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The Afghan-Pakistan Conundrum

October 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Pakistan: the regional powder keg.

Our armed forces and their NATO allies are now plodding into the tenth year of the War in Afghanistan. After a decade fighting in remote, inhospitable terrain against a foe that is constantly bolstered by widespread public discontent in the civilian government; a policy tipping point is fast approaching. Since June, the Obama Administration has publicly confirmed that it will tentatively begin the draw-down of troops in Afghanistan in the Summer of 2011. (I will quantify this by saying that 10 months is a long time; the Administration and the Department of Defense are not soothsayers and have no idea if the timeline will be adhered to.) But as that political line-in-the-sand creeps closer, constituents, policy wonks, talking heads and law makers will be scrutinizing the gains made in Afghanistan in the past ten years and the prospects of the war succeeding in its goals. The consensus will likely follow the views of the general public: that the war cannot succeed based on an opposition to American involvement and disillusionment with the mission.

A quick analysis of the War in Afghanistan will reveal a myriad of facts that will establish one truth: that Afghanistan is almost unwinnable because of truly impassable terrain, a civilian government racked by corruption, a continually active insurgency and a lugubrious economy. The facts leave little doubt in this conclusion. These seemingly insurmountable developmental challenges are inextricably linked by a common factor that has been, until last week, missing from the collective American consciousness: Pakistan.

Realistically, I cannot sit here and claim Pakistan is an actual “lost factor” in America’s discussion of the war. We have, for a year(s), heard about the Pakistani Taliban, cross-border drone strikes and the country’s shady, if obviously visible, links with Islamist extremism. However, these negative topics about our strategic ally have always been brought to light by independent organizations, pundits and policy groups. That is to say, US government officials are not usually the derivation of maligning conversations about Pakistan. This has been the case since the Bush Administration’s buddy-buddy relationship with ex-Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf (yes, strongman) to the Obama Administration’s working friendship with the venerable Benazir Bhutto‘s corrupt widower Asif Ali Zardari. That is, until last week.

Last Wednesday, the White House produced a report on Pakistan and delivered it to Congress. The game changing factor of the report comes in the frank language the Administration uses to describe the very real, lack of veracity that permeates the Pakistani Government’s attempts to tackle Islamist groups within its borders. This is the first time that a recent American administration has charged the Pakistani authorities with not actively combating extremist groups that it can, in most likely scenarios, handle. So why does Pakistan do this? Why has it not throttled the groups that are detrimental to Afghanistan’s and its own security? Ironically, it has nothing to do tacit religious complacency or desired influence in Afghanistan. It has everything to with its looming neighbor of 1.1 billion.

India, the unseen influence in Afghanistan.

Understanding this, I want to draw your attention to the one integral issue that will be the eternal hurdle to winning the War in Afghanistan: Pakistani-Indian relations, more specifically, Kashmir.

Now, you may ask, “how does that perpetual conflict affect the Taliban and Afghanistan?” Unfortunately, the two are much more closely linked than any official of the United States, Pakistan or India would likely admit. Pakistan, since the beginning of the decades long conflict, has been fighting a proxy war with the Indian administrators of Kashmir through the training of Kashmiri (doubling as Islamic) extremist groups. Pakistan’s secret police, the ISI, have been involved in the preparation of militants aligned with Lashkar-e-Taiba (which gained international notoriety for their attacks on Mumbai) and a myriad of other jihadi groups. Mr. Musharraf, just this past week, confirmed this oft debated fact. Because of the volatility of relations between the two regional powers, Pakistan decided that it would be in their best self-interest to promote these independent, violent actors (mostly in the Federally Administered Tribal Regions) in case any conflict were to combust. The result has been better than intended. Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore; all have experienced violence committed by groups linked to the lawless tribal regions. The infamous Wazirstans, the stronghold of every group from the Pakistani Taliban to al-Qaeda, are now in the grip of extremism that is dauntingly difficult to loosen. In bolstering supranational organizations, the Pakistani authorities unintentionally (maybe intentionally unintentionally?) created the forces successfully hindering NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Now this is all fairly rudimentary knowledge for any one who has studied the region; most have not, however. What I want to stress is that all of these policies were introduced and acted upon under the auspices of competing with India; it was unequivocally the motivating factor. THIS is the part of the Pakistan conversation that is missing in the American media though is integral in understanding Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan.

