Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
I have never read “Three Cups of Tea”, Greg Mortenson’s book about building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I tried to read the sequel, “Stones into Schools” and gave up not too long after the point where he said that, “the solution to every problem … begins with drinking tea.” Having drunk tea in many parts of South Asia – sweet tea, salt tea, butter tea, tea that comes with the impossible-to-remove-with-dignity thick skin of milk tea – I can confidently say that statement does not reflect reality.
So I have always been a bit puzzled that the Americans took Mortenson’s books so much to heart. Yes, I knew he boasted that his books had become required reading for American officers posted to Afghanistan; and yes, there is the glowing praise from Admiral Mike Mullen on the cover of ”Stones into Schools”, where he wrote that “he’s shaping the very future of a region”. But I had always believed, or wanted to believe, that at the back of everyone’s minds they realised that saccharine sentimentality was no substitute for serious analysis. Just as hope is not a strategy, drinking tea is not a policy. (To be fair to the Americans, I have also overheard a British officer extolling the virtues of drinking tea in Afghanistan.)
As a result of my scepticism on the miracle powers of tea-drinking, I find I am learning an awful lot more about the thinking of the U.S. administration than I ever did from Mortenson from the fall-out from the allegations of inaccuracies in his books. (Mortenson rejects these allegations in a statement on the website of his Central Asia Institute charity.)
Take for example the detailed account by Jon Krakauer (pdf) charting not only inaccuracies but also alleged irregularities in the finances of the Central Asia Institute. In his opening paragraph, Krakauer notes that President Barack Obama donated $100,000 of the award money from his own Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 2009, to the Central Asia Institute. I had not known about the Obama connection until I read advance stories on Krakauer’s piece.
Whatever Osama bin Laden once aspired to, it was not to be passed around the table like a bottle of port in the British Raj nor worse, handed on quickly in a child’s game of Pass the Parcel. Yet that is the fate which for now appears to be chasing him.
For years, the default assumption has been that bin Laden is hiding somewhere in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Joshua Foust has a great piece up at Registan.net about a two-day workshop he attended on tribal engagement in Afghanistan. While essentially focusing on how far the United States should rely on tribes to find a solution to Afghanistan, he raises a fundamental question about the nature of the debate on what to do in a war now into its ninth year:
“There is a bit of a crippling strain of experientialism in the military. It leads a lot of people to trust implicitly their own experiences and to assume those experiences are shared or generalizable. It also tends to engender a degree of mistrust of academia, since most academics gain their understanding through voracious reading rather than extensive experience.”
As discussed in my last post, the place to watch for developments on relations between India and Pakistan right now is more likely to be Kabul than Kashmir. That may have been graphically illustrated when Taliban fighters attacked Kabul on Friday, killing 16 people, including up to nine Indians.
It is too early to say whether the attack specifically targetted Indian interests or whether it was aimed at foreigners more generally. But India has blamed earlier attacks on its interests in Afghanistan on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency – its embassy in Kabul has been bombed twice.
Regular readers of this blog will know we have been talking for a long time about finding a regional solution to Afghanistan. The argument — much touted during President Barack Obama’s election campaign — was that you could stabilise the country if you persuaded the many regional players with a stake in Afghanistan — including Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia and China — to cooperate rather than compete in finding a political settlement to what was effectively an unwinnable war.
The argument looked at best utopian, at worst a description of the delicate balance of power in the early 20th century that was meant to keep the peace but in reality led to the outbreak of World War One. It is now resurfacing again as public opinion in western countries — including in staunch U.S. ally Britain – turns against the long war in Afghanistan.
Pakistan is likely to drift further away from the west in the years ahead as pressure from Islamist groups and anti-Americanism undermine the traditional moorings of the secular pro-western elite, according to a report just released by the Legatum Institute.
The report rules out the possibility of a Taliban takeover or of Pakistan becoming a failed state, predicting it is most likely to ”muddle through” with the army continuing to play a powerful role behind the scenes in setting foreign and security policy. “Rather than an Islamist takeover, you should look at a subtle power shift from a secular pro-Western society to an Islamist anti-American one,” said Jonathan Paris, the author of the report.
When President Barack Obama suggested in Beijing last month that China and the United States could cooperate on bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and indeed to “all of South Asia”, much of the attention was diverted to India, where the media saw it as inviting unwarranted Chinese interference in the region.
But what about asking a different question? Can China help stabilise the region?