Saber Rattling and the Tangled Web of Pakistan

We are doing it wrong, an LT’s attempt at Strategery.

The American Military and Intelligence services have long known about the trifecta of chaos that is Pakistan, the shadow government of the ISI, and the lawless tribal areas and how that interplay has impacted Afghanistan and American relations in the region for decades.

In response to Adm. Mike Mullen’s recent reiteration of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency’s support for the Haqqani Network, Senator Lindsey Graham appeared on Fox News Sunday and voiced his belief that if the military decided to increase its strikes into Pakistan there would be bilateral support in Congress to support those actions.

The situation in that region is exceedingly complex and has spawned numerous books about the interplay of terrorism, religious extremism, regional politics, and geo political issues that continue to destabilize the region to this day; most notably the Pulitzer prize winner, Ghost Wars, which I consider required reading for anyone who wants to better understand the links between Afghanistan and terrorism after the Soviet Invasion.

Our current beef with the ISI is their aforementioned continued support for the Haqqani Network. While the ISI continues to fund the group and offer safe haven, America has flipped on the group as it has become the single greatest military threat to ISAF personnel in Afghanistan. Led by the aging Maulvi Haqqani, the group was successful at establishing relationships with like minded governments as Maulvi resisted the Soviet Invasion, even visiting the White House during the Reagan administration. The elder Haqqani was only a loose ally of the Taliban after the Soviet retreat and reluctantly established a closer relationship after the Taliban took control of the country, accepting a cabinet level post in the government.

Currently his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani leads the military wing of the group which bases its command and control in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal region where it plans and supplies operations in Afghanistan, including the recent “Media-Kill” attacks at the International Hotel and American Embassy in Kabul. The Network is not dumb, and has learned that high profile attacks, even if unsuccessful, have a resonating impact on American media. Why attempt to overrun a well defended military outpost in some remote valley? Most attacks like that are not successful and the media story is always reported as just another battle on page 13F in a newspaper. Attack somewhere that has civilians with cameras and you break into the 24 hour news cycle. Images of Apache helicopters blasting insurgents off a hotel are priceless in terms of its effect on the most vital of American military resources, political will.

The ISI maintains its support for the network, planning for an Afghanistan after US forces withdraw. They need a dog in the perpetual fight to control the country, and the Haqqanis are a pit bull, though in all likelihood rabid and uncontrollable. Both the US and Pakistan are attempting to influence events to shape them towards their individual best interests and there has never been much overlap between those goals. Yet, just like the ISI’s and CIA’s attempt to influence the Taliban in the eighties, Haqqani is a double edged sword. He and his sons were and are more than willing to take arms and support from any source but are exceeding hard to direct. They are fanatic believers in both their cause and religion, as their unfaltering willingness to continue to engage US forces despite horrific losses and a dismal kill to death ratio demonstrates.

Asking the government of Pakistan to reign in the Haqqani Network is like asking Obama to reign in Fox News, it not only won’t happen, it can’t. The democratic government of Pakistan can barely control its own military, much less the ISI. Try to tell the generals to do things they don’t want to do, what they perceive as not in their interests of countering the “Indian threat” and they simply stage a coup. Pakistan’s population is rabidly anti American and ever wary of India, they demand to have a hand in the ruling of Afghanistan as India has poured untold millions of dollars into Karzai’s government (to counter Pakistan’s influence in the never-ending mobius strip of power struggles between the rivals).

One method of eliminating Pakistan’s support for the Haqqani network would let Pakistan have a more direct role inside Afghanistan, something that the US is unwilling to do. India, unlike Pakistan, is an important geo-political partner, as evidenced by India’s recent proposal to financially aid the struggling Euro-zone. The prevailing political calculus leans towards not stressing the good relationship with the regional economic powerhouse just for a chance to repair the increasingly frayed relationship with Pakistan, a quick regional fix is just not worth it.

So what will the US do? If I had to guess (and this is just a wild one) America will increase its drone attacks in the tribal areas and hopefully would not pursue unilateral military incursions in addition to it’s technically deniable CIA drone platform. If Senator Graham’s offer of political support for more military action is acted upon, then hopes of pulling out the majority of US combat power by 2014 will dwindle away.

Afghanistan is an empire killer, and we are an empire. Obama’s emerging doctrine might be the only practical solution to the problem of terrorism emerging in failed states. Our superpower status and power projection capabilities are more than sufficient to conduct small strikes on extremist targets anywhere in the world and why other nations might protest, they can’t do much to prevent it.

The same technological advancements that allow us to enact such a strategy is the same thing that enables international terrorism. In years past, if you wanted to enforce your will on the world you had to be charismatic and politically astute, you had to convince a nation to follow you, you needed massive resource base to accomplish that goal, and you needed an army.  America knew that, we were able to create massive armies to fight and win world wars but those days are past.

