Thursday, August 14, 2008

"You Have to Be with the Democratic Forces"

There are a couple of things in today's NYT article about the big news from Pakistan (Musharraf is expected to resign soon) that need to be highlighted.

First is this:

The continued support of Mr. Musharraf by the Bush administration, anchored by the personal relationship between President Bush and Mr. Musharraf, has infuriated the four-month-old civilian coalition, which routed the president’s party in February elections. “Now the reaction from the American friends is positive,” Mr. Khan said.

While Mr. Bush has kept up his relations with Mr. Musharraf -- including regular telephone conversations -- the administration has also been trying to build its relations with the new Pakistani government, as it demands greater action against militants based in this country.

Mr. Khan, is Nisar Ali Khan, a senior official in the religious, conservative paraty, the Pakistan Muslim League-N. The PML-N is the minority party in the parliamentary coalition that has powered the effort to get rid of Musharraf. I think it's a good sign that despite Bush's reactionary policy of sticking by Musharraf for the last 10 months, the PML-N isn't bashing the U.S., and in fact, sounded a positive note.

Bush actually met with Pakistan's prime minister a few weeks ago in Washington, Yousaf Raza Gillani, who leads the majority party in the coalition, the Pakistan People's Party. Despite the coalition, the liberal PPP are bitter rivals with the PML-N. In that context, Khan's upbeat quote says to me that the PML-N are grown ups and recognize that the political game is on, and they want to be in the mix and build a relationship with the U.S.

Let's not blow it. There is an opportunity here. The media has been beating the war drum on Pakistan, but this proves we've got better options.

Indeed, the more important snippet from today's article was this:

Mr. Sherpao represents a parliamentary constituency in the North West Frontier Province on the edge of the tribal area where the Taliban are winning control in village after village with little opposition from the military or government forces.

After consulting “with every friend” in his area “not a single person was in favor of Musharraf,” Mr. Sherpao said.

“With one voice they said: ‘This is the time you have to be with the democratic forces.’“

I cannot stress enough how this renewed push for democracy in Pakistan, which has blossomed in the last year, represents a viable, popular antidote to the Taliban and Qaeda who are (symbolically and literally) banished away in the hinterlands. While Al Qaeda and the Taliban plot in their tree house, let's work with the majority of the country who want democracy not sharia.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Best Offense...

The NYT filed this scary report today:

Al Qaeda’s success in forging close ties to Pakistani militant groups has given it an increasingly secure haven in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan, the American government’s senior terrorism analyst said Tuesday.

Al Qaeda is more capable of attacking inside the United States than it was last year, and its cadre of senior leaders has recruited and trained “dozens” of militants capable of blending into Western society to carry out attacks, the analyst said.

The news is not surprising—the NYT has made the threat in Western Pakistan its top Middle East story for months now. And while this report seems to confirm what they've been writing, that Al Qaeda has reestablished a credible threat to the United States in the hinterlands of Pakistan, I stand by the series of posts I've put up here lately that the best strategy for dealing with the Qeada threat is defense.

There are four plays to this defensive strategy:

1) Support the emerging democratically elected, parliamentary coalition in Islamabad.

2) Continue spook work to monitor Qaeda plots—which will be easier if the terrorism analyst is right and Al Qaeda goes operable in the U.S. According to my military source, PEQ-2A: "If AQ 'goes western' with their operatives, then they have also unwittingly opened the door for us to penetrate the organization and destroy it from within. While you could easily argue that having western looking operatives allows them to blend in better with 'us' — that conduit works both ways. Once we have penetrated the organization—then it's through. Potentially, this is the mistake we have been waiting for them to make."

3) Keep a military presence in Afghanistan that draws Qaeda out into battles on Afghani turf.

4) Do targeted strikes against Qaeda and Taliban sites in Western Pakistan when the opportunities come up.

These are all wise alternatives to destabilizing Pakistan with a full-on offensive—an option that is likely to sink the emerging government and feed Qaeda's M.O. Qaeda wants the U.S. to fight on their turf and their terms. Yawn.

Lebanon's Radicals? Not Hezbollah

One of the earliest posts on this blog was a profile of the radical Lebanese Sunni group, Fatah al-Islam.

(I occasionally profile people and groups who seem to be underrated players in the weird Middle East equation.)

Fatah al-Islam is noteworthy because they are a militant challenge to both the Westernish governing faction and Hezbollah, the powerful opposition party.

