Permissible Arms

From Dawn to Dusk

Posted in afghanistan, iraq, pakistan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 24 August 2010

Back from my stint at Attackerman. That was a good experience, if a little stressful–Spencer’s audience is a lot bigger than mine, and I hope I kept the fire going well enough in his stead with my compatriots.

For all the people (journalists) bemoaning the slow news days of August, I must say I don’t see it. Between the floods in Pakistan, the existential crises of Pakistan’s obstructionism in Afghanistan, the likely food shortage resulting from Russia’s non-stop drought/wildfire combo and Pakistan’s floods, plus the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the interesting philosophical questions that can arise from the withdrawal, it’s been a non-stop thought farm for me. Granted, it’s no McClusterfuck, but it hasn’t been a quiet month.

Speaking of the flooding, I keep coming back to stare at this picture:

Photo: Courtesy of Robert Simmon, NASA.

That kind of macro view really shows how massive the Indus has become, and how terrifying it is. (H/t Natural Security.) What a crummy Ramadan.

“Protocol droid fluent in 6 mil languages discharged for violating DADT.”

Posted in afghanistan, pakistan, usaid by Karaka on 28 July 2010

Without a doubt, the most entertaining thing on the internet right now is the #wookieeleaks (or #wookieleaks) hashtag on twitter. Marc Ambinder has collected some of the best here, but my favorites are the ones about the Death Star. There’s some seriously clever humour in there for those who, like me, dovetail as Star Wars nerds and national security geeks. Of which there are more than I ever thought existed.

Naheed Mustafa has another dispatch up at Registan that I’ve finally had a change to read, and like the rest of her series it balances being both moving and informative.

Everyone needs a myth; it’s the only way to sleep at night. But behind the myths in Afghanistan, the warriors from then and from now are just broken men, continuously looking for opportunities to perpetuate their own hype and stay relevant because without the fight, what are they? Behind the myth, ordinary people are profoundly weary and untrusting. They relive their worst moments nightly each time they close their eyes.

Mosharraf Zaidi’s piece last week on Hilary Clinton, Pakistan, and foreign aid that I found compelling. The comments section of his site is a little wily, but his work is always worth your time to read.

Perhaps now Pakistanis can better understand the frustration of the John Kerrys, the Hillary Clintons and the Richard Holbrookes of the earth. Top US policymakers have fought for over two years to win the Kerry-Lugar Bill. Since then, two things have kept that money from flowing into Pakistan. The first is Mr Holbrooke’s decision to dispense with the Clintonian (Bill, not Hill) model of US aid disbursement through large contracting firms that Americans often refer to as Beltway Bandits. That decision, while long overdue, was rushed and was made in the wrong country, at the wrong time. American development assistance, which is not routed solely through USAID, but often through half a dozen different US departments (or ministries), has been in desperate need of an overhaul for years. But to attempt to reform the instrument of aid delivery in Pakistan, at the climax of Obama’s war in Afghanistan, has been a disastrous decision. The American international aid community is so removed and so distant from the mainstream of western assistance thinking (spearheaded by the OECD and captured in the Paris Declaration) that it doesn’t quite know how to deal with large sums of money without the Beltway Bandits. This has meant that the Kerry-Lugar money has been parked in Washington DC, with a clear destination, but no vehicle to take it there.

Top pick of the week, though, goes to David Wood writing on women in Afghanistan (a recurring topic of mine and one of immense interest).

In Afghanistan, where women have traditionally been treated as shut-ins and worse, 29 Afghan women are taking a daring step: They are the first volunteers to undergo training to serve in the all-male Afghan national army.

Two American women, Rebekah Martinez and Jennifer Marcos, are among a cadre of U.S. Army Reserve drill sergeants spending six months away from their families to train the Afghan women here.

Meanwhile, the Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, reportedly has issued new orders for his Taliban fighters to begin again targeting women cooperating with Americans or helping their own government. Assassinations, suicide bombing and IED attacks may follow, on the women — and on their families.

