Posts Tagged ‘realpolitik’

Pakistan As Playground: Some More Notes

February 4, 2009

Quite coincidentally, after I wrote a post yesterday on the prospective state of American engagement with Pakistan over the next few years, I ran into the online issue of a magazine coming out of India that has a round-up of opinions of the geopolitical future of Pakistan.

There are nine op-ed articles in this round-up, intended to be written as thought experiments, looking ahead and wondering what Pakistan will look like eleven years from now. The selection seems pretty diverse, if rag-tag, from commentators in India to an extract from a 2004 book by Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institute. Unfortunately, all the energies poured into the collation of these pieces doesn’t provide us with much fruitful insight — we get a general consensus on the cast of characters who are throwing their weight around on this stage, and a bunch of wishful thinking about how they will behave.

The articles pretty much support my conception of what the main issues in Pakistan are: the radicalization of the army, the need for outside intervention of some kind, the importance to the larger problem of stability in the region of resolving the power vacuum in Pakistan, and the perennial weakness of its civilian governments.

You could entirely skip the articles and take it from me that all they do is inform you that the main actors in the regions are:

  1. The military, with essentially two factions within them: the one that’s “Talibanized” or “jihadized” and the one that’s not.
  2. The jihadists themselves.
  3. Feudal landlords and other power brokers, with essentially regional affiliations that in some sense represent another binary divide in Pakistan: those who are Punjabi and those who are not.
  4. The international community, notably the United States, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The worst of the mistakes in this characterization is in the overly simplified view of the Pakistani military (which is also reflected in the (slightly less) simplified view of the regional power dichotomy.) The military has long been a breeding ground for a whole host of ideologies and power grab movements, similar to the structural history of the Communist Party in China. It would be hubris to try and predict the direction the military will go in over the next decade, because it isn’t clear which of its factions will achieve dominance over the others.

While the military might definitely be largely united in their animosity towards any meaningful reconciliation with India, there is no reason to believe that a force with a strong history of internal discipline and martial traditions will tolerate the emergence of a “non-state” band of tribal warlords. While the Pakistani army might be reluctant to appear to the larger populace as being controlled by American interests, they will certainly not stay their hand if they have to prevent civil unrest. This was certainly their desire during the 1971 war with India over Bangladesh — to prevent the disintegration of the country.

The most, perhaps only, really thoughtful article, though, comes from Rohit Pradhan and Harsh Gupta, who surprisingly seem, unlike the other contributors to this collection, to have no other pedigree than being journalists of some sort. They see that secessionist movements cannot threaten the overall strength of the Pakistani nation-state, partly because of the overwhelming power of the army and the need for external states to keep Pakistan intact, each for their own ends.

India too is a player who needs Pakistan to remain unfragmented in some way or the other. In his article, R Vaidyanathan claims that India will simply watch from the sidelines as its Western neighbor disintegrates but that hardly does justice to India’s historical attitude to its neighbors. India fought actively to hasten the disintegration of the first versoin of Pakistan, formed in 1947; it also attempted to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal conflicts. A damaged Pakistan, which might result in jihadi armies gaining access to sophisticated weaponry, is not a scenario India would like to imagine. It will do what it can to find an ally within Pakistan who will at least prevent the greater of two devils from taking control of the reins.

In one way or the other, every one realizes or refers to the Pakistan’s central problem: that it has no recognizable statesman who has the power and legitimacy to lead its people through the mess it is in right now. This person will have to be someone who will have credibility with the middle class and bourgeois elite who participate in Pakistan’s nascent civil society, who will be able to politically assuage the religiously more radical elements of its society, and at the same time, will be able to fend off its army’s constant needling and attempts to preserve and extend its own power. The reason General Musharraf met with such fervent approval from large sections of Pakistan’s intelligentsia, back in 1998, even though he’d done nothing short of suspending all democratic institutions, was because he’d seemed back then to be precisely this kind of Messiah. Perhaps he might still return; at any rate, Zardari and Sharif are clearly not the answer, even if one were to completely ignore their history of political corruption and venality.


The Political Playground of Pakistan

February 2, 2009

It’s hard not to notice that Pakistan is the center of a lot of attention now, after Obama has become POTUS. About three days after his assuming office, rep0rts came in that airstrikes ordered ostensibly by an organ of the United States government targeted areas within the north-western border of Pakistan. The idea that these are CIA-controlled drones appears mainly to be an idea of the Pakistani and Indian media, a possibility stated with glee by the latter source and with some consternation by the former.