In June, I wrote:

Today's news that Fatah al-Islam took credit for a deadly bomb blast that killed a government troop in Northern Lebanon last week (Al Jazeera has the story) is a scary reminder about this newish and hot-headed militant faction. While Hezbollah, the Shiite militants backed by Iran and Syria, has everybody tweaked out, it's actually Fatah al-Islam that's willing to upset the urgent political compromise that cooled sectarian violence and political tensions in Lebanon last month. (Hezbollah, in fact, is invested in the political truce.)

According to this breaking report, Fatah al-Islam appears to have struck again this afternoon:

The Tripoli bombing was the deadliest single attack in Lebanon in more than three years. It left a scene of carnage at rush hour in this northern city’s crowded commercial center, at a bus stop where Army soldiers were known to catch buses to their posts farther south every morning.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but some Lebanese political figures said they believed the bombing may have been revenge for the Army’s role in Nahr al Bared, the Palestinian refugee camp. The Islamist group that fought the Army there, Fatah al Islam, has claimed several small attacks on soldiers since then, including one that killed a soldier near Tripoli on May 31.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Post-Misstep Policy: Pakistan

There's some big (and good) news out of Pakistan today: The leader of the Pakistan People's Party, Asif Ali Zardari, and the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, Nawaz Sharif, emerged from days of backroom meetings and held a press conference announcing their joint call to impeach intransigent Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

It's not so much that getting rid of Musharraf is good news (which it is, but it's also inevitable and obvious and overdue). It's that the joint announcement repairs the parliamentary coalition that, in my opinion is the obvious—although, apparently invisible to media pundits and NATO generals and U.S. Presidential candidates—solution to the Al Qaeda/Taliban "crisis" in Pakistan.

The liberal PPP is the majority party in the parliamentary coalition elected in February. (Yousaf Raza Gillani, who just visited the U.S. and played into the NYT "crisis" storyline, is the PPP Prime Minister. Zardari is the more powerful PPP chairman).

Sharif's conservative, religious PML-N is the minority partner in the parliamentary coalition.

Sharif's PML-N was starting to call the shots and gain steam as the more popular party this summer and spring when they got behind the popular lawyer's movement to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry. President Musharraf had ousted Chaudry along with several other Supreme Court judges last November, after Justice Chaudry called Musharraf's Presidency illegal. Both the PPP and the PML-N had pledged to reinstate the judges when they formed their coalition after the Feburary elections, but Zardari's PPP backed away from the pledge. (The PPP, former leader Benazir Bhutto's party, is Westernish and is wary of alienating the Bush administration, which has strongly and block-headedly backed Musharraf.)

Also: Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, feared the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry because Chaudry was/is likely to go after Zardari on previous corruption charges.

However, the main issue is Musharraf. The PPP/PML-N coalition had also promised to get rid of him. (Reinstating Chaudry was seen as the way to get rid of Musharraf.) By calling directly for Musharraf's impeachment today, Zardari has sidestepped the Chaudry issue for now and has put his party back in sync with popular opinion.

With the dissident PML-N having a monopoly on the populist anti-Musharraf movement, the status quo government was losing legitimacy and further destabilizing Pakistan. The PML-N had left the governing coaltion back in May over the Chaudry issue. With the PML-N leaving the governing coalition and gaining steam as popular agitators, Pakistan's fragile democracy was at risk. And certainly, the PPP's legitimacy was at risk. Aitzaz Ashan, the popular leader of "the Lawyers' Movement"—the movement to reinstate Chaudry and other anti-Musharaff Supreme Court judges—is a prominent PPP member who was starting to become more aligned with the PML-N thanks to the PML-N's correct reading of the crisis: Sharif joined Ashan and the Lawyers' Movement out in the streets in June. Zardari did not.

The PPP's decision today could reverse their missteps. This is good news. Zardari's sense to shore up the coalition by biting the bullet and getting on the right side of history and going after Musharraf is a boon for stability and democracy—which is the antidote to the reemergence of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Western Pakistan that's fueling so much war-beat media coverage in the U.S. and causing so much hand wringing for NATO. Let's hope the U.S. reverses its missteps and has the sense to get on the right side of history now as well.