One of the basic premises of my understanding of “reasons to stay in Afghanistan” ten years into this thing unequivocally has to do with women. Well, people in general, but women specifically. The quality of life for women in Afghanistan–not exactly of stellar height right now–plummeted under the Taliban and would do so, without a doubt, once again should ISAF retreat. Of the many obligations I believe the United States to possess towards Afghanistan, the quality of life of women there carries great weight for me.

Pro Petra

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us military by Karaka on 24 June 2010

Because Jon Stewart is at least mildly devilish, every single time I read or hear “General Petraeus” my mind is immediately flooded with the Daily Show’s rendition of Iraq Me Dave Petraeus.

It’s very vexing.

Anyway, some commentary:

  • Danger Room thinks on a return to air war.
  • Ackerman (who will soon also be Danger Room) pokes at Petraeus and Pakistan.
  • David Wood, remaining one of my favorite war journalists, has a short but sweet dispatch on Petraeus in Afghanistan: Lost in the furor over the disgraced Gen. Stanley McChrystal is this simple truth: The counterinsurgency strategy championed by his successor, Gen. David Petraeus, works.
  • Gulliver at Ink Spots evaluates the savviness of the Petraeus pick.
  • Dennis Murphy at the Army’s DIME blog weighs in with a strategic critique of RollingStan.
  • In this morning’s At War, Dexter Filkins and John Burns answer commenter queries about McC and Petraeus. While it has not yet gone batshit, I await that inevitability.
  • Tom Ricks’ Washington Post op-ed should be read with the context of Ricks’ close understanding of Petraeus, and also in his reiteration of two key points: first, that Petraeus is very skilled at fostering cohesion within his command, and second, that such cohesion relies to a great degree on effective civilian counterparts (which are in short supply in the region). Several people have chimed in to suggest that ousting McChrystal gives Obama sufficient cause to re-evaluate his civilian personnel as well, which I think it true, but I suspect unlikely. Obama has already assumed the risk of replacing his military command. It would appear to be fickle to replace Eikenberry and Holbrooke in the same house-cleaning, only a year after his strategy is put into place. Now, Eik and Holbrooke weren’t present at the Rose Garden statement yesterday, so it may very well be that their shuffling is on the horizon. Certainly it would be best for Petraeus to go in with people he can count on. But replacing your top three guys in a short period of time will feed a perception of ineffectiveness that may be more harmful than Eik or Holbrooke’s actually ineffectiveness.
  • And Jason Sigger points us all to the prize-winning political cartoon of the week:

The World, Viewed from a Hotel Basement

I’m hoping to write more on CNAS’s fourth annual conference tomorrow, when my entire day doesn’t get devoted to live-tweeting the event! To read through the day, check out the #CNAS2010 tag on Twitter. But here’s a couple of my particular notes from the day.

Karaka Pend karakapend

Tellis: Mutual suspicions between Pak & Ind over Afgh continue unabated. #CNAS2010 The existential battleground is emplaced in Afgh today.

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Okay, Richard Fontaine wins points for addressing Madam President. #CNAS2010

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Fontaine “…Accepting that a US presence in South Asia has become the new normal.” #CNAS2010

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India is unwilling to push Iran to the point where they might lose a potential ally; but India doesn’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons. #CNAS2010

Karaka Pendkarakapend

Flournoy: We are still trying to face 21st century challenges with Cold War systems and projects. #CNAS2010

Karaka Pend karakapend

Flournoy: “We cannot keep spending more and more to get less and less.” #CNAS2010 as with everything, money talks.

Karaka Pend karakapend

Fick: Rule #4 for future questions: No quoting TS Eliot! #CNAS2010

Karaka Pend karakapend

Flournoy: “We have never resourced State to build an expeditionary civilian capacity.” #CNAS2010 There is not enough “word” in the world.

