The Writing on the Wall for Obama’s ‘Af-Pak’ Vietnam

There was something almost painful about watching President Barack Obama last week reprising a track from his predecessor’s Greatest Hits when he hosted the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Just like Bush, Obama invited us to suspend well-grounded disbelief and imagine that Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari have the intent, much less the capability, to wage a successful war against the Taliban. Then again, there had been something painful even earlier about watching Obama proclaim Afghanistan as “the right war” and expanding the U.S. footprint there, reprising the Soviet experience of maintaining an islet of modernity in the capital while the countryside burns.

It requires a spectacular leap of faith in a kind of superheroic American exceptionalism to imagine that the invasion of Afghanistan that occurred in November 2001 will end any differently from any previous invasion of that country. And it takes an elaborate exercise in self-delusion to avoid recognizing that the Taliban crisis in Pakistan is an effect of the war in Afghanistan, rather than a cause — and that Pakistan’s turmoil is unlikely to end before the U.S. winds down its campaign next door.

The Obama Administration has linked the fate of its campaign in Afghanistan to its efforts to persuade Pakistan to fight the Taliban on its own soil. That was always a risky bet. Pakistan’s military swung into action last week — in its own inimitable way, relying on artillery as a counterinsurgency weapon, with predictable “collateral damage” and massive displacement of civilians — following weeks of hysteria in Washington about the country falling to the Taliban, nukes and all. That was nonsense, of course, and you’d have expected better from a Secretary of State who had once chided her President for his “inexperience” than to be babbling about the Taliban’s gains in Pakistan as representing a “mortal threat” to global security, demanding that the Pakistani army go to war on its own soil.

As I wrote last week,

The generals don’t share Clinton’s view of the Taliban as some sort of external force invading territory the Pakistani military is obliged to protect; on the contrary, odious though it may be to the country’s established political class and to the urban population that lives in the 21st century, the movement appears to be rooted in Pakistan’s social fabric. The Taliban’s recent advances have been accomplished in no small part through recruiting locals to its cause by exploiting long-standing resentment toward the venal local judicial and administrative authorities that prop up a feudal social order.

The military may also be more sanguine about the Taliban than Washington has been because the generals tend to view the country’s political establishment, most directly challenged by the militants’ gains, as corrupt and self-serving. The army, rather than the relatively weak political institutions, is the spine of the Pakistani state, and democracy has never been seen as a precondition to its survival. If the turmoil in civil society reaches a boiling point, the military, however reluctant its current leadership may be to seize power, can be reliably expected to take the political reins.

What’s more, if the Taliban’s goal were to seize state power rather than local control, it would have little hope of doing so. The insurgency is largely confined to ethnic Pashtuns, who comprise little more than 15% of the population. It is unlikely to find significant resonance in the major cities such as Islamabad and Lahore — though an influx into Karachi of people displaced by the fighting in the tribal areas has swelled that city’s Pashtun population, which has in turn raised communal tensions there. While the Taliban is reported to have made some inroads in southern Punjab and has linked up with small militant groups based in the province, it remains a minor presence in those parts of the country where the majority of Pakistanis live. Even in the most generous assessments of their fighting strength, they are very lightly armed and outnumbered by the army by a ratio of more than 50 to 1.

Still, the army is reluctant to launch an all-out campaign against the militants, not least because of a widely held perception in Pakistan that the Taliban’s rise is a product of America’s unpopular war in Afghanistan. There’s little support in the public — or within the ranks of the military — for deploying the military in a sustained civil war against the militants. Many in Pakistan were convinced that the Taliban had exceeded their bounds in Buner and Swat and needed to be pushed back — but not necessarily crushed. Whereas U.S. officials warn of the Taliban as an “existential” threat to Pakistan, the country’s own military continues to reserve that status for India, against which the vast bulk of its armed forces remain arrayed.