With a working, popular parliamentary coalition, the ability for the U.S. to maneuver and make bold decisions about confronting Qaeda in Western Pakistan along the Afghani border becomes easier. The bold decision? Cool it with all the war talk and get behind the PPP/PML-N coalition and help build democracy in Pakistan. And watch Al Qaeda recede further and further into the hills, metaphorically and literally.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Staight Out of Tehran

Given the subtitle of this blog—the prize lyric from "Rock the Casbah," the Clash's prescient takedown of militant Islam and its revolution fake out—I must alert everyone to this.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Fighting to Go Mainstream

Today's Stratfor report summarizes the drama along the Afghan-Pakistani border—and the apparent conundrum for the US: The increasing power of the Taliban in Pakistan's western no-man's land is pressing the US to take more serious military action, but:

The jihadists are actually hoping for large-scale U.S. military activity on Pakistani soil because they desperately want to broaden the scope of their insurgency from one currently being waged by a religious ideological minority to one of a nationalistic flavor bringing in participation from more mainstream cross-sections of Pakistan.

"Ideological minority" is right.

Far from being a conundrum, Stratfor's read on things actually highlights why chest-forward Americans (including Obama liberals who want to go into Pakistan as a way to right Bush's blunder in Iraq) are way off base when they haul out the "Pakistan 2008=Afghanistan 2001" analogy.

In 2001, when Al Qaeda had its pretty set up in Afghanistan, Afghanistan was actually under the Taliban's control. Pakistan, while definitely a bit of a mess, has a secular-liberal party with a majority in parliament (parliament!), a mainstream conservative religious party in the minority, and streets flooded with activists rallying around the country's well-established secular legal system.

Basically, there are democratic institutions (and an engaged population) in play in Pakistan that Americans can support. Doing so will isolate and unplug the losers in the hinterlands.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hezbollah Changes its Mission Statement. No One Notices.

Ever since Hezbollah's military "victory" against Israel in 2006, the media has been hyping their ascendancy.

I've always disagreed with the widespread assessment that 2006 was a military victory for Hezbollah. It's true that Israel didn't vanquish Hezbollah (kind of an unrealistic expectation), but look at the map on the ground after the war: Hezbollah no longer occupies southern Lebanon. And that was, in fact, Israel's goal with that invasion. The U.N. cease fire also mandated that Hezbollah disarm. So far, Hezbollah has been able to skirt the mandate to disarm, but it increasingly dogs them as they engage politically in Lebanon.

Indeed, much more important, Hezbollah's ascendancy has actually brought them into the political mainstream.

And stop the presses: They don't seem to have an interest in going toe to toe with Israel anymore. (Hmmm... I wonder why. Could it have anything to do with this?)

Check out this (garbled) passage in today's NYT story. Despite the NYT's off-topic aside—"Sheik Nasrallah [Hezbollah's leader] did not sound concerned"—the report actually says that Hezbollah supports a peace deal with Israel (a complete reversal of anything they've ever said) and they're willing to negotiate disarming.

The NYT writes:

If Israel’s goal of the release was to begin to strip away the issues that Hezbollah uses to justify keeping its weapons — as some political analysts in the region speculated — Sheik Nasrallah did not sound concerned. After leaving the stage, in remarks broadcast to the audience, he said that he would be willing to accept a diplomatic solution to the remaining land disputes with Israel — and with Lebanese factions that are opposed to Hezbollah keeping its weapons.

It seems to me like that revelation warrants a little more attention.

Monday, July 14, 2008

We Win

I keep arguing that containment and bolstering the economy (not invading) is the way to beat Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan.

The quote of the morning from this NYT article is the proof that I'm right:

They were denied cellphones, the most valued possession among the Taliban.

What's their favorite brand? Nokia? T-Mobile? HP?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Re: Al Qaeda in Yenemsvelt.

A former CIA agent agrees with me and writes an opinion piece in today's Washington Post.

He concludes:

The threat from Islamic terrorism is no larger now than it was before Sept. 11, 2001. Islamic societies the world over are in turmoil and will continue for years to produce small numbers of dedicated killers, whom we must stop. U.S. and allied intelligence do a good job at that; these efforts, however, will never succeed in neutralizing every terrorist, everywhere.

Why are these views so starkly at odds with what the Bush administration has said since the beginning of the "Global War on Terror"? This administration has heard what it has wished to hear, pressured the intelligence community to verify preconceptions, undermined or sidetracked opposing voices, and both instituted and been victim of procedures that guaranteed that the slightest terrorist threat reporting would receive disproportionate weight -- thereby comforting the administration's preconceptions and policy inclinations.

