Perhaps the most frightening detail of the ever-growing U.S. war in the “Af-Pak” theater — even expanding into the usually quiet off-season of the cold Afghan winter — is that the war could be lost for the U.S. in a country where it can’t acknowledge putting boots on the ground: Pakistan.
Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari has been cooperative with Obama’s designs for the neighborhood — especially in providing a vital lifeline for U.S. supplies — even though the former is under constant assault for not doing more to end the covert drone war on Pakistani soil. But it’s not clear how much longer Zardari’s government or, more generally, Pakistan’s help in the Afghan war will last. But even though the Hellfire missiles fired from U.S. remote aircraft could be the very factor that pushes less compliant Pakistanis into power, Obama seems intent on surging both the C.I.A. and contractors that are carrying out these drone attacks.
In a chilling piece of admittedly speculative thinking about the ramifications of political fighting in Karachi, Juan Cole sketches out a scenario where recent spats may work their way into politics in Islamabad and potentially bring down the government. In the last week, more than 40 people have died in fighting between two political parties in the southern port city and financial hub of around 15 million.
Just as a massive supply-line “surge” is surely being ramped up to outfit and feed the tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers, spooks and mercenaries (to say nothing of other contractors in non-fighting roles) making their way into the theater, one of the paths of these goods — into Karachi and through the Khyber Pass — could be at risk. Cole writes that
were security in Karachi substantially to worsen, it could form a further impediment to the US and NATO’s use of the port city to transship essential matériel up to the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan.
Cole acknowledges that such a level of instability is not imminently upon us, but his larger point is that this fighting could affect politics the capital because one of the groups, the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), is a coalition partner of the other, Zardari’s governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The MQM is threatening to withdraw from the government, alleging that the militants responsible for the attacks on its workers were from a poor district in the city loyal to the PPP.
If the MQM bails, Cole notes, the PPP may not be able to muster enough support in a vote of confidence. If that happens, the main opposition party, The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) will have a chance to form a government. But their ability to form a viable coalition is also in question. If PML-N fails, then there will be elections.
Here’s where the real risk will come in. Many of the religious right parties boycotted the last round of elections because they were held under a military dictatorship. With Musharraf gone, the way is paved for these parties to run and win seats in an open election. They may be able to muster enough support to play kingmakers for one of the larger parties.
The catch is that these potential kingmakers will likely be the most hostile to Obama’s covert war, giving them fodder for the campaign trail as well as a policy goal to pursue should they get a seat at the table.
What’s most troubling is that, as outlined in the must-read post by Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch, a part of Obama’s surge that goes largely unmentioned will include beefing up the C.I.A. presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan — and particularly across the largely irrelevant border between the two — to expand a campaign of targeted assassinations there. Write Turse and Engelhardt:
While you’ve heard about President Obama’s surge in American troops and possibly even State Department personnel in Afghanistan, you’ve undoubtedly heard little or nothing about a CIA surge in the region, and yet the Journal’s reporters tell us that Agency personnel will increase by 20-25% in the surge months. By the time the CIA is fully bulked up with all its agents, paramilitaries, and private contractors in place, Afghanistan will represent, according to Julian Barnes of the Los Angeles Times, one of the largest “stations” in Agency history.
Today, in Afghanistan, a militarized mix of CIA operatives and ex-military mercenaries as well as native recruits and robot aircraft is fighting a war “in the shadows” (as they used to say in the Cold War era). This is no longer “intelligence” as anyone imagines it, nor is it “military” as military was once defined, not when U.S. operations have gone mercenary and native in such a big way. This is pure “lord of the flies” stuff — beyond oversight, beyond any law, including the laws of war. And worse yet, from all available evidence, despite claims that the drone war is knocking off mid-level enemies, it seems remarkably ineffective. All it may be doing is spreading the war farther and digging it in deeper.
Talk about “counterinsurgency” as much as you want, but this is another kind of battlefield, and “protecting the people” plays no part in it.
Digging it in deeper, indeed. Digging in deeper, wider, and bigger. With more C.I.A., more drone strikes, and more subsequent civilian deaths, Obama may be digging himself right out of Pakistan. The problem is that without Pakistani support, digging himself out of the Afghanistan mess will be impossible.