The military launched its current offensive both to satisfy its patron in Washington, and also in response to growing alarm in Pakistan’s urban middle classes at the Taliban’s excesses, and apparent intention to expand its writ. But the operation already appears to be following a familiar pattern: Anger at the Taliban will quickly give way to revulsion at the military operation to dislodge the militants in Swat, which has now — together with similar operations in Bajaur Agency, has turned 1 million Pakistanis into refugees in their own country. (The Islamists — not the Taliban, but groups associated with the likes of Lashkar e-Toiba, authors of the Mumbai massacre — have typically done a far better job than the state of caring for Pakistanis rendered destitute by catastrophes…)

That’s why Nawaz Sharif, the most popular politician in Pakistan right now, is not exactly full-throated in his endorsement of the military campaign, although is indicating sufficient support to convince Washington that he deserves U.S. backing to replace Zardari.

As public opinion turns against the current offensive, it will be blamed on America. The Taliban fighters in Swat will be driven out of the towns and into the hills and back into the Tribal Areas, which will allow for a new truce — the subtext of which will be that the Pakistani Taliban, should they want to wage war, should do so over the border in support of their Pashtun brethren in Afghanistan. (That, after all, is a point of consensus between them and the military establishment.)

The current military campaign is designed to enforce a limit on the Taliban’s reach within Pakistan, confining it to the movement’s heartland — which is in a northwestern part of the country which has always been beyond the government’s control.

The fallout from the operation, though, is likely to be an intensified terror campaign in the cities (where the Taliban can’t launch an insurrection, but can blow things up), and expanded hostility towards the U.S. which various Islamist forces will exploit. And Pakistan’s military will be no more likely to act against Taliban activities in Afghanistan than they are now.

The majority of Pakistanis are hostile to the Pakistani Taliban — which while aligned, is organizationally distinct from the Afghan Taliban, even though the latter operates on both sides of a border never recognized by the Pashtuns — but they see it as a problem stirred up by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistanis don’t blame the Taliban
for the U.S. drone strikes that kill Pakistani civilians. I suspect they won’t blame the Taliban for the civilian suffering inflicted in the battle to retake Swat. While they may loathe the Taliban, their loathing for the United States is even greater — as Anatole Lieven recently noted. He found that the best-educated and most cosmopolitan yuppies he met in Pakistan believe that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by Washington and Israel. So, ordinary Pakistanis and the commanders of the military believe the Taliban uprising on their soil will dissipate once the U.S. leaves Afghanistan — Pakistan’s military, in other words, has an incentive to see the U.S. go home.

Pakistanis have every reason to expect that the U.S. will sooner or later tire of spinning its wheels in the Hindu Kush, and their outlook is based on that assumption. That’s why the Pakistani military establishment continues to back the Afghan Taliban, which represents its interests in its strategic competition with India for influence in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai, for his part, appears to recognize the limits on U.S. involvement, too, breaking sharply with the U.S. and maneuvering to remain in power, with some very unsavory allies, even as Washington has been trying to ease him out. Karzai, too, expects the U.S. to leave some time soon, and is jumping into bed with various warlords to hedge his bets against going the way of Najibullah, the president left in place by the departing Soviets who was unceremoniously lynched in the streets of Kabul by the Taliban.

Sure, the U.S. has now appointed a hard-charging Special Forces general to lead its mission in Afghanistan. Perhaps, as a result, they will be able to strike more blows at the Taliban, but they’re unlikely to alter the overall outcome of the war. In fact, you could make a speculative case that appointing Stanley McChrystal, whose resume highlights include the capture of Saddam Hussein and the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, Washington may be looking for a “bring me the head of Osama bin Laden” scenario to create a pretext for beginning to dramatically scale back the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. But that would be a wild hunch.

In the interim, amid rising political chaos and social unrest spurred by ethnic tension and economic hardship, Pakistan’s generals may, once again, feel compelled to take charge of the political space in a new coup, and install a technocratic government charged with managing the impact of the economic crisis outside of the self-destructive party political competition that bedevils Pakistani governance, while enforcing security itself. But that’s unlikely to alter the equation in favor of Pakistan acting on Washington’s demands. On the contrary, the Pakistanis are simply treading water, doing the minimum necessary to keep U.S. aid flowing, and waiting for the Americans to leave Afghanistan.