Karaka Pend karakapend

Sanger: You tend to view the engagement strategy through the most challenging country…it’s only interesting if it’s difficult. #CNAS2010

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Cronin: We have a growing mismatch between our means and needs. #CNAS2010

There’s more at the hashtag, but that gives you a good idea of how the day went. I think overall it was a very strong series of panels, asking difficult questions and providing something of a roadmap towards answering them. We’re still left with a lot of uncertainty in a many different directions–how do we build up a civilian reconstruction program that we’ve never funded or incentivized, how do you balance talking to repressive regimes with the less accessible citizens of repressive nations, what will our conflict environment look like in the next several decades and how should we incorporate lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan–but I think it lived up to its playbill slogan of “Shaping the Agenda.”

More tomorrow.

Charlie Wilson’s Weapons

Posted in afghanistan, american media, united states, us congress by Karaka on 16 May 2010

I finished reading Charlie Wilson’s War this weekend. I had eschewed it in part because the film came out while I was in graduate school, and it looked so cavalier about the region and foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan that it really turned me off; I never tracked down the book because I foolishly assumed it was as overblown and pompous as I thought the film to be.

Never let it be said I don’t admit when I was wrong. George Crile’s book is a novel-shaped thriller of non-fiction, and even talking into account the times the storytelling takes precedence over an unopinionated clarity of fact, it was deeply engaging and very, very funny at times.

I watched the film in conjunction with the book, and was surprised to find they did a reasonable adaptation of the events as they’re described in the book. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos was spot-on, and the strange relationship of these Americans to the mujahideen they are supplying is palpable (as is the vague understanding implicit in the film, and more explicit in the book, that some of the people provided with ordnance and arms will make the US an enemy in ten short years).

It’s a rollicking read, and better than any thriller I’ve read, to be sure. (Except perhaps for William Gibson, who has the distinction of dipping into hard sci-fi and cyberpunk with his thrillers.) But there’s one nagging question I have, having finished: what happened to the $5bn worth of arms and ammunition?

Crile describes the DShK, the Stinger, the Oerlikon, thousands and thousands of AK-47s, Spanish mortars, SA-7s, Blowpipes, even old .303 Enfields. (Not to mention whatever was abandoned by the Soviet Army when they finally retreated.) Now, for three years after the Afghan-Soviet war ended, the US and Soviets both were still supplying Afghans with weaponry, and while it seems safe to assume that a far portions of those weapons were utilized to the point of destruction during the subsequent civil war, I can’t help but wonder what was left when the US returned in 2001.

Is there an unclassified accounting or estimation of what armaments the Taliban held in 2001 prior to their ousting? I’d be very curious to know roughly how many of those were weapons purchased by the CIA. For that matter, is there an estimation of what the Taliban hold now? Inquiring minds, and all that.

RROE (Robotic Rules of Engagement)

Posted in us military by Karaka on 9 May 2010

I hadn’t seen this around the usual sources (perhaps I just missed it), but this month’s Discover Magazine did a special on robotics, with an article devoted to robotic warfare. It wasn’t available online, so I scanned it for those that might be interested: Mark Anderson – The Terminators (PDF). (Also, I really wanted to call this post “These Aren’t the Drones You’re Looking For.” Admire my restraint.)

The first quarter of the article is devoted to anecdotal experience combined with hard facts about the US military’s drone program, though the author acknowledges that it would be going too far to call the drones true robots (which, as I understand it, means the ability to interact with the physical world independently from human control). But the majority of the article deals with the conflict between autonomous robotic weaponry and ethical restrictions on robotic behaviour.

The current proof-of-concept version of [Ronald] Arkin’s ethical governor assumes that discrimination has been programmed into the machine’s software. The robot is permitted to fire only within human-designated kill zones, where it must minimize damage to civilian structures and other regions exempted by human operators. The program then weighs numerically what soldiers in battle weigh qualitatively. One part of the code, for instance, makes basic calculations about how much force should be used and under what circumstances. What Arkin calls the “proportionality algorithm” mathematically compares the military importance of a target (ranked on a scale of 0-5–a number that a human must provide) with the capability of every weapon the robot has and with every nearby place from which the robot can fire that weapon. In some situations, the robot might have to reposition before it fires to ensure minimal collateral damage. In others the target might be ensconced within a school or crowd of civilians, creating a situation in which the algorithm prohibits firing under any circumstances at all.

