The real thing

One reason why President Obama may be reluctant to give General McChrystal more troops is that it would force the differences with Pakistan into the open.  Islamabad has been trying, for some time, to run America’s war for its own benefit. An article by David Ignatius implies that the ISI wants to manage the Taliban, not destroy it.  From the Pakistani point of view the danger in giving McChrystal surge forces is that the US military might get ideas.


At an operational level, the ISI is a close partner of the CIA. … But on the political level, there is mistrust on both sides. Washington worries that the ISI isn’t sharing all it knows about Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis, meanwhile, view the United States as an unreliable ally that starts fights it doesn’t know how to finish.

A test of this fragile partnership is the debate over the new Afghanistan strategy proposed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The ISI leadership thinks the United States can’t afford to lose in Afghanistan, and it worries about a security vacuum there that would endanger Pakistan. But at the same time, the ISI fears that a big military surge, like the up to 40,000 additional troops McChrystal wants, could be counterproductive.

ISI officials believe the United States should be realistic about its war objectives. If victory is defined as obliteration of the Taliban, the United States will never win. But Washington can achieve the more limited aim of rough political stability, if it is patient. In the ISI’s view, America makes a mistake in thinking it must solve every problem on its own. In Afghanistan, it should work with President Hamid Karzai, who, for all his imperfections, has one essential quality that American strategists lack — he’s an Afghan. ISI officials suggest that Karzai should capitalize on the postelection ferment by calling for a cease-fire so that he can form a broadly based government that includes some Taliban representatives.


The Pakistani love-hate relationship with the Taliban was the subject of a recent story in the Washington Post describing a Taliban sanctuary in Quetta which Islamabad left undisturbed simply because it refrained from attacking targets in Pakistan. Historically the Pakistanis have used the Taliban to further some of their own ends, but suffered when it blew-back. An ideal Taliban would be one which only attacked targets abroad and refrained from turning on its masters. In other words, a Frankenstein’s monster which didn’t turn on its creator. And the Quetta Shura is exactly that: a well-behaved abomination. The Washington Post wrote:

Virtually all of the Afghan Taliban’s strategic decisions are made by the Quetta Shura, according to U.S. officials. Decisions flow from the group “to Taliban field commanders, who in turn make tactical decisions that support the shura’s strategic direction,” a counterterrorism official said.

Unlike Pakistani Taliban groups based farther north in the rugged mountains on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Quetta Shura is considered uninterested in operations inside Pakistan. Pakistani officials have discounted the shura’s dominance and even its existence. But U.S. military officials describe it as “effective” and a “viable command and control organization.”

Critics have long raised doubts about whether Pakistan’s security forces are willing to seriously pursue Taliban leaders and activities in Baluchistan. Some allege that Pakistan’s intelligence services continue to secretly train Taliban fighters there, although Pakistani officials assert that they have purged their ranks of religiously motivated officers. [US Ambassador] Patterson said Pakistani officials were growing “extremely nervous” that the current policy disputes in Washington would lead to a premature U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. “They will not rush to cut ties with the Taliban if they think they will be back in charge there again,” she said.


From the published reports, one might infer that the ISI probably wants a calibrated Taliban: one which, while remaining in existence, never quite takes power in Afghanistan; one which while remaining a powerful proxy force, never quite bites off the hand which at one time — and perhaps still does — feed them. In other words, they want, in Ignatius’ words, a US policy which has “the more limited aim of rough political stability”. Victory in this context would be a bug, not a feature.

Bill Roggio notes that Pakistan has explicitly warned the US against striking at the Taliban attacking Americans from its own territory. Strange talk coming from an ally, until one remembers that the Taliban in Quetta have bought protection by refraining from attacking inside Pakistan. Killing Americans is apparently OK, as that is what they are there for; and noble it is too for so long as it’s in the cause of world peace. The Taliban are probably alright from the ISI’s point of view for as long as they don’t overrun Kabul.

General Ashfaq Kiyani, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, has weighed in on the debate over the potential for the US air campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda to expand into Baluchistan province, according to the Daily Times. During a meeting of the Tripartite Commission, Kiyani reportedly warned the US against conducting strikes in the province.

Last week, US military and intelligence officials told me that an expansion of the US air campaign into Baluchistan would likely lead to an internal revolt in the Pakistani military. General Kiyani knows the impact a wide-reaching US air campaign would have on his military.

Kiyani’s statements come as Anne Patterson, the US Ambassador to Pakistan, said that the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban command led by Mullah Omar, has risen to the top of the US target list. But Pakistan has refused to operate against the Quetta Shura as it is hedging its bets that the Taliban will return to power in Afghanistan. Patterson’s charges are explosive; previously most of the criticism on the Taliban operations in Quetta have come from the US military. She even questions if Pakistan is in control of its own territory.


Thus one of the complications President Obama will face if he accedes to McChrystal’s request is that he’ll have to come down on one side of the fence or the other. By giving McChrystal the resources to win victory, he will diminish the ISI’s role and possibly force the Taliban back on Pakistan, a process which may lead to drone attacks inside Pakistan itself. That’s a can of worms which some may be reluctant to open. Managing the Taliban from bases outside the country has the advantage of playing to Pakistan’s interest but runs the risk of permitting a resurgence of an al-Qaeda sanctuary throughout the whole region, which may result in another strike on a US mainland target. Thus Obama is caught between the prospect of irking Pakistan or starting a timebomb ticking which may explode on his watch. He has to consider the McChrystal report very carefully.

The fear of going too far in one direction or the other may explain President Obama’s strange and repeated horror of the very idea of victory. Victory is by definition an extreme outcome. The American Thinker is aghast at the President’s search for non-victory options in Afghanistan. But non-victory makes perfect sense in the political context of someone whose idea of a solution is a ‘deal’. Talking about his negotiating goals with Iran, the President said, “It’s not a football game,” replied Obama. “It’s not about claiming victory it’s about solving a problem.” In January of 2009, President Obama said he wasn’t particularly interested in victory in Afghanistan. He said, “I’m always worried about using the word ‘victory,’ because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur.” Hirohito never surrendered in person to McArthur, but the point is clear: can’t we all get along?


Perhaps the real problem with McChrystal’s request is that it implicitly forces the President to choose between a “victory” strategy and a “management” of the enemy one.  Strange as it may seem, there is a point of view which regards victory as evil, not only because it engenders feelings of superiority in the victor, but also because it is seen to create resentments which sow the seed of future wars. The President is openly working for a world “without nuclear weapons”. It will be interesting to know whether he is in a philosophical sense, also working for a world without victory. Perhaps the Taliban and the Pakistanis — and America’s enemies in general — don’t share his view, a fact that probably matters but whose importance can be overlooked for now.

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