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40 Responses to The Writing on the Wall for Obama’s ‘Af-Pak’ Vietnam

  1. S Anvar says:

    Dear Tony,
    I am from India. I have been reading your columns for quite a while. While you are right about Obamas mistake in the Afghan Pak strategy, however I differ with you on the account of the internal dynamics of Paskistan and its military.

    I think Pakistan has some fundamental problems, it has failed to resolve and even the military is incapable of dealing with that. The chief among the problems being that a small ruling elite controls the resources and the average Pakistani has to struggle for his daily bread. Just read the profile of ‘Ajmal Kasab’, the youngster involved in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. His family belongs to the Qasai (butcher) caste. A typical misguided jihadi from Pak, he hails from Faridkot district of Punjab Province (please note he is not from the tribal areas), Ajmal dropped out of school because of poverty. His only decent meal in his life was possible only after joining the jihadis. His frustrations in life were soon turned against the Indian state by LeT, just like the way the elite of Pakistan has been doing ever since Pakistan was formed. It is simple, as the Pakistani elite buy mansions in London and Paris by exploiting the poorer Pakistanis, any resentment by those at the bottom of the hierarchy are deftly deflected towards India, and ever since the Afghan campaign it has been the Soviets first and now the Americans. The Pakistani history books are atrocious in the way they describe India, inculcating hate in any young mind about its neighbour.
    It is a known fact that the Pakistani state has failed drastically in many of its obligations to its citizens. Unlike India, where land reforms took place to an extent, in Pakistan it is still a small elite who owns most of the land in Pakistan, making a majority of the Pakistanis landless serfs who live at the mercy of the feudal landlords. The Pakistani state has failed miserably in education and many other social issues. Remember the danda chicks of Jamia Hafsa madrasa, the lathi wielding women students who took hostage the residents of a house which they alleged to be a brothel. It was not just another act of vigilantism and a breakdown of governance; it was also a manifestation of a nation divided against itself. – of a society at war with itself.
    It was at Jamia Hafsa that many of these girls had any sembalance of an education and importantly their decent two square meals a day, just as Ajaml Kasab would find his decent meal after joining the LeT. For too long the elite of Pakistan have been fooling the rest of their countrymen by bringing the bogey of India and of late the US. I would say Bush was the ideal gift for these highly westernized and corrupt Pakistani elite, as it was easy to deflect their poorer countrymen’s anger towards the Americans.
    However things have reached a point, where there is no hope for the state and even the military can’t do much, as its rank and file has also been fed on the same diet. The Generals reluctance to take on the Taliban is due to the realization of how far indoctrinated the average Pakistan soldier has been and the fear of the fact that, if they take on the Taliban, sooner they might find a revolt.
    Right from its inception the Pakistani state has been built on lies, that a religious community is a separate race and is safe as a separate nation. And in the name of Islam, the Pakistani elite tried to stifle the aspirations of the Bengali speaking Muslims of East Pakistan, which ended up in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. For too long they have been using the religious bogey to ride rough shod over the poor, thereby creating a Frankenstein monster. And now they are paying the price. Hope the Americans realize this and stop being the scapegoat for the machinations of the Pakistani elite. My only fear is that before Pakistan implodes they are able to get the nuclear arms out of harm.

  2. Stephane says:

    Anybody who read Webster Tarpley’s “911 Synthetic terror” or David Ray Griffin’s books knows everything there is to know about 911.
    Apparently Mr Karon has not yet had that chance.
    But being smart and curious he surely will.

