Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Groundhog Day (Thanks, John Cole!)

The New York Times reports today that the Bush administration is seriously considering a plan to arm Pakistani tribal leaders and pay them to operate as a paramilitary force against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the northern border region of the country:

If adopted, the proposal would join elements of a shift in strategy that would also be likely to expand the presence of American military trainers in Pakistan, directly finance a separate tribal paramilitary force that until now has proved largely ineffective and pay militias that agreed to fight Al Qaeda and foreign extremists, officials said. The United States now has only about 50 troops in Pakistan, a Pentagon spokesman said, a force that could grow by dozens under the new approach.

The proposal is modeled in part on a similar effort by American forces in Anbar Province in Iraq that has been hailed as a great success in fighting foreign insurgents there. But it raises the question of whether such partnerships, to be forged in this case by Pakistani troops backed by the United States, can be made without a significant American military presence in Pakistan. And it is unclear whether enough support can be found among the tribes, some of which are working with Pakistan's intelligence agency.

It also raises the question of whether such "partnerships" will hold together long-term, which has not yet been tested in Iraq. And it further raises the question of the unexpected outcomes and all the things that can go wrong when a government tries to turn to its own advantage local political and power relationships about which it has not the slightest understanding. The Taliban and Al Qaeda being two prime examples of what can result when your idea of foreign policy is "whatever works right now at this moment."

But these are issues that Eric Schmitt, Mark Mazzetti, and Carlotta Gall don't seem to be interested in raising. Fortunately, military and intelligence professionals like Phillip Carter are. Carter points out the problems with using Anbar as a model for Waziristan:
Our qualified success in Anbar has resulted from many lines of operation (in military parlance) — security, economic, political, legal, etc. On the security front, arming the tribes was one piece of the plan. It was a way to make permanent the security gains achieved with U.S. and Iraqi forces by replacing those forces with armed local militias, and a way to provide a measure of perceived security to local sheikhs (warlords), who felt they would be threatened in the absence of U.S. forces, unless they had their own protection. However, this only worked because we also had significant reconstruction carrots to use, and because we had a series of multilateral and bilateral agreements with the sheikhs for the employment of these forces and the abstention from violence. Not unlike 6-dimensional game of chess.

The big $64,000 question for me has to do with "blowback." It seems to me that the secondary, tertiary and unintended consequences of this plan will almost certainly outweigh the benefits. We've been down this road before, with the arming of Al Qaeda and other militant groups in the Afghan war against the Soviets, and that blew up quite literally in our faces. I'm also skeptical about the purported benefits of this plan, insofar as we have not realized a great deal of success in employing proxies to pursue and fight Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I am extremely concerned about this gambit, because I think it's going to be far harder to control than the Anbar initiative, and it carries far more strategic peril to the extent that it may destabilize the region.

Shawn Brimley and Ilan Goldenberg of Democracy Arsenal both have good posts basically making similar points: Pakistan is not Iraq, and besides, there's that deja vu thing:
... This idea of funding local Pakistani tribes against Al Qaeda is dubious at best and dangerous at worst. First of all, this is being presented as a "new" strategy based on the Anbar Awakening in Iraq. The reality is that there is a long history of the United States funding proxies in Aghanistan and Pakistan that they did not fully understand. The U.S. originally funded the mujahedeen against the Soviet Union and eventually that played a major role in the creation of Al Qaeda and the Taliban (I highly recommend Steven Coll's Ghost Wars for a comprehensive history of what the United States did in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s). The U.S. pursued similar strategies in Latin America during the Cold War and that also resulted in blow back. The reality is, we don't understand the local politics well enough to be doing this type of thing and it may come back to haunt us.

Down With Tyranny! asks the 1.3 trillion dollar question:
When is enough enough? When will the constitutional mechanisms the Founding Fathers put into place specifically to solve the problems caused by someone like George Bush getting into the White House, be allowed to go into effect? How much blame will be due Nancy Pelosi for the rest of the disasters Bush visits on this country because of her unwillingness to do her duty and allow impeachment to [go] forward?

I stole John Cole's blog post title for mine, because it's absolutely totally brilliant.

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