Robert Kaplan continues to miss the plot

It’s not about “lines of communication”

Q: What do you get when you take Realist doctrine and apply it without regard to ground realities? A: This article by Robert Kaplan (linkthanks Pragmatic Euphony). He writes:

No matter how much leverage you hold over a country, it is rare that you can get it to act against its core self-interest…

The U.S. demands that Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), its spy agency, sever relations with the Taliban. Based on Pakistan’s own geography, this makes no sense from a Pakistani point of view. First of all, maintaining lines of communications and back channels with the enemy is what intelligence agencies do. What kind of a spy service would ISI be if it had no contacts with one of the key players that will help determine its neighbor’s future?

Of course, we can and should demand that Pakistan cease helping the Taliban to plan and carry out operations. But cutting links to the Taliban altogether is something the Pakistanis simply cannot do, and trying to insist upon it only worsens tensions between our two countries.[The Atlantic]

Mr Kaplan arrives at these conclusions because he fundamentally misunderstands both the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban, and the threat they pose to the interests of the Pakistani state.

There is a huge difference between “lines of communications and back channels” that all intelligence agencies have, and the cat-and-paw relationship between the Pakistani military establishment and the global jihadi groups. To use Mr Kaplan’s analogy, while the US used the “back channels” of the PLO to help evacuate American families from Beirut, the CIA—to our knowledge—does not use Palestinian terrorist groups to carry out terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. What needs severing is not the ISI’s lines of communications, but its use of the Taliban as a strategic proxy.

But Mr Kaplan’s greater mistake is the acceptance of the notion—that even some Pakistanis reject—that the ISI’s cat-paw relationship with the Taliban is in Pakistan’s interests. It is not. The Taliban pose the most serious threat to the survival and security of the Pakistani state. This fact is dawning on more and more Pakistanis. Yet, it escapes Mr Kaplan. The interests of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex are not quite the same as that of the Pakistani state. Mr Kaplan, however, conflates the two, and, unfortunately, ends up with a conclusion that could not be more wrong.

Actually, the relationship between the military establishment and jihadi groups has gone even beyond that of patron and client. It is now appropriate to consider them a military-jihadi complex. It is this complex that the United States must seek to dismantle. To equate the problem to mere lines of “lines of communications” is laughable.

Related Post: Robert Kaplan misses the plot: his earlier piece arguing that the ISI’s insecurities must be assuaged.

Chair and peace

Sequels in real life

What a remarkable coincidence. First, Charlie Wilson writes an vitamins-is-good-for-kids type of op-ed in the Washington Post that suggests he’s back in the lobbying business, this time handling Georgia’s brief. Previously, he had formally signed-up as a lobbyist for Pakistan a month after 9/11, but then quit in 2005 due to health reasons.

And then, Sepoy shocks us by publishing an open letter written by some American academics to their bosses at the University of Texas at Austin, protesting against the institution of the “Charlie Wilson Chair in Pakistan Studies.” The Charlie Wilson couch or hot tub would have been the appropriate piece of furniture to endow. Whatever they call it, Sepoy is eminently qualified to occupy it.

Robert Kaplan misses the plot

Any outside power in Afghanistan will be at loggerheads with Pakistan

In this month’s issue of the Atlantic monthly (linkthanks Anuj Tiku) Robert Kaplan argues that unless the United States addresses “what’s angering the ISI, we won’t be able to stabilize Afghanistan or capture al-Qaeda leaders inside its borders.” And “given these realities, you would think that the Bush administration would be coaching the Karzai government not to antagonize Pakistan unnecessarily by cozying up to India. Whatever coaching did happen has failed. The Karzai government has openly and brazenly strengthened its ties with India…(and) driven the ISI wild with fear and anger.”

So instead of “simplistic” talk of “sending more American troops to Afghanistan”, Mr Kaplan recommends “vigorous shuttle diplomacy between Kabul, Islamabad, and New Delhi to address India’s and Pakistan’s fears about Afghanistan.” Mr Kaplan doesn’t say what the diplomacy will be shuttled around, but judging by his argument that the ISI must not be angered, it would perhaps entail the United States asking India to scale down its relationship with Afghanistan.

Mr Kaplan is a self-described realist. But the problem is that his policy prescriptions are based on an incomplete analysis of the situation. For instance, he correctly points out that America’s “interests are now more or less aligned with those of the Soviets 20 years ago.” But he then abandons realism when he says, in the next sentence, “but rather than repeat their mistakes, we need to strive to prevent Pakistan from turning into the enemy of the American-backed government in Kabul”. Mr Kaplan fails to grasp the reality that any regime in Kabul—whether independent or backed by an outside power—will remain at loggerheads with Pakistan. It’s not only the Indian influence that the ISI is angry with. It is first the American influence. It is also the reason why Pakistan was a FATWAT and a backer of the Taliban at the same time for the last seven years.

So what does realism suggest for the United States? Well, as Mr Kaplan says, it should not repeat the mistakes made by the Soviets. One reason the Soviets lost that war was because they didn’t (and couldn’t) credibly threaten to attack Pakistan. The only way the United States can win the war is to create a balance of power in Afghanistan where the Pakistan—despite an angry ISI—cannot destabilise the Afghan government. And that is pretty much aligned to India’s interests too.

Related Posts: Nikolas Gvosdev and Joshua Foust get it.

Update: Pragmatic Euphony covers recent posts and articles on this theme.

Sunday Levity: The Mujahideen’s blanket

Pashtun war gear

In The Battle for Afghanistan (published earlier as Afghanistan: The Bear Trap) Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin describe the Mujahideen’s kit:

After their weapon, the next most valued possession is their blanket. It is usually a greyish-brown in colour, and is used day and night for a wide number of purposes. The Mujahideen uses it as a coat, or cloak, for warmth in winder, or against the wind; they crouch under it to conceal themselves from enemy gunships, as it blends perfectly with the mud or rocks; they sleep on it; they use it as a sack; they spread it on the ground as a table cloth, or upon which to display their wares; often it becomes a makeshift stretcher and sometimes it is a rope; several times a day it becomes their prayer mat. [The Battle For Afghanistan pp35]

Brigadier Yousaf does not say whether and how often they wash it.

(It is interesting how today’s Taliban and al Qaeda types are labelled jihadis, and the words mujahid (one who does jihad) and its plural form, mujahideen are reserved for the Afghans and Pashtuns who fought the Soviets.)