Sunday, February 01, 2009

Fixing Afghiranpakiraq

Everybody is giving Obama advice about solving the problems in The basic idea (which he already gets) is that it’s all one big package. It’s not even hyphenated. Some ideas are worth noting that I’ve read today in the New York Review of Books and George Friedman’s Stratfor newsletter. So listen up, Barack!

We'll start with Iraq and work our way eastward. The main thing about Iraq is that you want it to stay intact after you get out of there. To maintain any kind of stability, you have to get the cooperation of Iran, whose leaders actually want Iraq to remain stable too, but would like to have quite a bit of control.

So you have to with Iran. In fact, while you’re at it, you have three different issues to address when talking to Iran: Afghanistan, Iraq, and nuclear proliferation. So you’d better use diplomacy instead of bluster. You can’t even do that right away because they are going to have presidential elections soon, so you’d better wait until that is handled before you start your direct bilateral talks, without preconditions. But in the meantime, you can start talking more diplomatically. Iranian paranoia about the US is well-founded and requires a lot reassurance.

The best approach, according to Bill Luer, Tom Pickering, and Jim Walsh, is to set up a forum for Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and Syria and turn many regional problems over to them instead of having the US dominate everything. Multilateralism is the way to go. There’s room for agreement between the US and Iran on several issues; both countries want Iraq to stay intact rather than be broken apart into separate, sectarian regions, and both want its leaders to be elected popularly. Neither of them wants Iraq to become a battleground for proxy wars.

When it comes to the nuclear issue, the best angle would be to create a multinational consortium to produce enriched uranium inside Iran. The centrifuges are already humming away anyhow. (See the photo.) Why not turn it over to international ownership and management? That way, the Iranians couldn’t divert the stuff into a weapons program without being detected.

And next, you seek Iran’s help with your Afghanistan problem, since you have some common ground with them on that matter too, since they have many interests in Afghanistan, which is on their border. They hate the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which they regard as extremist Sunni groups that directly threaten Iranian Shiites. Moreover, they want to reduce Afghanistan’s opium trade, and to avoid the chaos that would result if Karzai’s government falls. Here again, there is room for cooperation with Iran.

Next we shift our focus to the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, who share custody of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. As William Dalrymple points out, by now, the Taliban control over 70 percent of Afghanistan. Karzai’s government effectively controls only cities, and is despised for its corruption — a factor explaining the increasing popularity of the Taliban. The US military must bring their supplies in from Pakistan, mainly through the Khyber Pass, which is no longer secure. They are now trying to set up alternative routes through Turkmenistan or one of the other Central Asian countries.

In Pakistan, the Zardari government also lacks control of its country. The ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, created a terrorist group to fight in Kashmir — Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organization that attacked Mumbai in November. It is now beyond the control of the Pakistani state. Only if all the training camps of such groups are shut down can the government regain control over the country.

But some Pakistani military leaders believe that these jihadis are even more effective than their nuclear weapons for defending their country from India. They have been reluctant to close them down, but now these Islamists have even turned their guns against the own creators, attacking the ISI headquarters.

Evidently there are almost no hopeful signs in Pakistan. The only cheery prospect that Dalrymple offers is based on the strength of Sufism. Almost everywhere, the Salafists and Wahhabis are spreading fundamentalist Islam, largely through the Saudi’s widespread establishment of madrasas throughout Pakistan. However, the southern region around Sindh has always been populated with Sufis, and their love-oriented version of Islam remains so popular that fundamentalism has been making no headway there. A RAND Corporation report suggested that Sufism be supported, but it is not clear to me how any foreign support would help that tolerant religion prevail in South Asia. There are no solutions in sight for rescuing Pakistan from its dire situation.

And of course, al-Qaeda’s leaders remain in Pakistan, beyond reach of either the US military or even the Pakistan government. Yet the whole point of invading Afghanistan was to wipe out or capture the al-Qaeda leaders who masterminded 9/11. There is no progress on that front whatever.

George Friedman argues that the US will inevitably lose its war against the Taliban. General Petraeus hopes to repeat the strategy that succeeded in Iraq by splitting the Taliban and enticing some of them to come over to the American side, as the Sunnis in Anbar did in Iraq. Friedman does not think that will happen and basically advises the Americans to give up the fight against the Taliban.

However, al-Qaeda is not at all the same group as the Taliban, and it is al-Qaeda that the Americans are concerned about. The whole point is to make sure that they cannot organize another attack on the US homeland.

According to Friedman, the al-Qaeda group in the borderland of Afghanistan and Pakistan have managed to keep from being infiltrated by simply not accepting new members. Over time, there has been attrition, but bin Laden’s organization does not replenish itself by replacing members who die. It is declining, therefore — indeed, it probably no longer has any capacity to harm the United States. It issues video messages from time to time but that may be the worst that it is capable of doing.

Of course, it is necessary to pay attention to them, but you don’t need an army to do so. Friedman suggests that the US army will eventually just go home and leave the real job to the CIA. What is required is good intelligence work to discover any potential danger that al-Qaeda or any other group in Afghanistan or Pakistan may constitute for the United States.

I think Friedman is right. The allied armies should quit Afghanistan, leaving in place a number of humanitarian projects that will support the economic development of the country. That won’t resolve any of the egregious social conflicts caused by the fundamentalists, such as preventing equality of rights between the sexes. What the foreigners leave behind will not be pretty.

But what the foreigners did there was not pretty either.