So far, every one’s following the script, except the rather terse but aggressive stance taken by the Obama administration, mostly via Defense Secy. Robert Gates, that these attacks will continue as necessary, which is a little more peremptory and directly indifferent to Pakistan’s sovereignty than the Bush administration was in general. However, even this indifference is not unexpected, given then-Senator Obama’s assertion that he would pursue aggressive action against those actors in Pakistan against whom the government of Pakistan was “unwilling or unable” to mount a serious offensive.

It will be interesting to note over time if the current US administration does in fact pursue a more public attitude of military incursions within areas that are inside Pakistan’s political boundaries. In essence, Pakistan’s government has, over the last few years, allowed its inaction to give some measure of encouragement to the non-state forces operating in its remote areas, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. I don’t know what the translation of “federally administered” must be into the local language in those provinces, but I would imagine that at least some of the natives there have found out a way to pun it with “federally fucked.” While some parts of the areas are in fact not that far from Islamabad, the seat of Pakistan’s government, there is certainly much to be doubted in any assertion by the government that they can control critical intelligence information about the area or that they have actual political control over it. Even Pakistan’s most hopeful allies in the Unites States Senate, like John Negroponte, a Deputy Secretary of State and Director of National Intelligence,  have expressed very cautious optimism about what the Pakistani government can achieve to integrate this region into the nation’s economic and political mainstream.

The US engagement in Pakistan is going to be a far more adventurous story, though possibly capturing far less public interest, than its engagement in Afghanistan. The simplest reason for this will be that the US will have minimal ground engagement in these regions for obvious political reasons. This will mean that casualties will be low and so will media attention. The Pakistanis may complain about how any American action in the area only exacerbates terrorism and militant Islamic activity but they can’t raise the most serious objection usually used in such circumstances — that their sovereignty is being transgressed. The state has a very tenuous hold on these areas to begin with and the natives have only a vague idea of allegiance to the Pakistani government. In the end, what the Pakistani government wants is political stability over all else, and the jury is still out in Pakistan, and in the rest of the world, if suppressing cross-border terrorism in the FATA is inimical or helpful to such stability.

American activities in Pakistan, if they gain in intensity over the next few months and years, will turn into a rich mixture of political doublespeak and tactical expediency. The actions in that region affect the fate of the American military support for political change in Afghanistan, no doubt; they also will be watched with keen interest by the Indians who would rather things remain murky on Pakistan’s western front so that they have fewer resources to devote to managing their proxy war on the Indian border. Of course, matters are not quite as simple even from the Indian point of view, because instability in Pakistan, to which the current situation in the FATA will contribute, also pull in Indian resources and energies as India’s political establishment worries about the fall-out of a non-civilian government returning to power in Pakistan, and possibly imposing martial law in order to control the political situation. A militarily strong neighbor is never in the long-term good interests of India because it is bound to be more fundamentalist than a civilian government and more compelled to adopt a hawkish stance towards India.

An American military solution to the FATA problem doesn’t have a good script to follow. This is certainly not early Afghanistan or Iraq because the Americans consider the ruling government an ally, unlike their issue with the Taliban. This is not Vietnam because there is no coherent and united political force to fight against. This is not late Afghanistan or Iraq either, though there are more parallels with this situation — fractured tribal interests filling a power vacuum, because there is a national government in the backdrop whose stability needs to be preserved, for the sake of geo-political sanity.

The playbooks of American interventions in Central America might be of some utility here. The current government of Pakistan has to, in effect, assent to becoming a client of the American intelligence and military forces, and through some combination of active and covert cooperation do serious enough damage to the military capabilities of the FATA natives, that they will either sue for peace or simply cease to be a viable alternative for politicall leadership in the area.

Causes of War: A Brief Treatise

January 2, 2009

I hung out with a friend today and she brought up the question of where we will be twenty years from now. I immediately started thinking about the state of the world, and she was thinking about which one of us will have how many kids. How typical. Women.

Anyway. The problem of the state of the world has certainly been on a lot of minds recently. My friend brought it up at our New Year’s Eve dinner party too. What will be the good things about 2009, someone said. Nothing, I responded.

Can you blame me for being dismal? Things are clearly going down the tube in more ways than one. My friend, the one who is wondering about kids, is shocked I don’t care more, and I say, if humanity destroys itself, I will count that as par for the course. I am amazed in spite of all we have done to each other, that we are so horribly resilient. We all somehow survive. The Europeans wiped out so much of the Americas, and yet there are strains of those genes left, entire tribes still surviving in the Amazon and North American “reservations.” You attempt a Holocaust and you still have enough left to start a fifty year long war in the Middle East. But I continue, despite all these efforts by the human race to stick around, to believe that we are getting better at total annihilation.

