Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thoughts on Pakistan and Foreign Policy

You wouldn't necessarily know it given what passes for journalism on TV and in many of our newspapers, but there's considerable worldwide activity in foreign policy going on these days. Much of that activity is coming from the United States and much of it is happening elsewhere.

It's probably the most foreign policy activity since the Berlin Wall came down. Why is this? I shouldn't have to ask the question but in the absence of news coverage, it may be time to remind people of the obvious: for eight years (but particularly in the first four) George W. Bush did enormous damage to America's foreign policy and enormous damage to the world economy.

Since January of this year, Barack Obama and his advisers have been working to repair the damage. Worldwide, other leaders are readjusting their foreign policy and increasingly, as was happening in the last two or three years of the Bush presidency, pursuing their own agenda.

Here's just one example of foreign policy going on elsewhere:
Russia and China are closing in on a mammoth energy deal which could insure that Beijing has the fuel to run its factories and cities and Moscow has a vast new market for its natural gas empire.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Wednesday wrapped up a three-day visit to the Chinese capital, during which Russia signed dozens of commercial pacts worth $3.5 billion and set the framework for a separate, multibillion-dollar agreement to build two natural gas pipelines to China from gas fields in Russia's Far East.

But the Russians and Americans are also busy at work. Here's a story from a few days ago:
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has invited U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to his private residence in suburban Barvikha for a discussion Tuesday on a broad range of issues in what one senior State Department official called a "relaxed setting."

Issues on the agenda for the two-hour meeting include the next steps on Iran, the Mideast conflict, cooperation on Afghanistan, possible joint work on a missile defense system, Russia's "neighborhood" and climate change.

Talking Points Memo has a set of photos covering Hillary Clinton's trip to Europe and Russia that ought to lay to rest that she's not an active Secretary of State (which was one of those inane stories from a media not paying close attention).

We now live in a turbulent era. In the past, the answer to turbulence was violence. Barack Obama knows this and most foreign leaders know this. No war exemplified such violence more than World War Two. It's not certain that George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had much clue about the current era. In many ways, as so often happens with conservatives, they were fighting the battles of the past.

It's hard to believe that officials like Cheney were pursuing policies aimed at nothing else but creating some sort of American empire. The idea of preemptive war, unilateralism and even the notion of nuclear bunker busters that Bush proposed in June 2002 still feels alien to me when I come across the terms. In 2003, it sent a chill down my spine when a Bush official cheered the start of the Iraq War and bragged that 'we' had crossed the Rubicon. And yet, as they did with Reagan, there were right-wingers who felt George W. Bush had not gone far enough. One of those was Dick Cheney, particularly after 2004. It takes my breath away when I recall how much American policy went off the tracks during the Bush presidency.

And still there are right wingers who want more of that nonsense. Rush Limbaugh put himself on the side of the Taliban in denouncing Barack Obama's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize. I know for years it has been something of a convention to consider Rush Limbaugh a clown. When he jumps up and down, he certainly looks like one. But he is dangerous. In many ways, most Americans do not share his values, though it should be pointed out that in the early 90s he had a rather large audience. The key to Limbaugh is simple: he is very angry and he wants to dominate. He is a classic example of a very aggressive social dominator.

I bring up Limbaugh because he is good at enabling some Americans to forget the disaster of the Bush years. It should not be controversial news that Bush did enormous damage to our nation. It will take years just to repair the economic damage. During the Bush years, crooks had a field day simply because no one was minding the store. But what did more damage was a business as usual approach by Bush that ignored changing conditions in such areas as energy, the climate, an excessive loss of jobs, stagnant wages, and particularly new financial instruments that greatly aggravated the economic downturn.

In foreign policy, Bush was in Afghanistan for more than seven years. And yet some people seem to have forgotten that Bush should have been out of Afghanistan by the 2004 election. But he was more interested in Iraq and put Afghanistan on a back burner. We are still there and we are tangling with problems that affect not only Afghanistan but Pakistan as well. Now I believe we need to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as we can. But there's a problem and I haven't fully sorted it out yet so I'm not comfortable with arguments from those in a hurry to leave. The problem is Pakistan and the fact that it has nuclear weapons. Here's one story from Islamabad that disturbs me:
Pakistan has sought to protect its nuclear weapons from attack by the Taliban or other militants by storing the warheads, detonators and missiles separately in facilities patrolled by elite troops.

Analysts are divided on how secure these weapons are. Some say the weapons are less secure than they were five years ago, and Saturday's attack would show a "worrisome" overconfidence by the Pakistanis.