  3. empty says:

    Anvar, I am not sure where you disagree with Tony’s analysis. I doubt if he would disagree with you about the failures of the Pakistani state. But I think his analysis of what is going on right now is spot on. The Pakistanis differentiate between the Afghan and Pakistani Taleban. As does the US. The drone attacks until very recently targeted the Afghan Taleban and ignored the Pakistani Taleban. Of course they usually succeeded in hitting innocents, but… The Pakistani public blames the US for much of the death and destruction going on, certainly in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan. The military action only took place after public sentiment had turned markedly against the Pakistani Taleban. This sentiment is going to start turning against the military as the civilian deaths resulting from this brutal assault keeps rising and as the plight of the refugees becomes more dire. The only hope the Pakistani military has, as Tony points out, is that it will be able to push the Taleban into FATA and define their limits for them.

    On your comment about the Pakistani state being built on lies – well let s/he who has not sinned cast the first stone – I don’t know of too many states that are not. Clearly, you don’t like the Pakistanis, (perhaps with cause that does not include indoctrination) but I am not sure how your dislike of Pakistanis helps in analyzing the current situation.

  4. Y. Ben-David says:

    Tony said:
    The Taliban’s recent advances have been accomplished in no small part through recruiting locals to its cause by exploiting long-standing resentment toward the venal local judicial and administrative authorities that prop up a feudal social order.

    How often we have heard excuses of this type, apologizing for extremist movements…”the people support them because this group opposes corruption, NOT, perish the thought, because of their violent, extremist ideology”. The same excuses were made for HAMAS’s election victory over FATAH in the Palestinian elections, HIZBULLAH in Lebanon (add to that the “empowerment of the oppressed Lebanese Shi’ites) and even the support for Hitler and the Nazis which was excused on the grounds that they opposed the “corrupt, ineffectual Weimar system”.

    Dexter Filkins has written extensively about the Taliban and its relationship with the Pakistani government and, more specifically, its military and the intelligence unit (whose acronym I have forgotten). Filkins states clearly that the Pakistani military supported the Taliban because they viewed it as a good weapon against India (I am not sure about the distinctions between Afghan Taliban and Pakistani) and Filkins stated explicitly that the Pakistanis thought it would be a good idea to creat a bogeyman to frighten the Americans into giving them billions of dollars in order to fight an “enemy” they themselves created.
    No limit to cynicism, is there?

  5. empty says:

    Y. That’s an explanation, not an excuse.

  6. Shlomo says:


    Good article, as always. I gotta say, though, I think the Pak military drastically overestimates its ability to crush political challenges with military force. As you yourself allude to, the Taliban’s success is partly because it is *not* venal like the urban elite. This makes it less corrupt, more efficient, more popular, and ultimately more potent. Pakistani authorities may think they know what they’re doing in supporting the Afghan Taliban, but ultimately they could get more than they bargained for.

    Ben David,
    That goes for you too. The political elite probably have cynical calculations. But given the extent of poverty and corruption in rural Pakistan, especially the Pashtun areas, I wouldn’t underestimate the “trains run on time” explanation. Maybe if victorious nations weren’t so intent on making Germany “pay” after WW1, they would have helped Germany rebuild, so that they could have “trains run on time” sans a totalitarian and racist state.

  7. Tony says:

    Shlomo, never mind YBD, the Hasbara committee has to weigh in no matter what. But I wouldn’t underestimate the Taliban’s own venality — while they can exploit hostility to the landlord etc, the same local young men can use the authority they gain through signing up with the Taliban and rising to local leadership positions to settle old scores with girls that rebuffed their advances or guys who dissed them or whatever… And mass social movement inevitably attracts its fair share of really scummy people on the make…

  8. Y. Ben-David says:

    Tony-What “Hasbara” community am I supposed to belong to? Do you simply dismiss everyone who disagrees with you like that?

