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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.

The Balkans of the 21st Century?

June 21, 2010 1 comment

“Why should we care about all those ‘stan’ countries?” – A fictional, but accurate, John Smitherson

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. These are the former Soviet republics that seem so ostensibly foreign to the average American. Yet, in the years, and quite possibly decades to come, Central Asia will be a hot-button region; combustible because of ethnic, religious and regional tension. I obviously cannot do justice to the entire region in a truncated blog post, but through the lense of the current humanitarian crisis in Kyrgyzstan I’ll convince you why you should know and care about Central Asia and it’s conflicts.

Central Asia and the Causasus - The 21st Century Balkans?

About two weeks ago in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, simmering ethnic tensions between minority Uzbeks and the majority Kyrgyz erupted into violence. The death toll continues to grow, new clashes are continually flaring and a full scale refugee crisis is developing on the Uzbekistan side of the border. The U.N. has accelerated its aid delivery but that has not stopped the crisis from deepening. The root causes of these tensions remain unclear. It is, however, clear that they run deep and are not isolated within the general population. Fears that the military participated in the persecution point to a distrust and hatred deeply rooted in society rather than anything momentarily stoked by political, economic or policy fervor. This crisis is unfortunately only in its infancy. We don’t yet know what scale it will take on. But please, keep an eye on it.

While the Kyrgyz situation is the most current, and most influential, conflict in the region, it is but a warning of what could come in the volatile arena. Uzbekistan, one of the world’s worst violators of human rights, continues with its repressive practices. With a single party system and meeting only the most basic requirements of democracy, Turkmenistan continues to quash the press and political freedom. Resentment lingering from the Azerbaijani-Armenian War is seeing a renewal in Azerbaijan. Tajikistan is still recovering from its devastating civil war that ended in 1997. All of these conflictual tinderboxes, along with the exacerbation of the current economic malaise, have the potential to flare into a regional disturbance.

In the 1990s, the world arguably had a mirror like region in the Balkans. A handful of countries, bordering one another with economic, ethnic and political tensions boiling just underneath the surface. Those pressures erupted into a multitude of conflicts culminating in the NATO operation in Kosovo. Could we see the same in Central Asia? I don’t believe it’s out of the question. An unsettled region, an unwilling power broker in Russia and continued economic worries look ready to make Central Asia one of the focal points of international attention in years to come.

*Note 1: If you’re feeling up to it, donate to the UNHCR to help those in dire straights due to the Kyrgyz violence.

**Note 2: I don’t discuss the Caucasus region, equally as noteworthy in it’s international importance, in fear of not doing it justice. If you’re interested a post on the arena, email us and let us know!