Saturday, August 2, 2008

Fumbling in the Dark

Much as a sixteen year old would fumble and grope in the dark when presented with his first potential catch, the overwhelming legacy of the Bush administration's newfound legal and logistical toys is one of incoherency and incompetence. Although the government has had more tools at its disposal, and less incursions from the Constitution, than any previous administration, it has parlayed those advantages into a bumbling policy which invariably fails to heed the reality of world affairs, is prone to distractions, and has accomplished next to nothing, if not in fact overseeing a growth in the virility of terrorism around the world.

Nothing exemplifies this reality more than the thorny relationship with Pakistan, the earliest and most enduring of the international relationships forged after the WTC attacks in 2001, a relationship which brings into clear focus the inability of the Bush administration to perceive any specifics in foreign affairs and its propensity to rely instead on a worldview consisting only of good versus evil, us versus them. This worldview become prohibitive in practice, all but eliminating the ability to discern the difference between the population and leaders of Pakistan and its intelligence apparatus, the ISI.

A top Central Intelligence Agency official traveled secretly to Islamabad this month to confront Pakistan’s most senior officials with new information about ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas, according to American military and intelligence officials.

The C.I.A. emissary presented evidence showing that members of the spy service had deepened their ties with some militant groups that were responsible for a surge of violence in Afghanistan, possibly including the suicide bombing this month of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the officials said.


The C.I.A. assessment specifically points to links between members of the spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and the militant network led by Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, which American officials believe maintains close ties to senior figures of Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The C.I.A. has depended heavily on the ISI for information about militants in Pakistan, despite longstanding concerns about divided loyalties within the Pakistani spy service, which had close relations with the Taliban in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks.

It defies credulity to infer that the CIA is just now getting wind of this relationship, but it is not hard to believe that any concerns among the US intelligence structure may well have been downplayed by the Bush administration. Although polarization is a prevailing curse of American politics, it tends to ebb in the area of foreign policy, but the current power structure has seen a reluctance to rely on the career bureaucrats in agencies like the CIA and seek the substitution of analysts and advisers with loyalties closer to Bush's wishes than realities dictate.

The Iraq war cannot be divorced from the American policy toward Pakistan. In order to push for the distraction to the West, the administration needed to portray Afghanistan as under control, and a significant part of that policy was misguided reliance on the efforts of Pakistan and the ISI. Having forced the Taliban and al Qaeda to seek refuge in Pakistan, the US talked up the Pakistanis, assuring the world that the Taliban were sure to find the border region less than hospitable. For all intents and purposes, the policy worked, as the public remained largely unobtrusive on the topic for the better part of 5 years.

The ISI has long associated itself with anti-American militants, whom they utilized to advance their shared aims on targets in Afghanistan and India. Now, the ISI is drunk with American funds and free to pursue those long-standing policies with even greater fervor, and the US as usual is surprised to find that not everyone who accepts funding is necessarily as dedicated to orthodoxy as we would like. To that end, the ISI is believed to have played a significant role in last month's bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.

Aside from using American money to pursue enmity with India, the ISI has been playing both sides of the fence, warning militants in the border region of impending US attacks and "in some cases allowing militants to avoid American missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas."

Although this reality is sure to place a strain on US-Pakistani relations, there is of course no expectation that the tap will be turned off. Barbs will be traded for a short period, to be sure, but the situation will soon return to normal, with American funds and arms flowing into Pakistan only to find their way back at the point of an RPG. Throwing money at problems, though, is all the US really attempts to solve them. Examining the underlying causes might require a but of introspection, of self-criticism which in American foreign policy is sacrilege. Thus the wheel continues to roll unabated, America throwing out money and then throwing up its hands when it comes back at it, never sure just what to make of it all, never willing to truly investigate the core of international relations.

All the US is left with for its efforts, half-hearted as they were, is a narco-state in no better shape than it was in 2001. The per-capita, post-war investment in Afghanistan pales in comparison to all other such situations, significantly less than that for post-conflict and post-natural-disaster rebuilding in every other part of the world. Left alone to reconstitute in Pakistan, the Taliban has renewed its assault on Kabul, forcing even more investors to flee along with any Afghans of any intellectual import or promise.

Although it has not happened, even had the Taliban been eliminated the situation would scarcely be different. The specific propagator of violence is of less importance than the arena of economic devastation left in the wake of destruction followed by inattention. Until the US learns to fight the root causes of terrorism in addition to its contemporary perpetrators, it is doomed to remain tied to merry-go-round, with little hope of getting off.


Surge II: Afghanistan, July 15
Afghanistan: Right War or No, It's Still War, July 21

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