Af-Pak Blowback

Even with so much sophisticated military hardware at their disposal, half a million Pakistani soldiers can't seem to counter the determined efforts of, at most, 15,000 Taliban fighters.
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Pakistan has one of the largest, most sophisticated militaries on the planet. Its army is as large as the U.S. Army. It's among the top 25 largest military spenders in the world. On top of the billions of dollars of weapons provided toPervez Musharraf's authoritarian regime, Washington is promising another $3 billion a year in military assistance over the next five years. And, to top it off, Islamabad has nuclear weapons.

None of that seems to help Pakistan prevail in its fight against the various Taliban factions in the country. Even with so much sophisticated military hardware at their disposal, half a million Pakistani soldiers can't seem to counter the determined efforts most 15,000 Taliban fighters.

Is it sheer incompetence on the part of the Pakistani army? Or is the Taliban simply too determined and mountain-smart to be easily defeated?

Writing recently in The New York Review of Books, Ahmed Rashid points out that the Pakistani government didn't deal with the problem when it was manageable. The Taliban and associated religious militants were too useful for the Pakistani military in its larger fight against India. By the time the Pakistani government realized that the Taliban threatened the integrity of the country, the militants were well-entrenched.

As Shibil Siddiqi points out in a special Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) report, the Pakistani army can't be accused of incompetence when it comes to counter-insurgency. It has faced down insurgencies for the better part of Pakistan's existence. Rather, the Pakistani army's failure to suppress the Taliban goes to the heart of the country's identity.

"The Pakistani establishment has for decades been cynical in its use of political Islam as a tool of domestic and foreign policy," Siddiqi writes in Pakistan's Ideological Blowback. "It has lionized the struggles for a theocratic state embodied by the Taliban and other Islamic holy warriors in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and beyond. Thus, for many the Taliban's proclamations of being 'jihadis' or 'mujahideen' garb them in the cloak of popular Islamic legitimacy. Such a perception of legitimacy has been (and continues to be) fostered by the state itself." (You can also read a 60-Second Expert version of this report.)

The United States funded anti-communist extremists in Afghanistan against the Soviets back in the 1980s and has suffered the repercussions ever since. Pakistan has played a similar game, this time in order to counter India, its larger and stronger neighbor.

Now, with its misguided AfPak strategy, the United States is upping the ante considerably. By sending more troops to Afghanistan and continuing its drone attacks in Pakistan, the United States is preparing the ground for future blowback. According to the most recent poll, Pakistani public opinion has turned decisively against the Taliban. But over 80% of the public considers U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan "unjustified." Afghans of any means, meanwhile, are doing whatever they can to get out of the country.

The Obama administration has shouldered the burden of this "long war." This conflict will absorb as much or more money as the Cold War, wreak as much havoc, and ultimately cause as much blowback. Closing Guantánamo and pulling U.S. troops out of Iraqi cities doesn't alter the Bush-era framing of the war on terrorism or the Clinton-era upgrading of counter-insurgency doctrine. Obama has simply painted a smiley face on both of them. And the peace movement, still unsure of how to counter the policies of a popular president and one that it largely supported, is unprepared to oppose this multi-front, multi-year endeavor.

We supported the mujahideen against the Soviets and eventually suffered the September 11 attacks. Pakistan supported Islamic militancy against India and must now deal with the Taliban within its borders. We supported Obama to end the Bush revolution. And now it seems that AfPak will be our blowback.

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus, where you can read the full post.

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