back India and we will help you with Bin Laden’ Then they’ll turn around and hit New Delhi in the face and there won’t be a thing India can do about it. This dynamic was used to great effect by the late and unlamented Yasser Arafat in the Middle East. He persuaded the West to restrain Israel in order to avoid empowering the radicals against the “moderates” one of which he pretended to be. Then he would encourage the radicals to attack Israel knowing Washington would always be on hand to restrain the Israelis. Arafat became indispensable to the radicals for his ability to hold both Tel Aviv and Washington at Bay and indispensable to Western diplomats who saw him as a bulwark against the radicals. In reality he was playing both ends against the middle and managed to see his stock rise in both camps even as he betrayed them by turn. This evil murderer was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1994. How could anyone be so diabolically cunning? How often did Sherlock Holmes say that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

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