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Belmont Club

The devil you know

November 18th, 2009 - 8:23 am

The UK Times says a top French counterterrorism judge has concluded from his investigations that the Pakistani intelligence had until at least until recently close relationships with the Lashkar-e-Taiba with the knowledge of the CIA. However, his sources implied that the Pakistanis were reneging on their agreement not to train foreigners by moving them around during CIA inspections. This implies that while the US was long aware of Pakistani clandestine activities, they had accepted them to some extent but wanted assurances that their targets would be limited. In the event, they were not limited enough.

Jean-Louis Bruguière, who retired in 2007 after 15 years as chief investigating judge for counter-terrorism, reached this conclusion after interrogating a French militant who had been trained by Lashkar-e-Taiba and arrested in Australia in 2003. … Willy Brigitte, the suspect, told Mr Bruguière, that the Pakistani military were running the Lashkar-e-Taiba training camp where he spent 2½ months in 2001-02. Along with two Britons and two Americans, Brigitte was driven in a 4×4 through army roadblocks to the high-altitude camp where more than 2,000 men were being trained by Pakistani regular army officers, he said.

“When the camp was resupplied, all the materiel was dropped off by Pakistani army helicopters. And there were regular inspections by the Pakistani Army and the CIA.”

The US agency carried out spot checks to ensure that Pakistan was sticking to an agreement not to train any foreigners at the militant organisation, the judge said. “After 9/11, the Americans put pressure on the Pakistani Government to put more effective controls on the activities of the Islamic organisations linked to al-Qaeda,” he said. Mr Brigitte, originally from the French West Indies, and other foreign personnel were moved out to another camp when the CIA was due to visit, Mr Bruguière said. (Emphasis mine)

The Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) was primarily directed against India and Kashmir.  Despite attempts to keep them in the bottle, like irrepressible genies they kept leaking out. As late as 2008, the NYT reported that the Pakistani Army was still providing support for it; as investigations on the attack on Mumbai re-surfaced the hand of Pakistani intelligence. Nor was this all. The NYT also reported it to be active against Indian targets in Afghanistan. Clearly the LET’s ambitions were global in character.  Wikipedia entry reports that computer records seized after the attack on Mumbai surfaced a list of 320 targets which were suitable for attacks worldwide. Only 20 were in India.

American intelligence officials say they believe that links remain between Lashkar and the ISI, and that the spy agency has helped support the militant group for the past several years by sharing intelligence and providing protection. But American officials say they also believe that the spy agency has become more careful to mask its ties with militants since this summer, when American officials accused the spy agency of involvement in the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan.

“Careful to mask” is not the same as “careful to stop”. But can any more be done? One of the oldest approaches to dangerous behavior has been to regulate, rather than proscribe it.  Prohibition showed the difficulties involved in preventing alcohol consumption. Now drinks are simply regulated.  Since enforcing sexual abstinence among young people is deemed to be impractical, condoms are distributed. “If you can’t be good, be careful.” The same strategy is often applied to in foreign affairs. Allies with frightening proclivities are simply told to curb, not stop their activities.  So if Iran can’t be stopped from having nuclear power at least they can be asked to promise not to acquire nuclear weapons. If Pakistan must operate terrorist training camps, at least they can undertake not to train agents aimed at non-Indian targets. But what happens when they cheat? What happens if they are “careful to mask”, but not careful stop? Why then you try and limit their cheating, that’s what, because the West has already admitted by its “engagement” that diplomacy is the game it will play.

And that is a consequence of limits. The West’s diplomatic and military budgets can only supprt a strategy of incrementalism. Politics prevents anything more forceful. That means that since bad trends in the world often cannot be reversed by the means available, they must be palliated. But the disease continues beneath the surface. Countries like Pakistan are like ships slowly settling in the water from a multitude of leaks, but since the wherewithal for rebuilding it in drydock will never become available,  the patchwork of bailing pumps which slows its subsidence might at some pont fail. In the meantime there is nothing to do but wait.

Michael Totten, writing in Commentary, describes how the same bailing process is going on in the Middle East where the nth rerun of the ‘Peace Show’ is underway. Nobody knows what the plot is. Nobody knows if there is a plot. They are just watching it out of habit in case something interesting turns up.

This week the Israeli government announced it will resume negotiations with Syria without preconditions, and the Syrians responded in kind.

Peace talks, if they ever actually start, aren’t going anywhere, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows it. He’s going through the motions so Western diplomats don’t throw him and his country out in the cold. Syria’s Bashar Assad knows it too. He’s going through the motions so that he and his country can come in from the cold.

It has been years since I spoke to a single person in the Middle East who thinks the Arab-Israeli conflict will be resolved any time soon. Last time I visited Jerusalem with a half-dozen American colleagues, Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh bluntly told us to stop asking “What’s the solution?”

“I don’t see a real peace emerging over here,” he said. “We should stop talking about it.”

But the ‘Peace Show’ cast may have nothing else to do, so it goes on. According to the French foreign minister, everyone ought to keep talking about because someday everyone might just surprise themselves and watch it happen. “French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner can’t see the difference between Israeli disillusionment about the prospects for peace and an abandonment of the desire for peace in the abstract.”  Totten argues that the time and energy can be spent elsewhere.

The Middle East will stop performing its “peace process” theater as soon as we stop demanding it. And as soon as we stop demanding it, time, resources, and energy can be spent on something that might be slightly productive. The conflict isn’t resolvable now, but it’s manageable. Even in the Middle East, there is such a thing as damage control.

Under these circumstances two things are possible and even likely: 1) that a crisis will erupt eventually and 2) the crisis will provide at least a momentary increase in the available diplomatic and military resources available to deal with the sinking ship. Rahm Emmanuel argued that one should never let a good crisis go to waste. That is the Gospel according to the opportunist. Well-laid plans to exploit a crisis are probably among the most useful tools available to policy makers who know they will otherwise have the resources to fix a problem from the current account.  They spend their days waiting for the moment when an emergency appropriatiation will be available. In the context of terrorism, this implies that while nobody would wish for such a thing to happen, it might be useful to build bipartisan consensus and do contingency planning in the event of an unforseeable but possible event, such as another mass casualty attack on the US or somewhere else in the West. It is clear that nobody is eliminating the monster, only caging it. The question of what to do if it escapes is always a relevant one.

Answering the question may itself provide benefits. Perhaps one of the reasons why the Third World War never occurred was that strategists disciplined themselves to Think about the Unthinkable. The consequence was that everyone knew what would happen if the central nuclear war monster escaped. And that very knowledge and those very plans may have materially prevented the monster from getting loose. Perhaps the best way to anticipate another outrage from Pakistan or an Iranian nuclear breakout is to anticipate it, at least in a dry and academic way.

The alternative is to leave things to the man who gets the 3 AM call or the emotions of the moment. This may result in an over or under-reaction; a resort to mass hysteria or vigilanteeism or paralysis. But a calm and pre-settled national policy removes a lot of the variance. It morally binds the office-holder to a well thought out plan; it creates the necessary staff work; but most importantly it communicates to the authors of mischief just exactly what happens if they do what they might be thinking.  Spelling out if A then B is a useful thing to say.  Will Pakistan ever stop supporting terrorism? Will Iran stop building the bomb? Will Israel and its neighbors ever make peace? Maybe. What will America do if a bad thing happens? Maybe that deserves some articulation too.


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