Archive for the ‘Pakistan’ Category

Back from MWC. Heavy cold. Browser queue jammed with stuff. I’m going to do a brief succession of link posts to clear up. (Happenings last week; huge Leveson revelations, James Murdoch out, King Mob abolished workfare, horse, Borisbus fiasco, debate on Daniel Morgan, even more Leveson..)

This one deals with everyone’s favourite global geo-political region, the Middle East. Anthony Shadid died, and Angry Arab thinks the obits weren’t tough enough on the Israelis. Alyssa at ThinkProgress has a list of 20 of his best dispatches and only one covers the Palestinians and tangentially at that. Really?

Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner provides some history of the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Syria and its repression by President Assad’s dad President Assad. Worth noting that by the time the Syrian army began its infamous destruction of Hama in ’82, the struggle had been going on since 1976. Just because the rebels have kept it up so long – which is astonishing and a demonstration of extreme courage – shouldn’t be taken to mean that they are going to win in the end.

Colin Kahl, writing in the Washington Post, points out that the Osirak raid in 1981 didn’t slow down Saddam Hussein’s effort to build the Bomb, in part because it hadn’t really started before the raid. However, the attack convinced him to make a concerted effort, and also caused Iraq to abandon the power reactor-reprocessing-plutonium route in favour of the highly-enriched uranium route, which is much easier to conceal and also to distribute among multiple facilities and which turned out to have a entire black market supply chain.

He also links to this piece on planning considerations for Israel, which highlights their air-to-air refuelling tankers as a key constraint. Kahl also points out that in the event of an Israeli raid, their air force would probably be needed at home immediately afterwards.

The Americans, for what it’s worth, don’t think a strategic decision has been taken to get the Bomb.

Bizarrely, the IAEA inspectors have discovered that the fortified enrichment plant at Fordow in Iran contains 2,000 empty centrifuge cases but not the centrifuges themselves. Is it a bluff of some sort? Is it a decoy target? Is it just a very odd way of going about building an enrichment plant?

Binyamin Netanyahu memorably described as “carrying both Anne Frank and the entire IDF around in his head”, presumably in between the bees in his bonnet and the bats in his belfry. It is argued that he won’t attack Iran because the settlers won’t like it, or possibly that he’s bluffing about Iran to draw attention away from them.

Ultima Ratio is down, but you can read their excellent (French) review of Syed Saleem Shahbaz’s posthumous book Inside Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in the Google cache. Fans of “Kashmir is still the issue” will be interested by the argument that Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri and ex-Pakistani officer Haroon Ashik introduced a new strategy aiming to bring about more conflict between Pakistan and India, in the hope of alienating Pakistani leaders from the alliance with the US. Apparently they were planning something against an Indian nuclear site when Kashmiri was droned in June 2011.


Via yet another really excellent Arms Control Wonk piece on Indian and Pakistani nukes, it turns out that A.Q. Khan, formerly of Khan Research Laboratories, the man who sold the world the unofficial open-source community version of the Urenco enrichment cascade, and now of luxurious house arrest right up until the Navy SEALs climb over his back garden wall, has a blog.

It’s in Urdu, but I know a man who can deal with that and who has blogging time on his hands.


Following up this post, here’s a really interesting piece in Dawn on the Indian-Pakistani nuclear balance and the implications of the COLD START doctrine. It’s an especially good point that if India really wanted to punish Pakistan after a “Mumbai II” terrorist attack, they could do so very effectively and much less dangerously through economic sanctions, given how much fuel Pakistan imports and that most of it passes through one port.

In the light of this, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Indian military preparations are simply unwise – in a classic post at Arms Control Wonk, Michael Krepon discusses why Pakistan is continuing to build more nuclear weapons and concludes that the factors at work are as follows. First of all, Indian leaders’ public statements are threatening – to use cold-war terminology, although their military planning is moving towards “flexible response”, their declaratory policy contains a lot of “massive retaliation”. The combination is toxic. Trying to make the conventional forces more usable is potentially provocative. Statements about nuclear strategy like this one, combined with faster response times, begin to look a lot like an offensive doctrine:

The Indian Chief of Army Staff, S. Padmanabhan, sang the same tune – that if Pakistan resorted to first use, “the perpetrator of that particular outrage shall be punished so severely that their continuation thereafter in any form will be doubtful.”