Taking into account that this is only proof-of-concept, and not actually prototyped, allow me to make the following observations:

  1. Such judgments would require staggering amounts of intel, intel that would require human analysis, on any zone such a machine would operate within. Even if an additional robot, or one of the existing drones, did runs on a given area to provide footage, it would still have to be reviewed and interpreted. Particularly in conflict areas with poor communication or humint, those devices would only be as useful–and effective–as the intelligence its human operators have. (And begs the inevitable question: what happens if those intelligence operations are insufficient or incomplete? The risk of such a device seems proportional to knowledge of the AO.)
  2. There are purported advantages to removing personnel from the site of conflict. Fewer deaths, of course, and fewer injuries. Less loss of expensive equipment, perhaps less loss of ground or captured assets. But it seems other things are lost if we withdraw personnel–not in the least some measure credibility. (This is germane to Pakistan even today.)  If we can send in a robot to deal with armed conflict without great human cost, is there enough disincentive to keep from employing such devices as deterrence to insure a balance of power rather than as a weapon in an acknowledged conflict? What I mean to say is: can we avoid being the police force of the third world if the use of such devices might prevent conflict from fomenting? Does the efficiency of using an unmanned automated robot armament circumvent the reporting of human eyes on a conflict?
  3. This is a philosophical can of worms I am only going to touch on but not spend a lot of time on, much to my chagrin. But: how do you put a qualitative, numerical value on a human life? I’m not even talking about a target–we already put monetary value on such lives, or information that leads to their capture. But say Target X appears 200 meters from a crowd of people. Is the weighted, numerical value of Target X worth potential injury to a person in the crowd? I am not convinced that such a calculation can be left to an automated device operating discretely in contested space.

Despite these thoughts, I’m not actually single-mindedly against robot armaments. Robotics is a fascinating field, especially for a lifetime hard sci-fi nerd like me. But I have instinctive reserve when it comes to true automation in weaponry. (It’s possible I watched War Games too many times as a kid.) Clausewitz’s adage continually comes to mind: War is fought by human beings. But if humans aren’t fighting the wars, is it altogether something else?

Noel Sharkey, also quoted extensively in the article, says, “Nobody’s making an autonomous bomb-finding robot…At the moment, the machinery for doing that is too large to fit on a robot. But that’s where the money should go.” Somehow that seems more reasonable than a green light on Arkin’s “artificial ethics”–which gives me great pause–which results in death rather than life.

Just turn off your phone. It’s not that hard.

I don’t care if the Army said it was nifty keen, I can’t get this stupid Lady Gaga song OUT OF MY HEAD and I’m blaming it on paratroopers.

Of note: Stephen McInerney’s article on budget & appropriations for the Middle East in 2011. His analysis notes the increases in funding for Yemen, the withdrawal of support to Iraq in line with the withdrawal of assets and personnel, and the continued increase in funding to Afghanistan/Pakistan. The URL itself is actually a nice brief on Obama’s budget submission, but there’s a longer PDF as well. Shadi Hamid at Democracy Arsenal responds, noting the Problem of Egypt.

USAID has released a couple of reports of note, including a report on internally displaced persons in Iraq, and human resources and logistical support in Afghanistan (both PDF). The GAO has also released Operation Iraqi Freedom: Actions Needed to Facilitate the Efficient Drawdown of U.S. Forces and Equipment from Iraq, which is sure to be a scintillating read, and a report on the problems of aid and contracting in Iraq and Afganistan (both PDF, more at Diplopundit).

Break the Kandahar Mafia:

It’s even worse than that, according to an in-depth poll of Kandahar residents completed last month for the U.S. and ISAF command. Conducted by U.S. Army human terrain teams, the poll found that corruption is viewed as “a widespread problem,” and that “most people have sympathy for the reasons AGEs (anti-government elements, i.e., the Taliban) take up arms against the government.”

A majority of the 1,994 people surveyed said a lack of security was their biggest problem, and that they felt danger mostly from Afghan army and police checkpoints and convoys.

The poll found “almost universal agreement that negotiation with the Taliban is preferable to continued fighting.”