We cannot discuss all the intricacies of Pakistani-Indian relations here; there is just too much to cover. We can say, however, that since partition, India and Pakistan have used one another for justification of dangerous land disputes (Kashmir), nuclear pursuits and regional power brokering. It has been 63 years. Religious tensions, power politics, bitter history and pure hate (for some, sadly) divide the two powerful nations. Until there is a normalization and warming between the two neighbors, the one-upsmanship and twisted reasoning for shady dealings will absolutely continue. We all have to hope that the day will come soon. If not, Afghanistan may be the least of the international community’s worries in South-East Asia.

Lieutenant General James Clapper, Good Luck Sir.

July 20, 2010 1 comment

DNI... just a dream?

When Dennis C. Blair resigned as the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) in May, the intelligence community, Congress and the rest of the federal government were left to wonder: “is the position of Director of National Intelligence feasible?” Since the creation of the position in 2006 – I will go into more detail about this in the following paragraphs – four men have held the post. For a Cabinet-level position, four different appointees is not a healthy turnover rate. So as we watch the newest nominee – Lieutenant General James Clapper – go through the nomination process today, it is time to start thinking about the hard questions revolving around the US intelligence community and the position that is entrusted to keep all the 16 individual agencies in line. Does the DNI have enough power to press people into following its lead? Can the CIA Chief live without being the end-all and be-all in the intelligence game? And finally, is General Clapper the answer?

Post-9/11, Americans were left to wonder “how did this happen on American soil without the intelligence community knowing?” Congress immediately went to work trying to find an answer to this question. Authorized by lawmakers, the 9/11 Commission produced a long, scathing report on the failures of the intelligence apparatus and recommendations on how to clean it up. Over and over again, the report speaks to the need for “cooperation and coordination” between the different intelligence arms. What resulted from the investigation was the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The centerpiece of this legislation was the establishment of the DNI; someone who could take the reigns of the sprawling intelligence landscape and make sure that everyone got along and shared information. The DNI, for lack of a better metaphor, was to be the study hall proctor for the individual, petulant agencies. The only problem is, the position has not been able to get all of those agencies in their seats, let alone tell them what to do.

So what’s the problem here? Why can’t the DNI gain traction? Let’s go through the DNIs and why they each left office. It might shed some light on the problems. The inaugural DNI, John Negroponte, left the post in order to allow President Bush to change his strategy in Iraq. Although a seemingly benign rationale, there were already rumors of Mr. Negroponte having trouble getting the spy agencies in line. Next up was Vice Admiral John Michael McConnell. During his tenure as the DNI, Mr. McConnell repeatedly made detrimental mistakes to solidifying his power over the community. In 2007, Mr. McConnell granted an all access interview to the El Paso Times (over-sharing?) and then proceeded to threatened the reporter. In 2008, he directly contradicted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ assessment of the Afghanistan War. He finally stepped down to return to the private sector in January, 2009 after losing respect in a myriad of difference agencies. Finally, we come to Dennis Blair; the quintessential case study in the failure of the Directorship of National Intelligence.

The Seal of the United States Intelligence Community: the DNI's worst nightmare.

Mr. Blair’s tenure was littered with controversy. Last year, Mr. Blair appointed John Deutch, a former CIA Director who was unceremoniously dismissed from the community for improperly storing top secret information, to a board of independent intelligence overseers; at best a careless oversight, at worst a disregard for protocol. Earlier this year, he told Congress that the Obama Administration did not consult him on the charges brought against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; inappropriately aired dirty laundry. Most importantly, Mr. Blair continually clashed over intelligence turf – drones in Pakistan, agency budgets, type of tea at meetings, etc. – with CIA Director Leon Panetta.

So what does this all mean? First, it means the DNI may be the hardest position in the Cabinet to hold. Whether it be controversy or territorial clashes, the DNI seems to be continually impeded by something. Second, something clearly needs to change in order for a person to step into this Directorship and get things done. No one has been able to succeed and these men have been more than qualified and competent. Third, and most importantly, the CIA must understand – for the good of the intelligence community – that it is no longer running the show. THIS will undoubtedly be the hardest sell.

As we watch this newest (and unluckiest?) man go through the nomination process for the DNI, we can only cross our fingers that he will be the study hall proctor we have been waiting for. In order to stop the extremists – who are, no matter your politics, out to hurt Americans – from attacking this country, we need a healthy and capable intelligence community. The DNI can only help this cause. So, Lieutenant General Clapper, good luck. I’ll be rooting for you.