And I don’t mean because of war, and that’s going to be the real topic of discussion here. War is not the problem for the human race in this millenium. And here’s why.

There are three causes for war: territory, labor capital and war.

A lot of times, people think the reason for war is economic and control of “resources,” but that hasn’t been the main reason, because there have been reasonable systems of trade that are almost always cheaper to use to procure resources than war is. The reason someone needs to go to war is that you need the land itself and more importantly to control the people who live on that land. First, the land itself — the strategic importance to military purposes is what drives most wars, not the economic benefit from resources that might be available with the land. WWI was a long battle of controlling enough land to be able to control more land. So is the Middle East conflict (where the military purpose has become one with the existential purpose, which complicates matters a bit.)

Moving on to labor. More often than not, the aggressor nation has a grand economic plan that can only function with added labor capital, that is only available outside the aggressor’s territory. Germany needed land to build its war factories and more people to operate them. Hence, WWII. Hence the wars of the Mongols and the wars of ancient Rome and Greece.  Hence, the US Civil War, because the South didn’t want to let go of the labor capital they possessed (rather than wanting, as is usual, to procure more of it.) People are needed to drive a slave economy or to run a war engine.

Today, most of the great powers don’t need more land. Nor do they need more people because corporations have taken the place of the state in the exploitation of labor capital. If we need cheap plastic goodies from China, we don’t need to invade China with tanks and force its denizens to make us our tchotchkes at gunpoint, we just invest in some Chinese middleman’s company whose sole purpose is to bribe the local officials and lock the doors while the plastic toys are being manufactured for cut-throat prices.

The only reason still left for a labor-capital-based war is that some nation might throw its weight behind its people and declare their labor unavailable for certain needs — Brazil might protest, for example, that it can no longer allow its ranchers to grow corn if in fact the Brazilians need to eat wheat.

However, to the greatest extent, the most danger to war is from the third reason: religion. The Crusades of course come to mind as does the modern Middle East conflict. And today, the biggest possible trigger for a new war is religion.

Who’s going to start it? Well, let’s list the suspects — the Christians are pretty much exhausted in the war department (at least as far as fighting for Christianity is concerned, their last hurrah was the cleansing of Muslim Croats and Bosnians in the late nineties); the Jews can’t fight any kind of war except the one they’ve got going on; and the Hindus don’t have the requisite firepower yet nor even a credible enemy to encourage a really hot war. That leaves the Muslims and the Chinese.

The Chinese don’t have a religion, except for that of stability. For the Chinese, preventing internal chaos has been a religion, with the Politburo of the CCP as its most holy clergy and its collective pronouncements forming a kind of common-law holy text. So if the Chinese start a war, it will be as a way of giving its restive populations something else to besides riot against oppressive government and bureaucratic intervention in their lives. A Hitler-style attack will probably start with South East Asia, whom nobody really loves, and then proceed against India and Japan in the hope that one or both will sue for peace. Whether this strategy succeeds or not will depend on how desperate or megalomanical the Chinese generals get.

So that leaves the Muslims, who are fighting a religious war but not as a united force. Currently, they are mainly fighting it as Palestinians and their supporters against Israel; as jihadis against pretty much anyone they don’t like and can find some way to attacks; and as assorted bands of Islamic warlords in Africa. There seems to be no clean process for these groups to unite, nor to sustain concerted attacks from their Western, Israeli and Indian opponents. Their only hope is to find become convenient partners against these forces with the Chinese, as Mussolini and Tojo did with Hitler.

War Of Words Follows Mumbai Attacks

December 4, 2008

I was surprised by the readiness of some people responding to the original post, to prescribe what is essentially censorship. I don’t think there should be restricting against the press of this sort at all — but I was also taken aback even when the siege was on, to see how the law enforcment and military forces weren’t securing the perimeter at all. There was one segment where one NDTV reporter was walking through the alley right behind the Taj, with security personnel crouching by the pillars right by his feet. Quite apart from the issue of confidentiality, I wasn’t sure how civilians, even representing press, could be allowed to walk around in the middle of a military operation. There’s also the issue of the damn reporter’s safety as well — it was irresponsible of the media company to have allowed or encouraged their staff into that area with no concern for their personal safety.

I don’t think the security holes created by any actual broadcast of information is something proven beyond doubt. The original article keeps referring to unnamed sources, even using the exceedingly vague phrase, “We have heard” at one point. Apart from the report of one couple who claimed that the attackers changed course after the couple’s hiding spot was broadcast somehow, there isn’t much to substantiate the claim that reporting actually endangered or lost people’s lives.

Having said that — Barkha Dutt turned out to be a right royal moron of the highest order. What surprises me though is that (more…)