Haven’t we seen this disaster movie before?

VETERAN Washington Post correspondent Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars, has, among other things, helped to confirm suspicions of a high level of dysfunction in Washington vis-a-vis the nine-year war in Afghanistan, particularly in terms of disagreements between the Pentagon and the White House about how it ought to be prosecuted. It also highlights a series of low points in relations between Pakistan and the US.


That it appeared just as these relations were entering an increasingly fraught phase in the wake of Nato military incursions into Pakistani territory, the temporary closure of supply routes and the series of attacks on Nato tankers is merely a coincidence, albeit one that conforms to a long-standing pattern of mutual mistrust.


Although the Bush administration went out of its way to coddle Pervez Musharraf, plenty of Americans were consistently convinced that Pakistan was playing a double game of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. The advent of the even more pliable Asif Zardari held out the promise of fewer problems on that score. Woodward quotes him as telling “CIA officials privately in late 2008 that any innocent deaths from the [drone] strikes were the cost of doing business against senior Al Qaeda leaders. ‘Kill the seniors,’ Zardari had said. ‘Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.’ “


The degree of moral abstemiousness inherent in that “What, me worry?” style of statement shouldn’t surprise anyone. More alarming is the apparent absence of any sense that the deaths of innocents serve as an invaluable recruitment tool for the Taliban.


Reports suggest that opposition in Pakistan to the Predator and Reaper attacks has declined in inverse proportion to the steadily increasing frequency of strikes. This may be based in part on acceptance of American claims that their remote-controlled destruction is more accurately targeted than before, and partly on the execution by these means of individuals allegedly high in the terrorist hierarchy. However, local claims about a high proportion of civilian deaths are not always hard to believe, notwithstanding exaggerations.


Woodward cites President Barack Obama as saying that “the cancer is in Pakistan” and the US administration’s sharply concentrated efforts in this sphere are consistent with the assumption that Afghanistan cannot be stabilized as long as there are Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuaries across the border.


This is by no means an absurd assessment, although the extent to which it can be deployed as an explanation for the multiple failures of the US-led military occupation of Afghanistan is debatable.


 The American military task in Afghanistan, whatever its nature and ultimate aims (the absence of clarity in Washington in this context is hardly reassuring), would no doubt be facilitated were the apparent safe havens for militants in Pakistan were to suddenly disappear. But there’s every indication that a vast number of Afghans – many of whom have no sympathy for the Taliban, let alone for Pakistan’s devastating role in their nation’s affairs over the past three decades – are hostile for a variety of reasons to the western military presence. Much of that hostility is too deeply ingrained by now to be affected by superficial changes in General David Petraeus’s tactics.


Pakistan, meanwhile, has even fewer grounds for complacency. In Woodward’s account,  was shocked when, a few weeks after Faisal Shahzad’s moronic attempt to detonate an explosive device in New York’s Times Square last May, he was informed by Obama’s national security adviser James L. Jones and CIA chief Leon Panetta that all bets would be off in the event of a successful terrorist attack on US soil that could be traced back to Pakistan. 


“If something like that happens,” Zardari is quoted as saying to his American interlocutors, “it doesn’t mean somehow we’re suddenly bad people or something. “We’re still partners.” Jones and Panetta swiftly stripped him of this illusion, and Woodward points to a secretive retribution plan that would involve “bombing about 150 identified terrorist camps in a brutal, punishing attack inside Pakistan”.


The consequences would be harsh, if somewhat unpredictable. Perhaps it was with this threat in mind that Islamabad became particularly defensive in the face of recent insinuations about a Mumbai-style plot to wreak havoc in certain European nations, and its high commissioner in London, Wajid Shamsul Hasan,  accused the Obama administration of resorting to scare tactics for domestic political gain. Damagingly for Washington, his concerns are shared by key European intelligence agencies. There is decidedly cause to suspect that the risk was barely more credible than the “plot” against the Pope unearthed in London a few weeks earlier.


This does not, of course, mean that the presence of European citizens at training camps in Pakistan’s northern hinterland provides no cause for concern. It is perfectly likely that terrorist plots are indeed being hatched. That does not translate into an imminent threat; it sometimes takes years for murderous plots to be put into action. But the potential cannot be ignored. Shahzad apparently received his training from the Pakistani Taliban. Islamabad’s attitude towards Lashkar-e-Taiba continues to be indulgent. Relative nonchalance various Islamist terrorist groups, spawned in more than one case by the military intelligence, have come back to bite Pakistan is unforgivable. And from the point of view of the average Pakistani citizen, if not from that of the military hierarchy in Rawalpindi, it is also inexplicable.


Woodward’s book highlights Obama’s inclination to conclude, or at least sharply reduce, his nation’s largely fruitless involvement in Pakistan, alongside the US military command’s view that the conflict will stretch on interminably. The US president’s domestic troubles have also been piling up, and the expected blow in next month’s midterm elections could leave him considerably weaker. In a somewhat different sense, his Pakistani counterpart is also profoundly beleaguered: he cannot hold out for too long against the combined clout of the army and the judiciary.


In Afghanistan, meanwhile, President Hamid Karzai, perceived by key Americans as hopelessly corrupt, has this week laughed off suggestions that he is a manic depressive while admitting to indirect negotiations with the Taliban. It remains to be seen whether anything can come from that. But the overall picture is one of deepening confusion and lack of clear direction. Haven’t we seen this picture before? Does anyone remember how it ends?


Email: mahir.dawn@gmail.com

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