Secondly, although nuclear weapons cost a lot to acquire in the first place, they get much cheaper once the programme has been capitalised and the process industrialised. This was a major theme in the high cold war – the original Manhattan Project was designed to scale up to five bombs a month, achieved that ahead of schedule, and in fact scaled even further. Also, they are often considered cheap in terms of their strategic value. Nukes scare people; Pakistan will never be an industrial power like India, but now it has the production line going, it certainly can add more bombs and more target packages faster than the Indian economy can grow. Krepon makes the interesting point that the limiting factor isn’t the nukes so much as the delivery systems – a country like North Korea can build a nuclear device of sorts, and Pakistan can run a bomb factory, but only a fully diversified industrial economy can make the aeroplane or the missile to carry them.

This has certain consequences for the Pakistani strategic targeting plan. In comments at ACW, someone asks whether they might be thinking of making use of man- or at least vehicle-portable weapons, the famous suitcase nukes. Another, slightly less terror-licious point about this is how the Pakistan Air Force is operating. If they have plenty of bombs but relatively few aircraft, they have to preserve the strike-force (the P-Force, perhaps, by analogy with the 1960s RAF V-Force) at all costs. This implies putting as many planes as possible on quick-reaction alert, dispersing them early in a crisis with the weapons, and keeping open the option of dispersing them in Afghanistan. (We may now begin to see why they care so much.) It also suggests that it would be very difficult to target anything in the Pakistan Air Force without threatening the nuclear assets, and that they might be keen to use tactical nuclear weapons – it’s a relatively cheap substitute for a much bigger army, and (as NATO found out in the high cold war) if you have more and more atom bombs hanging about, pure bureaucratic logic tends to get them assigned to targets.

This is a special case of the principle that mayhem is easy and order is difficult, of course.

The good news, such as there is, is contained in this wikileak, a 2008 cable from the US Ambassador to India. Interestingly, he points out, there are good reasons to think that COLD START is likely to be well named. It takes longer than you think, and when you turn the key there’s a lot of grinding and coughing and fuss before anything happens. So you might be tempted to go for a nice cup of tea and come back later, or perhaps have some biscuits and another cup of tea and turn to page 3, or just do something else.

Although the doctrine is explicitly designed to avoid threatening the existence of Pakistan as a state, and therefore to permit Indian military retaliation without triggering anything nuclear, it is seen as threatening both because it is intended to permit military action – to sneak under the wires of deterrence – and also because it is intended to reduce the relevance of Pakistani nuclear forces. The Indians, if the ambassador’s analysis is sound, are aware of this and are actually quite unlikely to implement it. One way of looking at the complex administrative machinery and politics he outlines is as a deliberate brake on doing anything hasty. Alternatively, it may not have been created deliberately as a check on the military, but if that is the case, it is interesting that it is tolerated. A state that really did intend to carry out a partial mobilisation and a 72-hour blitz from a standing start would have made sure that the code-word would be given. To some extent, the Indians may be experiencing self-deterrence.

The cable also points out that the terrain has changed since 1971 and that some of the ground is now much more urban and more defensible, and also that there are logistical problems that have yet to be solved. Taking an interpretative view, you might say that the real purpose of COLD START is to reject the idea that the international community has any veto on Indian action and to signal non-deterrence to the Pakistanis, while not actually doing anything dangerous. However, the problem is that the signalling succeeds all too well. In fact, the point that all arguments based on “credibility” are crap strongly applies. Either they are taken at face value, in which case they are dangerous, or they are seen through, in which case they are useless.

So, the D-word. What should anyone do about it? This is traditionally the moment at which it becomes obvious why the abbreviation for the discipline of international relations is pronounced “Errr”. But I think the answer is that Kashmir is still the issue. Only real concessions affect perception. Further, it would be very good news if the Indians disavowed COLD START and looked at an alternative reaction plan, perhaps concentrating on the economic side as mentioned in the Dawn link. But you try getting them to do that. Finally, and again spinning off that Dawn piece, the real role of the Pakistani nukes is to secure the special place of the military. Errr, indeed.

obl isi faq

There’s a good debate in Jamie Kenny’s comments about the political upshot of bin Laden’s death in Pakistan. For what it’s worth, I’m with Dan Hardie on this – it’s a very important political fact that the intelligence hierarchy a) couldn’t or wouldn’t catch bin Laden and b) couldn’t or wouldn’t protect him any longer. The ISI needs to be useful to the Americans and also to the jihadis to maintain its private foreign policy and its special role in Pakistani politics.

In the short term, it’s still in a position to make trouble – NATO is still using the roads to Afghanistan, after all – but this ability to cause trouble is now significantly constrained. When bin Laden turns out to have been living two miles from the Abbottabad Golf Club all these years, playing the supply-route card is very close indeed to committing to his side and burning the bridges. It may not be as dramatic as the Falklands War was for the Argentine military as a political actor. The outrage of actual Americans staging an air-mobile assault in urban Pakistan buffers this a bit. But they can’t count on nationalist outrage as a source of support – they didn’t, after all, prevent the raid, whether by shooting up the helicopters or by getting rid of bin Laden themselves.

