Thursday, December 18, 2008

a rare voice of reason

The Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid is well known internationally as an expert on the Taliban, of course. But his latest book, "Descent into Chaos", is much more than a brilliant overview of the problems that the Taliban are posing to Afghanistan and Pakistan these days. It is unique as he is equally scathing in his criticism of the Bush and Karzai administrations, and at the same time very open about the shortcomings of Pakistan's policies towards Islamist militants.
Rashid is very clear that he supported the invasion to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but that almost everything went wrong after that: The US administration wasn't interested at all in nation building, also because it wanted to "move on" quickly to invade Iraq next. The weak Karzai government failed to curb the warlords' influence and drug trafficking.
Whereas these shortcomings have been openly discussed in the international media many times, Rashid's book is most interesting when he exposes the double-dealing of Pakistan's president Musharraf - who openly supported the war against the Taliban, but continued to help them behind the scenes. Intriguing for example Rashid's account of the evacuation of Pakistani officers (and Taliban as well as al-Qaeda leaders) from the beleaguered Afghan city of Kunduz in November 2001:
For Pakistan, the stalemate in Kunduz was turning into a disaster as hundreds of ISI officers and soldiers from the Frontier Corps aiding the Taliban were trapped there. They had been ordered to quit Afghanistan after 9/11 and had two months to escape, but instead they had stayed on to fight alongside the Taliban. Musharraf telephoned Bush and asked for a huge favor - a U.S. bombing pause and the opening of an air corridor so that Pakistani aircraft could ferry his officers out of Kunduz. Bush and Vice President Cheney agreed, but the operation was top secret, with most cabinet members kept in the dark.
This tells a lot about how naive the US were in dealing with Musharraf. He was encouraged, says Rashid, to grant the Taliban a safe haven in Waziristan and let the Afghan Taliban leadership operate out of the capital of Balochistan, Quetta.

To what extent the Pakistani secret services, in particular the ISI, have continued their support for the Taliban and other "jihadi" groups after 9/11, has been a much debated question. Rashid concludes, based on the information he received from retired Pakistani intelligence officials, that the ISI found it too dangerous to cooperate openly with the Taliban, but instead chose to "outsource" this support to a new, clandestine organization:

Former ISI trainers of the Taliban, retired Pashtun officers from the army and especially the Frontier Corps, were rehired on contract. They set up offices in private houses in Peshawar, Quetta, and other cities and maintained no links with the local ISI station chief or the army. Most of these agents held down regular jobs, working undercover as coordinators for Afghan refugees, bureaucrats, researchers at universities, teachers at colleges, and even aid workers. Others set up NGOs ostensibly to work with Afghan refugees.

The question is: How can this double-dealing be ended? Certainly not by increasing pressure from the outside, argues Rashid in a recent article (with Barnett Rubin in "Foreign Affairs")...

the concept of "pressuring" Pakistan is flawed. No state can be successfully pressured into acts it considers suicidal. The Pakistani security establishment believes that it faces both a U.S.-Indian-Afghan alliance and a separate Iranian-Russian alliance, each aimed at undermining Pakistani influence in Afghanistan and even dismembering the Pakistani state. Some (but not all) in the establishment see armed militants within Pakistan as a threat -- but they largely consider it one that is ultimately controllable, and in any case secondary to the threat posed by their nuclear-armed enemies.

The reactions to recent Indian accusations following the Mumbai attacks would seem to prove him right: Pressure from abroad only reinforces the feeling of isolation in Pakistan. The only practicable approach would be, therefore, a foreign policy that takes into account Pakistan's security concerns.