We must not delude ourselves about the nature of the terrorist threat to our country. We must not take fright at the specter our leaders have exaggerated. In fact, we must see jihadists for the small, lethal, disjointed and miserable opponents that they are.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Al Qaeda in Yenemsvelt

The NYT continues its drumbeat for action against Pakistan: With a smidgen of breaking news (the latest word from the DOD) they published this today.

American military and intelligence officials say there has been an increase in recent months in the number of foreign fighters who have traveled to Pakistan’s tribal areas to join with militants there.

The flow may reflect a change that is making Pakistan, not Iraq, the preferred destination for some Sunni extremists from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia who are seeking to take up arms against the West, these officials say.

The American officials say the influx, which could be in the dozens but could also be higher, shows a further strengthening of the position of the forces of Al Qaeda in the tribal areas, increasingly seen as an important base of support for the Taliban, whose forces in Afghanistan have become more aggressive in their campaign against American-led troops.

I understand that the idea of an Al Qaeda haven is startling and conjures up images of Afghanistan circa 2000, AKA: A launching pad for another September 11. But this fear mongering is stirring up calls for an irrational, expensive, useless, and self-defeating mission: Bashing Qaeda in Western Pakistan.

Containment is the smarter policy.

Here's why: Before September 11 we were not on the alert domestically. And so, Bin Laden got lucky. Qaeda may be operating in Western Pakistan right now, but—given our stepped up surveillance and Homeland security measures—I'm not convinced a base in the mountains of Pakistan translates into another 9/11 (or even any sort of Qaeda victory. It's certainly not comparable to the Viet Cong taking Saigon.)

Our policy should be a stalwart defense: 1) Hold the line in Afghanistan (forcing Qaeda and the Taliban to launch attacks into Afghanistan, which pisses off the Afghanis) while strengthening the Karzai government in Kabul, and 2) Keep the radicals isolated in Western Pakistan while strengthening the Democratic government in Islamabad—the coalition between the recently elected Pakistan People's Party and Pakistan Muslim League-N.

The radicals in Western Pakistan want to draw the U.S. in to a full-fledged war there. It will give them a cause. And the fight will be on their terms. The U.S. should not take the bait. The U.S. should focus on what's important: Building up democratic governments and real economies in Pakistan and Afghanistan that engage the public. This strategy will have the added bonus of delegitimizing the radicals who will up their (counterproductive) campaigns of violence.

The radicals in Pakistan also have a major problem: Their game plan relies on recruits from the Saudi Peninsula. This is not a coherent nationalist movement for Pakistan. This is a "movement" with a weird worldwide agenda. The only thing that would help legitimize their fantasy would be if their ranks were seen as rushing in to defend the Islamic world against the U.S. But if the U.S. is helping bring stability to Pakistan and Afghanistan—countries where the public is already intimidated by and weary from the radicals violent operations—the Qaeda troops will remain isolated in the mountains.

There's a metaphor in the fact that Qaeda operates in the hinterlands of Western Pakistan rather than out of Islamabad. The U.S. should concentrate on turning this metaphor into a fact.

Footnote. And apparently the bogeyman in today's NYT article, Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, isn't as popular among the radicals as the NYT spins it. Check out this recent post, "Pakistan's tribal militants turn against each other," from Foreign Policy magazine's blog.

Update: This Newsweek article—which argues the Al Qaeda is not the great Existential threat the GOP wants it to be (to justify Bush's aggression) and the Left wants it to be (to prove Bush has failed)—seconds what I just wrote about going for a more comprehensive strategy of supporting democracy than itching for combat.

It's worth quoting at length:

It is by now overwhelmingly clear that Al Qaeda and its philosophy are not the worldwide leviathan that they were once portrayed to be. Both have been losing support over the last seven years. The terrorist organization's ability to plan large-scale operations has crumbled, their funding streams are smaller and more closely tracked. Of course, small groups of people can still cause great havoc, but is this movement an "existential threat" to the United States or the Western world? No, because it is fundamentally weak. Al Qaeda and its ilk comprise a few thousand jihadists, with no country as a base, almost no territory and limited funds. Most crucially, they lack an ideology that has mass appeal. They are fighting not just America but the vast majority of the Muslim world. In fact, they are fighting modernity itself.