These days you just need an ungoverned hellhole in which to sleep, an telecommunications network to plan and coordinate, and a dozen followers armed with box cutters to achieve the same effect, massive armies are not a solution to enemies of that scale. Such are the unintended consequences of globalization.

Maybe one day Americans will learn that not all terrorist attacks are preventable and that a government capable of preventing every attack is not a government we want, the best we can do is empower our intelligence services and federal law enforcement agencies, judiciously employ our special forces, work to improve the good governance capabilities in failed states with the aid of the international community, and learn to cope with the inevitable attacks that manage to slip through our net. Massive invasions are just not cost effective and are at best only a temporary patch slapped on a handful of geographic hot spots. Playing Terrorist whack-a-mole with hundreds of thousands of troops is nowhere near as effective as just one seal team, which recent history bore out to be true, we need to do the same things the FBI did to counter the mob in years past, we need to focus on infiltrating groups abroad rather than just luring our domestic Muslim populations into an endless series of honey pots.

One day we will realize that our domestic Arab and Persian populations are perhaps our greatest tool in this fight. The FBI succeeds in countering organized crime because its agents are from the same culture and neighborhoods as they people they take down. If we employ those citizens that have the same cultural knowledge and language skills as the people who seek to attack our nation rather than embrace a training program rife with Islamaphobia, we may have greater success in defeating extremist Islam and even create American heroes from that minority who we all can respect and admire.

Conflict in my generation is not likely to be decided on large battlefields, it will be decided in cities throughout the world by small teams of highly trained individuals. War has gone global and there is no going back, it exists on websites and in cultural ghettos the world over. The military has perfected the execution portion of such a strategy but our amazing signals intelligence abilities can only go so far.

We don’t need massive deployed armies, we need spies.



  1. Dave says

    I mostly agree with you. I have been knocking around in Pakistan and Afghanistan since mid 2003, and I can tell you that nothing can prepare the average American/European for this culture. I can also tell you that any attempt to use American born HUMINT will only end up in a bunch of dead spies. These people can tell if you are from the next village, let alone another country. It is a much tighter knit tribal system that in Iraq, and they also have a completely different mindset than the folks in the Middle East.

    Honestly, after all these years, I have no idea what winning this war looks like, but I know it is going to take a while longer, if we mean to win.

    • says

      my thoughts are to use immigrants, similar to how the CIA convinced Soviet citizens who had just crossed the wall to turn right back around and spy, second generation persons could at least be case officers and might be able to hide successfully in the urban area using more traditional covers. Unless we want to do what the British did, and place sources into the area knowing it will take the locals a few decades to accept the plant, if he or she does not get their head chopped off in the interim. When I comes to places like the Pesh, I am stumped. How would one even bug those converations?

      IMHO its less about using americans as sources but, using those agents to effectivly run turned sources in the target area.

      The army has had great success in getting non-American linguists into the service, rather than rely on companies like titan. Several of the E-4 and E-5 translators we work with are from the areas that they deploy to. The difference in the amount of subtext that they are able to gleam is amazing.

  2. says

    In truth, a potentially valuable way of gaining intelligence is letting the CIA work its traditional routes and attempt to gain sources inside the ISI. As we’ve been saying, it’s difficult to grow spies that can operate in such a tribally diverse and localized culture. The ISI likely have their own networks in these communities (as well as contacts) with groups like the Haqqani Network. Simply put, let them do the heavy lifting. I’m not saying that we don’t need to develop our own networks in the tribal areas, but knowing what the ISI knows would open up a lot of information streams.

    I think that’s especially important because I doubt Pakistan are going to let groups like HQN disappear so long as the conditions that led them to establish a relationship still exist. I don’t see the ISI moving away from funding terrorist groups, or attempting to meddle in Afghanistan, so long as they’re facing off against India.

    • Dave says

      And the sad part about that is that the Indians don’t give two shits about Pakistan, and if they did, they could literally crush them like a bug. India provides that great bogeyman out there as a common enemy, which allows the Army to maintain their power and prestige. The amount of arrogance in the Pakistan Army is absolutely amazing. I will say they have a lot of good guys, and they can run rings around the Afghans in many ways, but in the end, they are little more than a third world country – with nuclear weapons. If it weren’t for the billions we have poured in there in the past decade, odds are they would have imploded by now. Aye, there’s the true rub. We are paying, on both sides of the border, to support the assholes like Haqanni in their brutality and murder of Afghans, and their killing of coalition forces. It’s a sad merry-go-round, without the merry.

      • says

        The main takeaway I have from the region is that Pakistan essentially has no raison d’être beyond “We’re not India.” That might have been really compelling originally, but it glosses over the massive ethnic fault-lines that exist within Pakistan. As best as I can tell, those fitful outbreaks of sectarian violence that are more or less supported by the ISI are the only pressure valve that prevents the whole place from exploding.

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