At leas the Human Terrain Teams are working? I feel like my comparison of Ahmed Wali Karzai to Don Corleone is a little more on the nose now. From the Washington Post, the US is shoring up support the actual, technical governor of Kandahar:

In the hope of pushing power brokers such as Karzai to the sidelines, American officials are trying to infuse Wesa and his government with more clout and credibility. They see better governance as a central part of a U.S.-led effort that has brought thousands of troops to the region for a summer offensive against the Taliban.

But the government headed by Wesa has severe problems of its own. It remains understaffed, is viewed by many as corrupt and does not reflect the province’s tribal mix. Karzai and other allegedly corrupt political bosses who dominate Kandahar show no sign of giving way.

“Wesa is a weak governor,” said Rahmatullah Raufi, a former general and Kandahar governor. “If Ahmed Wali Karzai wants him to die, he will die. If he says, ‘Live,’ he’ll live.”

Isn’t that something. If it looks like a warlord, quacks like a warlord, it must be…

AP via Stars & Stripes covers the perils of contracting in Afghanistan:

Afghan companies often bid on projects that they don’t have the money or skills to complete, Wilson said. Quality inspectors end up teaching the basics of drainage or safe electrical wiring.

Small Afghan companies are also under more pressure to pay bribes to local authorities than large international firms, Wilson said. The military has received invoices for as much as $40,000 from Afghan contractors for bogus building permits, he said. International companies either have the power to say no or don’t even try to get their money back from the military.

On NATO bases, hours are also lost each day getting Afghan workers through security.

Despite the problems, Wilson says the “Afghan First” program is the right approach given the new focus on winning over the population. The problem is that this year, in the midst of a troop surge, there’s just too much to build.

Makes you wonder how much of the appropriations for Afghanistan in the budget above will actually be used for stated purposes.

Anthony Cordesman issued a pointed critique of the Obama administration’s communications efforts (or lack thereof) on Afghanistan et cetera via CSIS; some good notes, though I wonder what, if anything, Cordesman might have changed if this had been released after the Afghanistan report instead of before.

In addition to his whirlwind speaking schedule, Secdef Gates published an article in the May/June Foreign Affairs, Helping Others Defend Themselves (PDF). It effectively articulates what Gates (and presumably Clinton) would like to see change in the duration of their time with the Obama administration, perhaps in part from the conclusion of the QDR and QDDR.

The United States now recognizes that the security sectors of at-risk countries are really systems of systems tying together the military, the police, the justice system, and other governance and oversight mechanisms. As such, building a partner’s overall governance and security capacity is a shared responsibility across multiple agencies and departments of the U.S. national security apparatus — and one that requires flexible, responsive tools that provide incentives for cooperation. Operations against extremist groups in the Philippines and, more recently, Yemen have shown how well-integrated training and assistance efforts can achieve real success.

But for all the improvements of recent years, the United States’ interagency tool kit is still
a hodgepodge of jury-rigged arrangements constrained by a dated and complex patchwork of authorities, persistent shortfalls in resources, and unwieldy processes. The National Security Act that created most of the current interagency structure was passed in 1947, the last major legislation structuring how Washington dispenses foreign assistance was signed by President John F. Kennedy, and the law governing U.S. exports of military equipment was passed in 1976. All the while, other countries that do not suffer from such encumbrances have been more quickly funding projects, selling weapons, and building relationships.

Yemen, Yemen, Yemen. The Martha Brady of insurgency-riddled nations. Anyway, I’m curious to see what Gates says in his next speech–he seems to be on something of a campaign. Also, let me point out this rebuttal of Gates’ Navy League speech from Brian McGrath at Information Dissemination; it’s a point by point response, and really gets into the meat of what Gates is proposing.

It’s funnier in the original Pashto.

This morning kind of sucked. I spilled coffee on myself and my books not once, but twice; missed my bus this morning; and spent the first hour putting out work-related brushfires. I guess everyone has to have a bad hump day now and again, but did mine have to involve ruining all the papers, books, and magazines in my bag?