The defining issue now is whether Pakistan’s other institutions can assert more power faster than the Americans (and everyone else) can cut-and-run. The end of US support after 1992, after all, tended to strengthen the ISI as a force in Pakistani politics. If the ISI director Ahmed Shuja Pasha is indeed sacked, this will be quite an ambiguous move, as General Kayani brought him in from the armoured corps in order to keep an eye on the organisation. But this is only a short-term coping strategy – or in other words, tactics rather than strategy.

A question

How did the Americans make sure their raid on Osama bin Laden wasn’t misidentified as Pakistan’s real enemy? This was surely a major planning constraint. It’s been suggested, plausibly, that the bulk of their radar assets are positioned along the international border and the LOC, but once you get to Abbottabad you’re not that far from the Line of Control. There’s been a lot of interest in the helicopter that was destroyed, and specifically if it was either a hitherto unknown type or else a Blackhawk modified to be stealthy. But stealthy is a relative term, and a helicopter will never be really stealthy as its rotor blades are constantly changing aspect towards any radar source.

There’s an interesting French paper here on Indian military doctrine – apparently, part of the lessons-learned exercise after the 2002 crisis and mobilisation was that the whole process took too long, and left far too many opportunities for the international community to get involved and yell “stop!”. (This may not be the lesson one would hope had been learned.) As a result, they came up with a new doctrine, known as Cold Start, which foresaw a quicker response to provocation from Pakistan, using forces already posted nearer the border to carry out raids with limited territorial objectives, closely integrated with air power. The point that the objectives are limited in terms of territory is important – as I mentioned above, a lot of things in Pakistan are not far from the border. They might not be very limited in terms of importance, for example, nuclear sites or major headquarters, or perhaps key ISI or jihadi figures.

(Ah, we had one of those, didn’t we?)

Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, was quoted as saying that the Pakistani air force scrambled its quick-reaction alert of fighters during the mission. This may of course be disinformation, or just wrong. It could imply that for a while at least, there was an elevated risk. Or perhaps the plan was designed to make it obvious that the helicopters were coming from the direction of Afghanistan, and they wanted the radars to detect them at some point during the operation…

It would be very interesting to know if the Indian government was informed at any point.

I think most of my readers also read Patrick Lang’s blog, but I think this guest post is the best thing yet written on the Taliban/SIS/McChrystal/Petraeus fake sheikh affair. Really, there’s a great movie to be made here – the multiplicity of motives, the ironic contrast between the absurd story and the deadly serious interests and emotions that drive it forward, the eternal ambiguity of the relationship between the manipulator and the manipulated.

The ISI comes out of it as being dastardly clever, but in a deeply futile way. They succeed in preventing a dangerous outbreak of peace and sanity, but what have they gained? The wars grind on, the butcher’s bill ticks up, the fantasy of a Pakistani empire of trucks and pipes across the Hindu Kush is as far away as ever, the Indians continue with their industrialisation across the other border.

The Americans come out of it as being well-meaning but naive. After all, they only get into this story because they want peace. So does the real Taliban leader. They both share a sort of big, stupid nobility.

The British do almost as badly as the ISI; not only do they end up being the dupes of the piece, they do so without the saving grace of having good intentions. They’re as naive as the Americans but more underhanded. SIS gets involved purely as a way of sucking up to the Americans and putting one over its real enemies, GCHQ, Her Majesty’s Forces, MI5, and the main-line Foreign Office diplomats. The Government is desperately keen on the project for similarly base reasons – to suck up to the Americans, to grab at an opportunity to solve its problem in Afghanistan, and of course to embarrass the Labour Party. Of course, it would have been a brilliant political fix had it come off – but the master manipulator is not Bismarck but William Hague.

The fake sheikh, meanwhile, is a classic example of the Pinocchio/Hauptmann von Kopenick theme – the puppet of bigger forces who becomes a power in his own right. Without his successful performance, of course, none of the many expectations curling around the tale have a hope of happening. His agency is real, and his character expands to fill the role. The fact that the whole project is an exercise in theatre is interesting in itself – a film within the film. The actors in the film are, of course, puppets of the script and the direction, and it is a work of fiction. The enduring purpose of the theatre and the cinema, however, is that works of fiction have real influence on their audiences. Like the fake sheikh.