    The point I was trying to make was that just because the Taliban claims to oppose corruption and that some Pakistanis support them for this reason, does not mean that the US and the West can or should look with equanimity on the possiblity of them extending their influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In any event, I am certain that the Taliban is just as corrupt as any of the people they claim they are opposing, just as Tony points out. No doubt many people DO support them because of their extremist views.
    If it is true as Tony says that the actions of the Taliban in Pakistan are some sort of reaction to the US presence in Afghanistan, and that US withdrawal will presumably lead to a lessing of the Taliban threat, then we still have a right to ask about what will happen then in the new post-American Afghanistan. You do remember that prior to 9/11 the US was quite uninterested in what was going on there, but the 9/11 events convinced a lot of people (nost just Bush and his minions) that that neglect was a mistake .
    It is true that no outside force has ever succeeded in taming that country, but what goes on there does affect other countries, maybe even the whole world. Obama has quite a difficult situation to face there.

  9. abraham says:

    Ben David, to extend your analogy: the same excuses were most recently used when Israelis elected a war criminal as PM, who then appointed a noted racist/bigot as FM.

    Do we blame Netanyahoo and Lieberman for the atrocites Israel will surely commit over the course of the coming months? Or do we blame the Israeli people for voting them into office? Did Israeli’s vote them in for their racist and bigoted ideologies or because they promised to solve their societal ills? Since Israelis blame the Palestinians for their ills, I guess the latter question is redundant.

  10. Y. Ben-David says:

    What “war crimes” did Netanyahu commit? He wasn’t in power during the last two wars, Gaza and Lebanon II.

  11. abraham says:

    Oh, so you admit war crimes were committed during Gaza and Lebanon II? Interesting. It turns out zionists are, in fact, capable of telling the truth, if only indirectly.

    As for NetanYahoo’s war crimes, how many Palestinian civilians did he order killed when he was last PM? In that factoid lays your answer.

    But more generally, once you become PM of Israel you automatically assume all war crimes of your predecessors, since none have been prosecuted to date.

    But they will be. 2025, a year which looms ever closer, is the terminus of Israel. Will you be there to witness the end?

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  13. Y. Ben-David says:

    I am not going to play word games with you. I admit nothing of the sort, I just assumed that is what was meant. But if you do want those wars be considered war crimes, then your HAMAS friends are also guilty of war crimes, by indiscriminately firing rockets into civilian areas for years prior to the Israeli attack on Gaza.


  15. abraham says:

    Oh Ben-David, you do play word games. You cannot claim moral superiority over Hamas, because you are occupying their lands.

    What Hamas does is fight for freedom. What Israel does is terrorism (oppression, occupation, collective punishment, arbitrary detention and imprisonment, torture, etc.)

    For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

    Hamas is merely a reaction to Zionism.

    Zionists, foolish as they are, think they are on the verge of triumph. However, they have instead got themselves trapped in a tarpit. The more they struggle, the further they sink.

    Israel gone by 2025.

  16. Y. Ben-David says:

    Abraham-In 2025 Israel will have over 7 million Jews, its GDP will continue to outpace those of the Arab countries, the Arab countries will continue to fall further and further behind Israel and the rest of the developed world. There certainly won’t be a Palestinian state. This could change if the Arab world decides to make peace with Israel and realizes that the current wave of political Islamist extremism is leading them to a dead end, just as they found out about Nasserite Pan-Arabism. But in any event, I am looking forward to 2025.

  17. Arie Brand says:

    YBD wrote: “There certainly won’t be a Palestinian state. This could change if the Arab world decides to make peace with Israel”

    When Tony referred to YBD as a Hasbara spreader the man asked what Hasbara community he was supposed to belong to. The answer is: that of those who ride roughshod over the facts, hence the whole blooming lot of them.

    Earlier YBD claimed that the Arab peace proposal of 2002 was conceived in the direct aftermath of 9/11 as a sort of propagandistic antidote to the negative image that shocking event had left for the Arab world. It was pointed out to him then that this Arab proposal was repeated in 2007. Moreover, quite recently the representative of the Arab League pointedly reminded Israel of it in that notorious meeting where Peres spouted some outrageous lies in his altercation with Erdogan.