Linkdump time. Danger Room’s interview with Admiral Mike Mullen was great, but I was way too taken with the confession that Adm. Mullen actually does tweet over at @thejointstaff. Oh, Twitter. You are a Chinese curse.

Stratfor’s security brief this week is on the relationships of India, the US, and Pakistan to Afghanistan, which I weirdly feel like I scooped (even though I clearly didn’t). To wit:

Ultimately, with long experience bleeding the Soviets in Afghanistan, the United States was inherently wary of becoming involved in Afghanistan. In recent years, it has become all too clear how distant the prospect of a stable Afghanistan is. A tribal-ethnic balance of power overseen by Pakistan is another matter entirely, however. The great irony is that such a success could make the region look remarkably like it did on Sept. 10, 2001…The Indians are concerned that with American underwriting, the Pakistanis not only may be about to re-emerge as a major check on Indian ambitions, but in a form eerily familiar to the sort of state-militant partnership that so effectively limited Indian power in the past. They are right.

From At War, “Military Disputes Taliban on Korangal Valley Outpost:”

The absence of the Americans from the valley has made the area somewhat less secure, according to local people and the Afghan army. That would be in line with American expectations about the impact of their withdrawal. The American military had expected there might be some decline in security, but also thought it was possible that without the presence of the Americans to provoke the insular Korangalis, the area eventually would become calmer. That has not seemed to be the case — at least not yet.

“People are trapped in Korangal because of repeated fighting between Afghan forces and Taliban,” said Major Turab.

Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann have recently published an Almanac of al-Qaeda over at Foreign Policy, which details the rise of the organization and a fascinating data dump with some rockin’ graphs. One of the best contemporary briefings on the subject, I think, from two trusted authors.

Gunslinger over at Ink Spots posted a criticism of Michael O’Hanlon’s article on non-lethal weapons (NLW) that I found clearheaded and compellingly argued. There’s some good discussion in the comments too.

Anne Marlowe has a column over World Affairs Journal that takes a long view of COIN and Afghanistan. I’ve read it a couple times now, and I’m reacting against it for a reason I can’t quite put my finger on. I think it has something to do with the claim about the effectiveness of insuring the security of the population over engaging the enemy with arms, and the implication that that isn’t by definition an underlying principle of COIN. Still mulling it over.

David Wood reports on when Iran goes nuclear, confirming my general hapless view on the matter:

Relying on traditional deterrence against a nuclear-armed Iran would be a mistake — that is the cautionary conclusion of a two-year study at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. It saw three problems with trying to deter Iran:

– The regime is split into factions, making it difficult to know whether to deal with clerics or civilians like Ahmadinejad, the military or the ultra-hard-line paramilitary Revolutionary Guards.

– Rather than threatening to launch a nuclear attack, a nuclear Iran would likely be more aggressive in backing terrorist attacks or even minor conventional or very low-level nuclear operations against U.S. interests in the region — nuclear sea mines along the Persian Gulf’s oil routes, for example. Such operations would complicate U.S. decisions about whether a nuclear response would be justified.

– Domestic political instability could affect how Iran’s leaders play their nuclear weapons card, making it difficult to predict how they would react in a crisis.

And finally, also at Danger Room, the Army has been reading you! and you! and you! (Okay, maybe not you.)

Every week, the defense contractor MPRI prepares for the brass a “Blogosphere and Social Media Report,” rounding up sites’ posts on military matters. It’s meant to be a single source for top officers to catch up on what’s being said online and in leading social media outlets. Items from about two dozen national security and political blogs are excerpted, and classified as “balanced,” “critical,” or “supportive.” The vast majority of the posts are considered “balanced” — even when they rip the Army a new one.

I downloaded & read the three reports that were made available, and they’re depressingly poorly researched. I dread knowing how much money gets shelled out for these, and levied some further criticism in the post over at SWJ. Since when are HuffPo and World News Daily balanced?

The story of Pakistan is not monolithically negative.

Posted in pakistan by Karaka on 26 April 2010

Is it ironic that I’m preparing curry for dinner, or merely an amusing coincidence?

