I couldn’t help but react to William Bradley’s April 30th Huffington Post column on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It had some interesting points, but it was also filled with vaguely orientalist notions of Pakistani security issues.
There were the noble generals, the scary ISI, and the invisible 170 million civilians who would soon fall to a marauding Taliban.
So naturally, I had to comment. You can read my three 250 word responses below. They were published as comments on the HuffPo website.
While I agree with some of your statements, I’ll confess that I strongly disagree with your analysis of the Pakistani military.
You describe the Pakistani Army as “historically the only stable major institution in the country.” You also describe the leaders as “educated and trained in elite British and American staff colleges” and having “pro-Western sympathies” while saying that the rank-and-file is “shot through with jihadist sympathizers.”
This is a problematic approach to understanding Pakistan because it portrays the Pakistani military leadership as a modern, stabilizing force. When the military keeps overthrowing civilian governments — corrupt as they may be — it is only technically correct to describe the military as the only “stable major institution.” It is the primary destabilizer as well.
Not only that, but Pakistani military dictators have consistently received U.S. support — at the expense of local democracy. Musharraf received significant U.S. support while local democracy activists and lawyers were attempting to rebuild Pakistan’s democracy.
Indeed, the main national Pakistani official to take action on the recent flogging of the Pakistani girl in Swat was the Chief Justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court, a man who the U.S.-backed Musharraf previously removed from power.
Continuing my prior analysis, I would also like to point out the missing historical context to your portrayal of the Pakistani ISI.
You refer to the “dread ISI intelligence service, which helped Afghan Taliban take over Afghanistan from battling mujahedeen warlords in the wake of the Soviet ouster.” This is the exact same ISI that Reagan dumped billions of dollars into to funnel into Afghanistan in the war against the Soviets.
It isn’t totally accurate to purely portray as a alien enemy the very institution that 30 years ago we viewed as a convenient ATM machine for providing funds to our proxy warriors. We bear some responsibility for funding the very institutions that we criticize today. I suspect that some of the very relationships we criticize the ISI for maintaining today were useful relationships 30 years ago when we were supporting Afghans in their fight with the Soviets.
The very word Mujahedeen is plural for Mujahed, which means “struggler” or one pursuing Jihad. My understanding of Bin Laden and others is that they personally emerged out of this U.S.-funded war. The various factions may have spent years in a civil war afterwards, but we didn’t care too much about their ideologies when they were fighting the Soviets.
It is a bit inaccurate to make Pakistan’s problems sound like some “foreign” challenge that we must heroically fix. We helped create these problems, because they were once our Cold War solutions.
Lastly, I want to challenge your notion of a looming Taliban takeover of Pakistan. I’m not going to pretend that the Taliban aren’t a destabilizing force, but I think it will require a lot more evidence to justify the claim that the Taliban are on the verge of taking over a nation of 170 million people.
Not only that, but I have yet to see a specific credible argument for how Taliban troops are going to access, let alone use, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. You can’t just climb down into a missile silo and pull a trigger.
My understanding is that the Pakistan Taliban number perhaps as much as 10,000 at most. In Afghanistan, my understanding is that the Taliban troops number around 15,000.
To date, no one has made an articulate argument for how 10,000 Pakistan Taliban are going to take over or control 170 million Pakistanis. To put this in perspective, the U.S. still can’t maintain a stable occupation of a nation of 30 million Iraqis with 140,000 U.S. troops backed up by Navy and Air Force technology. It is a stretch to argue that 10,000 Taliban of minority Pakistani ethnicities are going to occupy, control, and govern a nation of 170 million people who have consistently voted against Islamist political parties.