After all, the grocer of Quetta (not a bad title) is the only character in the drama who successfully pursues his interests. He gets some interesting time off away from his bazaar stall, and even gets rich. You could play this as the ordinary man who succeeds in making fools of the powerful who insist on involving him in their schemes, or perhaps as a microcosm of all the people who are getting rich off the continued war, Mother Courage rather than Kopenick. Alternatively he could be killed off, casting the whole thing as an utterly bleak tragedy. However, arguably the classic in this vein is The Third Man and that sticks with the tragicomic.


So, the raids on NATO trucks held up when Pakistan suspended the border crossing. A good point is made in comments at Adam Elkus’s blog – what about the people who own the trucks?

What indeed. The so-called “transport mafia” played a critical role in the creation of the Taliban in the early 1990s, according to Ahmed Rashid. Back in the 1980s, one of the ways the Soviet-Afghan war transformed Pakistani politics was that an economy grew up to service it. Famously, this is what Osama bin Laden actually did for the mujahedin – his construction firm built the roads up to the border, his organisation received new recruits in Pakistan and passed them on. Logistics. Another element of this war economy was a network of transport firms that trucked the war material the Americans were supplying and the Saudis paying for up from Karachi to the border.

Most of these were close to the politicians who also benefited from the war – the NWFP Islamist parties and the feudal landowners who made up the right of the PPP. In fact, very often, they were actually owned by politicians, or by their proxies. To make sure the money fell in the right places and the trucks went to the right places, the Pakistani army created a new agency, the national logistics cell, which was responsible for divvying up the contracts and organising the operation.

After the war was over, the system stayed in place and became part of the general berserk vision of extending Pakistani and Saudi influence into Central Asia. The military would get to implement the strategic depth concept, and keep recruiting jihadis to use in Kashmir. The jihadis would get to continue their never-ending tour. The Saudis could spread Wahabism and dispose of their malcontents. The ISI would reinforce its special role in politics. And the transport mafia would benefit from what appeared to be enormous economic opportunities trading through Afghanistan into what had been the Soviet Union.

In fact, when the Pakistanis came to pick a proxy in Afghanistan after 1992, the choice was between Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the project of creating a new movement. The ISI wanted to stick with Hekmatyar, who they had originally sent into Afghanistan in the mid-70s. However, the other beneficiaries of the war weren’t satisfied with him – in the first Bhutto government, the logistics mafia and its friends were very powerful indeed. The key figure was the Interior Minister, the former chief of the Frontier Corps who had recruited the first generation of mujahedin in the 70s.

From a left-wing point of view, a crucial factor here was that the whole imperialist vision of caravans of trucks trading across the Hindu Kush as far as Siberia was a form of economic development that went straight to the traditional powers in Sindh via their new investments in the war economy. A stereotype view might be to say that the PPP was a mixture of Benazir and Bhutto – mass protest politics, and the feudal world. It was this intersection between internal Pakistani class and regional politics, grand strategic visions, and tactical opportunism that led them to support a group of Afghans based in Spin Boldak. Later, during the wars of the 90s, the Taliban repeatedly benefited from transport supplied by the NLC.

So you’ve got to wonder if setting fire to a load of trucks isn’t overreaching a bit. The role of transport and route security just can’t be overstated here; the irony in this McClatchy piece is intense.

For nearly a decade, the U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to cut off the remote, high altitude mountain trails Taliban forces use to smuggle weapons and fighters into Afghanistan. Now, the U.S. military is turning its attention to the border crossing.

“More and more we’ve realized that they are not coming through the passes, they’re just coming through the . . . gate,” said one U.S. government official in Afghanistan who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could candidly discuss the unfolding plan to focus on the border crossing.

On the other side of the border, here’s the guy who charges $1,200 a truck for safe passage. People are starting to notice; the US Host Nation Trucking contract amounts to 10% of Afghan GDP, paid to companies controlled by the Afghan government’s relatives.

Obviously, there are a lot of people in Pakistan who would be delighted to set fire to trucks owned by a Northern Alliance defence minister’s son, but as far as I know a major dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan is precisely about whether cargo can move through Pakistan in foreign-owned vehicles. This strongly suggests the movement on the Pakistani side is controlled by the same old, same old people. Key quote:

Until now, the diplomat said, protection of the route had not been needed because the delivery rate had been remarkably efficient given the length and rough nature of the route from the port of Karachi.

I suspect that if they want it delivered, it will be delivered. I’ve even heard it suggested that some of the cargo burned was insured in advanced, which if true would be impressively sick – it’s not often you get to have your own foreign policy and pull off an insurance fire at the same time.

the frontier

Am I right in thinking this is a form of “superempowerment”, of the NATO forces on the border, the Taliban, and the Pakistani Frontier Corps on the other side?