    It is all lost on YBD. Now he has decided to ignore that peace proposal altogether.

  18. Tony says:

    Yes, Arie, but it’s also worth remembering that YBD’s function, here, is to divert whatever conversation we’re having into pointless sparring with his own views, which of course have no resonance with most of the community that use this site. In other words, he’s a self-appointed resident contrarian, who is best ignored for purposes of productive conversation

  19. Shlomo says:


    Right again. But I still think there’s a difference between personal corruption and systemic corruption. There’s plenty of venal personalities among both the Taliban and the urban elite. Now–the question becomes, which group’s governmental system is more likely to promote/inhibit systemic venality.

    In the Taliban base of support, the insurgents undoubtedly behave with the impunity of warlords. But, so does the Pakistani Army. That’s one aspect of venality that they share.

    On economics, the two groups are different. The urban elite are content with the essentially feudal system that has prevailed throughout the Pakistani state’s history. In terms of economic relations, it does not get more venal than that. The Taliban, for all their faults, will eliminate that system, in that way introducing an element of economic fairness.

    I don’t think economics is the main factor. But in certain situations I think it is the tiebreaker, and the Taliban are running away with it. The question now becomes, will Pakistani aversion to the Taliban’s insane version of Islam have sufficient countervailing effects.

  20. Arie Brand says:

    Tony, you might have a more precise idea of your readership than I have but I fancy that there are also people coming to this site who know very little about the issue. Hence they might, God forbid, take YBD’s ‘facts’ at face value.

    Hence it might be of some use to shoot these down where appropriate. But I agree that there is no point in arguing about his opinions as apart from his assertions of ‘facts’.

  21. abraham says:

    That’s why I’m here, Arie. To remind fools like YBD that the horrid policies of the state in which they live is ultimately going to be their undoing.

    This is why I say “Israel gone by 2025”. At the current trajectory, and with little chance of zionism suddenly reforming itself into a humane movement and therefore little chance of veering from the present course, Israel will be gone by the year 2025 (at the very latest).

    It is reverse Hasbara, you could say. I call it Truth.

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  23. Moin Ansari says:

    Tony: I accidently discoverd your site. I think you may have quoted me in one of my articles.

    Anyway, I like your brilliant analysis, and your profound knowledge of the politics of war and peace–but most importantly becuase you write from the heart with sound logic.

    You are shaping the argument for America’s “uniwinnable war”.

    Your prodigious thoughts need a huge audience so that the “nation of sheep” can wake up and smell the roses.

    Kindly add Http”// to your blog roll and visit us to read our thoughts which are very close to your.

    Thanks and Best Regards.

    Moin Ansari
    Editor Rupee News

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  33. GAV says:

    “And it takes an elaborate exercise in self-delusion to avoid recognizing that the Taliban crisis in Pakistan is an effect of the war in Afghanistan, rather than a cause — and that Pakistan’s turmoil is unlikely to end before the U.”
    You can out more?

  34. Tony,

    It’s been over a year now since you wrote this and drones attacks are ongoing, tension raises and U.S. and other NATO armies keep fighting a war that cannot be won in Afghanistan.

    We have learnt so much thanks to wikileaks and discovered more intricacies related to U.S. government failing to recognize any other reality than one presented mostly by warfare producers’ lobby, that keeps justifying ” war is a good business ” policies.

    I do not necessarily agree completely with Alex Jones, but I certainly now believe that US presidents have not been as powerful as common knowledge indicates.

  35. Super info. My mother has been awaiting for this tips.

  36. mersin emlak says:

    Y. That’s an explanation, not an excuse.

  37. Mike macathy says:

    I like your brilliant analysis, and your profound knowledge of the politics of war and peace–but most importantly becuase you write from the heart with sound logic

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  40. Kayo says:

    The Taliban is now legitimate? Why are we there if we are not fitghing the Taliban? This makes as much sense as giving the NAZIS a role in Germany’s government after WWII.

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