Following on to the previous post, the Guardian’s Mustafa Qadri states why Pakistan has to work, despite its failings:

Going as it does against the very grain of Pakistan’s claim to be a home for the subcontinent’s Muslims, ethnic nationalism has been condemned by both Islamists and the elite as a mischievous attempt to destabilise the nation. In reality, it has always been a direct consequence of marginalisation. That is why Bengalis, incensed by systematic discrimination from Pakistan’s Punjab dominated institutions, fought to create Bangladesh in 1971. At political rallies in the Balochi, Pakhtun and Urdu-speaking slums of Karachi, you can hear the echoes of 1971 today.

But the idea that ethnic nationalism will unlock true freedom, or that Pakistan itself is an impediment to liberation, is a dangerous fantasy. Despite Pakistan’s failings, the alternatives are far worse than anything we have already faced. Just as importantly, the story of Pakistan is not monolithically negative.

Short article, worth the time to read. “There remains no credible option but to make Pakistan work.” Methinks some other countries may disagree, but I entertain the claim.

Tagged with:

When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away

Posted in afghanistan, india, pakistan by Karaka on 26 April 2010

I have to admit, my first thought when seeing Hamid Karzai set for talks with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh while surreptitiously reading my news feeds at a work event on Saturday was “Man, this is going to piss off Pakistan.”

See, last week I’d read this report from the Defense Studies blog, India’s Afghan Endgame, and it was foremost in my mind. I read the blog fairly cautiously, but I thought this was a fairly compelling read.

Delhi is pursuing what amounts to a “soft power” campaign in Afghanistan — one which, according to Ahmed Rashid’s Descent Into Chaos, is “designed to win over every sector of Afghan society, give India a high profile with the Afghans, gain the maximum political advantage, and of course undercut Pakistani influence.” And although India’s efforts have without a doubt unnerved the Pakistanis, Delhi has managed avoid the perception among the other states engaged in Afghanistan that it is actively seeking to antagonize Islamabad — perhaps because of the extent of the services it has provided to the Afghan population. Assuming Rashid is right about India’s desire to cultivate influence among the Afghan citizens, its strategy has been success: an ABC News/BBC poll released in early 2009 indicated that 71% of Afghans viewed India favorably. Only 8% said the same of Pakistan.

While the last twenty months or so have seen Western political and policy movement away from a sole focus on Afghan to the more encompassing view of Afghanistan-Pakistan, it would be foolish to ignore the impact India does have–or more importantly, could grow to have–in the region.

I’m not one to give credence to the general paranoia India and Pakistan harbour towards one another; for one thing, it’s pretty far out of my wheelhouse in terms of political knowledge, and secondly most of what I encounter about the subject can tend towards the hyperbolic. (The only thing I’m willing to get loud and impassioned about is whether Han shot first. Or the virtue of Pacific Northwest IPAs over just about any other American beer.) But even so I find myself agreeing with Tim Sullivan, who wrote the piece I’m referencing, when he concluded:

In the end, United States can’t expect that India will simply remain on the sidelines as the endgame in Afghanistan takes shape; we have been lucky that India has played such a benign, if not ameliorative role in Afghanistan to date. Pakistan, for its part, must be disabused of the notion that the United States will continue to indulge its insecurities, or allow it to so easily manipulate U.S. relations with a vital partner.

That sentiment has been quietly echoed in several of the documents I’ve read pertaining to ISAF’s role as arbiter between the three nations, and I think the most notable part will be not how it’s reflected in defence posture or humanitarian assistance adjacent to or part of COIN operation, but how it’s reflected in the diplomatic ring. The US, and the Western world at large, have a lot to gain by investing in India; and equally as much to lose in Pakistan.

I’m reminded of an interview Christiane Amanpour conducted with three ambassadors from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India–no small feat getting them all at the same desk!–that is worth the rewatch, even as a primer for interaction between the three closely-linked nations.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

You can watch the full video here because CNN’s video playback sucks like beer made east of the Mississippi.

There are no easy answers. But the relationship between India and Afghanistan is worth keeping a bead on.

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