by Eric Martin
As discussed on this site on numerous occasions, one of the oddest arguments for escalating/perpetuating our military presence in Afghanistan is the stated fear that our withdrawal would destabilize Pakistan. Implicit in this formulation is the presumption that our ongoing military occupation of Afghanistan (and concomitant military/political activity in Pakistan) is having a stabilizing effect in Pakistan itself. This nostrum about the therapeutic value of large numbers of US forces pursuing US interests through force, like many of the widely accepted foreign policy myths, lacks supporting empirical evidence.
In fact, the empirical evidence is all pointing in the opposite direction. Pakistan today is far less stable than it was when we first invaded: there are raging clashes between the government and militant forces causing refugee crises numbering in the millions, there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of domestic terrorist attacks, the Pakistani population is increasingly anti-American and increasingly radicalized, there is a crisis in leadership - with the current President, Asif Zardari nursing approval ratings in the sub-Cheney realm, etc.
Further, there are few compelling theoretical arguments as to why our presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and pursuit of our narrow agenda in each locale, should help to stabilize Pakistan. Consider the following:
1. Our policy of targeting the Afghan Taliban (a group long cultivated as a valuable ally of Pakistan vis-a-vis India) while facilitating good relations between India and the Karzai government is extremely unpopular in Pakistan - especially with the powerful elites in the ISI and armed forces.
2. Our policy of military strikes in the Af-Pak border regions, and pressure on the Pakistani government to apply military pressure in those same areas, has led to violent clashes between local militant groups and the Pakistani government. These conflicts have come complete with terrorist strikes on various domestic targets and a raging refugee crises - all of which the population blames on us and, as aiders and abettors, the Zardari government.
3. We are viewed by large swaths of the population as, alternatively, an imperial power and a Western crusader intent on weakening a powerful Muslim nation while seizing its nukes, which makes any indigenous groups adopting our agenda instantly suspect. This is a problem for the Zardari government, or any potential allies.
4. With the economy cratering, an educational system in disarray and a major unemployment crisis leaving large portions of the population without work, the large US military presence and the conflict it perpetuates is serving as an enticing scapegoat and distraction.
In this environment, moderates are either being sidelined or making common cause with extremists in pushing for anti-American policies and positions. Radicalization is rampant, causing deeper and more intense schisms. The government is being delegitimized, and faith in democracy rocked. In many ways, Pakistani society is being torn asunder.
The fault lines along which Pakistan is being rended are in large part the result of Pakistan's own dysfunctional political culture and national security obsession with India. The latter has led to a hypermilitarization of society, a weak dedication to democratic rule, a warped economy made to serve the military class, skewed government spending objectives, a too-powerful intelligence apparatus and an unhealthy willingness to cultivate religious extremists as putatively useful proxies (in this, the US and Pakistan shared common cause in Afghanistan in the 1980s).
Eventually, Pakistan will have to reckon with these pathologies and find ways to normalize its own political culture. However, while the United States did not create these problems, by forcing Pakistan to accede to our agenda, against its own perceived interests and over the objections of a distrustful population, we are making it more likely that these flash points erupt rather than unwind according to a slower, more natural process.
It is with these concerns that I read, in horror, a story by Jeremy Scahill about the uptick in US-sponsored mercenary activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan by groups such as Blackwater.
At a covert forward operating base run by the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, members of an elite division of Blackwater are at the center of a secret program in which they plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, "snatch and grabs" of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan, an investigation by The Nationhas found. The Blackwater operatives also assist in gathering intelligence and help run a secret US military drone bombing campaign that runs parallel to the well-documented CIA predator strikes, according to a well-placed source within the US military intelligence apparatus.
While reports of Blackwater's involvement have been cropping up over the past half year or so, Scahill provides the most comprehensive take to date. According to Scahill, Blackwater's pool of well experienced former special operations personnel has become invaluable to the US military in at least two ways: First, we lack an adequate number of as-experienced soldiers to conduct operations without bringing in mercenary groups like Blackwater. Second, the private status of the mercenary groups - as well as some chain-of-command work-arounds put in place by Rumsfeld and Cheney - provide much sought after plausible deniability, secrecy and, ultimately, unaccountability.
So let me see if I have this straight: We must continue our mission in Afghanistan/Pakistan lest our departure destabilizes Pakistan. But we can only continue our mission in Afghanistan/Pakistan if we utilize mercenaries in the fight. And, further, the use of mercenaries in the pursuit of conducting airstrikes with little accountability in Pakistan will further the goal of stabilizing Pakistan. Because, well, who in Pakistan will object to that?