Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Making Sense of Insanity - More Than Meets the Eye?

This is a follow up to the next post that outlines an account in Asia Times that claims Pakistan has decided to actively support the Taliban in this year's Spring Offensive.

At first blush the claim sounds insane. Why would Pakistan betray the US and NATO to help topple the shakey Afghan government of Hamid Karzai? Why would Pakistan help the Taliban?

When things such as this don't seem to make any sense it's sometimes helpful to step back and see the situation from the other side's perspective and then factor in contemporaneous events, especially those that also don't seem to make any sense.

Take, for example, Dick Cheney's bizarre trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan yesterday. For some reason - and there had to be some reason - the media were sworn to secrecy about the trip until after Cheney was flying out of Pakistan. Even then, reporters were required to describe Cheney's comments as coming from a "senior White House official." Read the comments he made, statements that clearly identify the speaker as Cheney himself, and try to make some sense of that.

Think about what happened when Cheney arrived at Bagram air base after Kabul airport was closed due to snow? In short order there was a suicide bombing at the gate that killed upwards of two dozen people. The Americans claim that, despite claims to the contrary, Cheney wasn't targeted because no one could have known he was in Bagram. The same people who knew the departure of his flight - Pakistan's air traffic control - certainly knew his flight had been diverted to Bagram. Some people certainly knew and a bombing followed in short order. My simple mind can come up with about four possible ways the two could be connected and I'm pretty sure you can craft some scenarios of your own. I don't think the bombing actually targeted Cheney so much as it sent a message.

Consider the take that the reporters were first given about Cheney's message to Musharraf - a stern "warning" to play ball or else. Consider the Pakistan foreign ministry's prompt press release afterward proclaiming that Pakistan was not about to be dictated to by any country.

Take those five facts together - the secret trip, the ridiculously concealed briefing source, the "warning" and the angry Pakistani response, the Bagram bombing. Now, try to make some sense of those events. Put them together, take them apart, figure out how they all fit together - and they do, in some way or another.

Dick Cheney has shown that he can do sinister things, openly deceitful things, even vicious things but has he ever shown himself to do blatantly irrational things? No. Naive, idelogically hidebound, even stupid, yes. Less than shrewd? Never. So what was behind the bizarre events of his trip yesterday? There is a lot more to this than meets the eye. That's obvious.

Add in a few other ingredients such as Karzai's corrupted and likely fatally wounded government. Factor in the emerging dominance of the former Northern Alliance warlords, the same group Pakistan opposed during the Afghan civil war when it backed the Taliban. Then fit in the growing influence of India, Pakistan's principal rival and threat, in Afghan affairs. Add to this Bush's weakened position at home and abroad, rejected by the American people, his party rejected by the American voters, his military trapped and exhausted in Iraq. Then consider NATO, its members divided as never before in the alliance's history, indecisive, woefully understrength and confused.

Toss in the reality that the West has a demonstrated inability to feed the meat grinder of an insurgency for the decades it would clearly take to sort out the Afghan troubles. Find a Western country where these wars remain popular. I'll bet that Musharraf has done that calculation a long time ago.

Never underestimate the nuclear factor. Pakistan has amassed an arsenal of nuclear weapons and the missile systems to deliver them. Can the West afford to see Musharraf ousted and radical Islamists take over in his place?

Add in the factor of Pakistan's own Pashtun and Baloch people, their abiding support for the Taliban and their unwillingness to see their cousins in Afghanistan fall to a coup by default to the northern tribes. These tribes in Waziristan are already a huge problem for Islamabad. How much worse would that become if the already wobbly Pakistan government was seen to acquiesce in suppression of their kinfolk in Afghanistan?

Watching Afghanistan fall to the Tajik and Uzbek warlords (no friend of Pakistan) thanks to a hapless Karzai and a hesitant and weakened US and the NATO alliance in disarray, may be more than Pakistan (and not just Musharraf) can bear. Options that are available this year may be foreclosed the next. Whatever control and influence Islamabad may be able to exert over the Taliban may be fleeting. Pakistan may be gambling that this is the best possible time, for it and the Taliban, for a Taliban uprising to remove Karzai and install a regime more acceptable to Pakistan than the looming alternative.

Islamabad may have done the math and decided that the circumstances on the ground - Karzai, the northern warlords, the US, NATO, the Pashtuns and Balochs, the Uzbeks and Tajiks, al-Qaeda and Iraq, even Iran and Hezbollah - give Pakistan a better than even chance of calling our bluff, the best chance it's ever likely to have.

Whatever the reality, one thing is clear. There's an awful lot going on here, stuff that we should be hearing about from Hillier and Harpo, that puts our soldiers in Kandahar at grave risk. Whatever that may be, we don't have the luxury of much time to mull this over before the Spring Offensive begins in a few weeks.

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