Pakistani authorities say that the checkpoint guards tried to alert the US helicopters that they had strayed into Pakistani territory by firing in the air, but the US pilots mistook this action for a hostile attack and blew away the checkpoint.

Any one of them can trigger a violent response from the other, which rapidly flips the whole situation into a higher energy state, with consequences at least up to the operational level. Of course, the FATA are only sovereign territory in a very special and restricted sense of the word “sovereign” – but arguably, optional sovereignty is a useful political tool, permitting the Pakistani state to a) tolerate the jihadis in some parts of the country when that is useful, b) tolerate the Americans in the same places when useful, and also c) assert sovereignty to push back on the Americans when useful, in the light of this.

This is actually roughly what Gallagher and Robinson meant with the “crumbling frontier” 50 odd years ago – zones of ambiguous sovereignty were important because they provided reasons for imperial expansion, reasons against it, and a way for peripheral political actors to use the empire for their own ends.

Ordinary Pakistanis appear to have a very clear idea of their country’s problems.

Angry protesters at the site of the bombing raised slogans against Israel, the US, the Taliban and the ultra-orthodox strain of Wahhabi Islam.

I don’t know about the first one of those, but you can’t have a demo without someone getting het up about Israel. Classical information theory states that therefore we can filter that out without losing any information.

I’ve finally got around to reading Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban and Descent into Chaos. They are as good as everyone says. Specifically, there are perhaps three things that set Rashid apart as a writer on Central Asia. (His contacts book is outstanding, but then, he’s not the only one.)

First of all, he writes about Central Asia, rather than about American politics as expressed through the foreign-policy establishment. He writes about Central Asia in the sense that he places the complex regional politics, the competition for power among Pakistan, Iran, and Russia, at the centre of the story. In fact, you could make a case that the Taliban as a phenomenon is almost irrelevant; if it didn’t exist, and the political situation was otherwise unchanged, something else would be playing the role of Durrani Pashtun caucus, drugs logistical system, sink for Saudi malcontents, and Pakistani proxy.

He also writes about Central Asia in the sense that he emphasises the intelligent agency of the regional powers, the Afghans of all allegiances, the Pakistani political parties, and the intelligence agencies. This implies taking a very calm view of the actual extent to which the Americans ever controlled anything in the area – in fact, one of his key points is that the current chaos is largely due to the absence of a US policy in the 1990s, and in many ways, its continued absence up to 2005 and even now.

Rashid also provides an interesting view of Taliban sociology – his version of them is essentially another of the child-soldier and refugee camp movements of the 90s, strongly mutually similar across an arc of suffering from Afghanistan to Liberia. He suggests that their ideology is more of a substitute for Islam and for Afghan culture than anything else – a cut-down set of tropes for people brutally removed from the real things.

Of course, there are certain functions that any good tyranny needs to fulfil. You have to have outward signs, so that it is possible to enforce conformity and identify a hated target-group; it may actually be better if they are content-free, so as not to limit flexibility. You have to have exemplary violence, and again, it may help if it isn’t actually directed towards victory. Eliminating people for no reason is the ultimate costly signal that anyone could be a target. No tyranny can function without denunciation – arguably, it’s more important than all the other functions. And you need the possibility of competitive observance, in order to get individual initiative on your side. “Working towards the Führer” is the classic example. This may actually be a more useful view of the Talibs of the 90s – a sort of minimal dictatorship.

Finally, he provides an integrated systems view of the politics, economics, and societies involved. The creation of the Taliban, in his view, involved many overlaid political networks, those of the Pakistani trucking industry and its partners in organised crime, those of the Sindhi feudal landlords who were frequently investors in the trucking and smuggling business and also powers in the PPP, the Saudi-financed system through which international jihadis were recruited, fetched to the training camps, supplied, and sent out as cannon fodder to pursue Pakistani aspirations in central Asia, and the ISI.

From a purely Anglo-British point of view, it’s worth noting that he is very hard on the Americans about the intelligence picture available to the NATO powers in 2005 when Rumsfeld finally dropped his opposition to ISAF deploying outside Kabul. He strongly supports the line that, having maintained practically no presence there and diverted their satellite and other reconnaissance resources to Iraq, the Americans let 16th Air Assault Brigade deploy into a zone of the unknown, which in the way of these things turned out to be full of the enemy. If true, this is the second occasion on which they’ve welshed on the agreement under which the UK doesn’t operate its own imagery satellites. Rashid argues that there was a vital window of opportunity to get a broad-based political settlement in 2002-2003, which the Cheney administration squandered in the interests of invading Iraq and pleasing the ISI/Saudi intelligence services.

In general, I can’t escape the conclusion that Kashmir is still the issue.