Monday, February 26, 2007

Containment? What Containment?

It is mildly gratifying when the mainstream manages to play catch-up on stuff you've been writing about for a while. Recently, the media has gotten itself a dose of disbelief over the Bush administration's narrative about Iran, thanks mainly to a briefing that wouldn't have convinced my three year old.

Now it's the turn of Pakistan, which I have been saying needed serious debate for some time now.

The New York Times reports that Dick Cheney made an unnanounced detour to Pakistan to shake hands with another dictator today. The purpose of this visit? deliver what officials in Washington described as an unusually tough message Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces become far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with Al Qaeda.

...Democrats, who took control of Congress last month, have urged the White House to put greater pressure on Pakistan because of statements from American commanders that units based in Pakistan that are linked to the Taliban, Afghanistan’s ousted rulers, are increasing their attacks into Afghanistan.

For the time being, officials say, the White House has ruled out unilateral strikes against the training camps that American spy satellites are monitoring in North Waziristan, in Pakistan’s tribal areas on the border. The fear is that such strikes would result in what one administration official referred to as a “shock to the stability” of General Musharraf’s government.

General Musharraf, a savvy survivor in the brutal world of Pakistani politics, knows that the administration is hesitant to push him too far. If his government collapses, it is not clear who would succeed him or who would gain control over Pakistan’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.
The article quotes one anonymous senior official as saying that “We think the Pakistani aid is at risk in Congress,” and that this gave Cheney "a way of conveying the seriousness of the problem...without appearing to issue a direct threat to the proud Pakistani leader."

Progressive pundits have, obviously, been quick to assert that this proves that the Dems having control of Congress' purse strings makes for stronger national security. Neoconservatives like Jules Crittenden have argued less persuasively that Cheney would have talked tough anyway and that the "Dem Cong [only] provides a convenient diplomatic tool". It's difficult to see as tough any administration that has sent $1 billion in aid, much of it military, while Pakistan's support for the "War on Terror" went from simply atrocious to absolutely nightmarish.

The discussion in the US still revolves around the notion that propping up the Musharaff regime is actually a lesser evil than not doing so. Crittenden states the argument for supporting Musharaff in its strongest form:
we’re tolerating a dictator in Musharraf, and that’s unsavory, but he’s an enlightened and benevolent free thinker compared to Saddam Hussein, whom the Dems now wish had been left in power. So, would a Democratic president and Congress have the stones to go after bin Laden in Pakistani territory? Would they want to risk turning the nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Pakistan into the nuclear-armed Islamic Extremist Republic of Pakistan … a prospect now about one heartbeat away? I doubt it.
Bringing freedom, for Crittenden, is less an ideological pursuit than one of not picking the hard targets.

Another rightwinger, Rick Moran, is at least more interested in the problem that Pakistan poses than in dissing Dems who have had effectively no power for six years while it was the Bush administration and Republican-controlled Congress who presided over this degeneration. He advises that "the Administration start dusting off their “worst case scenario” plans regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan. And if there’s a rabbit they can pull out a diplomatic hat that will alter the political situation even marginally in Pakistan, now’s the time."

However, both Moran and Crittenden, in their analyses, ignore the single most important factor in contemplating Pakistan in relation to the fight against violent Islamist extremism. They aren't alone in that - pretty much everyone in the US is doing the same thing. The one thing that few are talking about is Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI.

The NY Times article mentions the ISI obliquely and only once:
Relations between General Musharraf and Mr. Bush have always been tense, as the Pakistani leader veers between his need for American support and protection and his awareness that many Pakistani people — and the intelligence service — have strong sympathies for Al Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban.
but you will look long and hard to find any mention of the agency in any blog posts today, from Left or Right. I can only imaginbe that this reluctance to consider the obvious elephant in the room is caused by deep bipartisan embarassment that Musharaff and the Pakistai ISI have so successfully gamed everyone in America for so long.

The ISI are, quite literally, what the Bush administration has been so keen to accuse the Iranian Quds force of being. India, Afghanistan and NATO - allies all - agree that the ISI isn't just sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda (as well as other Islamist groups in the region), they are actively backing these groups with funds, weapons and help in planning targets. The jury is still out over whether the ISI is a rogue force or is under Musharaff’s control, but as President Bush recently reminded everyone – which is worse, that they are or that they aren’t? You can bet Musharaff knows.

The Musharaff regime also has a record of being extraordinarily kind to known Islamist terrorists as long as they don't pose a threat to Musharaff himself, only his enemies. He needs the support of those very Islamists to stay in power, rather than staying in power despite them as the usual narrative in the US insists.

Then there's the matter of nuclear proliferation, where the Khan network of Pakistani proliferators literally wrote the catalogue that enabled North Korea, Libya, Iran and others to have any serious form of nuclear program at all. There are reports that the Khan network is still running and that it does so with clandestine backing from the Pakistani government. Pakistan certainly isn't keen on investigations of the Khan network.

Having said all that, I don't think Crittenden has to ask whether the "Dem Cong" have the guts to attack the hardest target of all - harder even than Iran, and one the neocons obviously don't have the cojones for. You see, It isn't a simple choice between the failed Bush version of containment - which talks tough while rewarding Musharaff and the ISI with more weaponry and money - or attacking nuclear-armed pakistan

A policy of containment, sanctions and gradual de-fanging allied with pressure to reinstate certain secular democratic leaders now in exile may well accomplish far more and with far less chance of an Islamist coup or (far more likely) just a new military regime - but if you're going to try containment you have to know what it is you are trying to contain. The Musharaff regime and its intelligence service should definitely be a part of that effort, but the Bush administration has consistently failed to make it so. [Edit - Musharaff's regime needs to be contained rather than relied upon as part of the process of containment. For me, that's the biggest Bush mistake in the region and why the curent administration's version of a containment policy has failed so spectacularly. - C]

(Oh, and it would help if America didn't try to play poker with consummate hagglers.)

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