While complex security is in place, much depends on the Pakistani army and how vulnerable it is to infiltration by extremists, said a Western government official with access to intelligence on Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Bush and some of his advisers like to point to Pakistan as one of their successes. In reality, they never fully dealt with a wide range of issues. Through incompetence, they nearly encouraged Pakistan to go to war with India back in 2002 (Colin Powell, to his credit, cleaned up the mess).

Of course, stories like this one about the Taliban and al Qaida also concern me:
Pakistan – Teams of gunmen attacked three law enforcement facilities in Pakistan's cultural heart of Lahore on Thursday, killing 18 people in an escalation of audacious terror strikes as the Taliban try to keep the government from waging a planned offensive on the militants.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik vowed not to let the attacks deter the government in its pursuit of Taliban and al Qaida fighters. "The enemy has started a guerrilla war," Malik told a local television station.

Afghanistan is going to require constant reevaluation. Of course, the sooner we can get out the better. But the last thing we need, remote though the chances seemingly are (and are they really that remote?), is to see the Taliban and their friends in al Qaida somehow in control of Pakistan. It's not likely to happen but I for one am cutting Obama some slack until we see a better picture.

In other areas of foreign policy, I see many signs that Obama is moving forward. He is moving away from the unilateralism of Bush and returning to international discussions. We're still the only nation that can truly lead and after eight years of neglect serious and difficult issues are being tackled. Success in many areas are going to be difficult to achieve but that's far better than what we had during the Bush years when so many people in Washington couldn't be bothered to even try.

No one should imagine that Barack Obama can undo all the damage done during the Bush years, but I'm going to make a prediction: when Barack Obama gives his State of the Union in January, many Americans are going to be surprised at the useful things that have been done both domestically and in foreign policy. Of course, we'll still see the same nonsense from the news. One day Obama will be described as all talk and no action. And the next day, pundits will whine that he's doing too much. We're in an era where readers still have to do a certain amount of their own digging.

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Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

Some credible sources, recently including Richard Angle of NBC, maintain that the Taliban are inward looking and focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to this view, many in the Taliban see al Qaeda as prone to grandstanding, and causing trouble in the homeland(s).

This view tends to bolster notions about it being unlikely the Taliban would welcome in al Qaeda to draw foreign bombers and troops, if the Taliban should regain power in Afghanistan.

I don't know if that's all true, but it's certainly plausible. In any case, as Vietnam made painfully clear, we can't and won't sustain a war effort indefinitely in a land where the locals do little or nothing to secure their own freedom and independence.

What's more, I made the case in a recent post (Victory in Afghanistan requires going to war with Pakistan) that "success" in Afghanistan requires cleaning out the tribal areas that provide sanctuary for the Taliban and al Qaeda. Pakistan, undoubtedly under intense pressure from Washington, is mounting an offensive there that must be wrapped up within eight weeks because of impending snowfalls. If that offensive is as lackluster as past such Pakistani efforts, the U.S. will have to either invade Pakistan's territory, to do what needs doing, even if that means fighting Pakistan's military as well as the Taliban and al Qaeda, or else largely withdraw from Afghanistan and pursue an offshore and over-the-horizon surveillance and containment strategy.

The American public is not willing to continue indefinitely a guerrilla war of attrition that our military is poorly suited to, while Afghans largely sit back and leave the expense and sacrifice to American taxpayers and soldiers.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

S.W., you may be right. I honestly don't know what should be done about Afghanistan. It's been obvious since 2002 that George W. Bush put Afghanistan on the back burner. Can Afghanistan be put on the front burner or does years of neglect mean we now forget about it? Actually, if Pakistan were not in the picture, I would be tempted to say yes.

While the Taliban, or at least some parts of the Taliban, may be inward looking, they not only gave sanctuary to al Qaida back in 2001 but were uncooperative with international efforts to deal with al Qaida. That raises issues that still need to be dealt with; even a withdrawal would have to be handled carefully.

Obviously, the non-Taliban people who now run Afghanistan aren't much better (shades of Vietnam!).

There's another issue. The Taliban, to some extent, is a creation of Pakistani intelligence. It's been obvious for several months now that Pakistan's creation has blown up in its face. So Pakistan and Afghanistan are unavoidably tied together.

If, and I say if, the only solution is war with Pakistan, then I would say it's probably not going to happen. But a potentially failed state with nuclear weapons is something we need to think long and hard about.

One last thing. The government of Pakistan as well as the conservative military have done an about face in recent months because of the attacks coming from the Taliban areas. There's a different attitude than existed between 2001 and early 2009. The new attitude may or may not last but it needs to be taken into account.

Actually, there's one more point to think about. I think the drones we use to attack various targets are doing us more harm than good. We need to curtail those missions. If we can't 'win' without using the drones, then we might as well get out.

4:56 PM  

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