The evidence supporting this view of the threat was already growing by 2003. Scholars like Benjamin Friedman, Marc Sageman and John Mueller collected much of it. I've been making a similar case in columns and a book since 2004. James Fallows wrote a fine cover essay in The Atlantic in September 2006 arguing that if there was ever a war against militant Islam, it was now over and the latter had lost.

These writings never really changed the debate because they fell into a political vacuum. The right wanted to argue that we lived in scary times and that this justified the aggressive unilateralism of George W. Bush. And the left was wedded to the idea that Bush had screwed everything up and created a frighteningly dangerous world in which the ranks of jihadists had grown. But these days, the director of the CIA himself has testified that Al Qaeda is on the ropes. The journalist Peter Bergen, who in 2007 wrote a cover essay in The New Republic titled "The Return of Al Qaeda," recently wrote another cover essay, "The Unraveling," about the group's decline. The neoconservative Weekly Standard finally recognizes that "the enemy," as it likes to say ominously, is much weaker now, but quickly notes that Bush deserves all the credit. Terrorism is down in virtually every country, including ones that took a much less militaristic approach to the struggle. (Ironically, the two countries where terrorism persists and in some cases has grown as a threat are Iraq and Afghanistan.)

The administration does deserve some credit for its counterterrorism activities. The combined efforts of most governments since 9/11—busting cells in Europe and Asia, tracking money, hunting down jihadist groups—have been extremely effective. But how you see the world determines how you will respond, and the administration has greatly inflated the threat, casting it as an existential and imminent danger. As a result, we've massively overreacted. Bush and his circle have conceived of the problem as military and urgent when it's more of a long-term political and cultural problem. The massive expansion of the military budget, the unilateral rush to war in Iraq, the creation of the cumbersome Department of Homeland Security, the new restrictions on visas and travel can all be chalked up to this sense that we are at war. No cost-benefit analysis has been done. John Mueller points out that in response to a total of five deaths from anthrax, the U.S. government has spent $5 billion on new security procedures.

Of course, this is actually what Osama bin Laden hoped for. Despite his current weakness, he has always been an extremely shrewd strategist. In explaining the goal of the 9/11 attacks, he pointed out that they inflicted about $500 billion worth of damage to the American economy and yet cost only $500,000. He was describing an LTA, a leveraged terrorist attack. But by the same token, the 9/11 attacks caused an economic swoon because of their scope, and because they were the first of their kind. Since then, each successive terrorist attack—in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, Britain—has had a much smaller effect on the world economy.

We are in a struggle against Islamic extremism, but it is more like the cold war than a hot war—a long, mostly peacetime challenge in which a leader must be willing to use military power but also know when not to do so. Perhaps the wisest American president during the cold war was Dwight Eisenhower, and his greatest virtues were those of balance, judgment and restraint. He knew we were in a contest with the Soviet Union, but—at a time when the rest of the country was vastly inflating the threat—he put it in considerable perspective. Eisenhower refused to follow the French into Vietnam or support the British at Suez.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Turkey's Loopy Liberal Set

The secularists in Turkey don't get it. They're trying to get rid of the conservative government (this time apparently, with a coup!) because Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his parliamentary majority tried to overturn a law barring women from wearing the hijab on campus.

The secularists see this as an affront to Turkey's constitutional mandate for separation of Church and State—and I get that they feel threatened by the conservatives—but Turkey's liberal set completely misunderstands the idea of separation of Church and State: It doesn't mean the state can prohibit individuals from following the rules of their religion. It means the state can't force people to follow the rules of someone else's religion (or any religion).

It's supposed to work like this: Public institutions like schools, banks, legislatures, the police, the army, and hospitals cannot endorse or promote a religion, nor discriminate based on religion. This means, for example, a public school cannot make women wear the hijab, but it also means it cannot stop a woman from wearing a hijab.

Take a current example of how Separation of Church and State works in the U.S. If my girlfriend needs Plan B, the state can't force her to go without Plan B because someone else's religious views frown on Plan B. They could, however, find a way to accommodate an Islamic pharmacist from personally filling the prescription by assuring another pharmacist is on duty who will fill the scrip.

The liberals in Turkey are being crazy.

The most important line in this morning's story about the securlarists' coup plot, though, is this: "Erdogan's party, formed in 2001 by politicians who once belonged to Turkey's Islamic movement, denies it has an Islamic agenda, noting that it has backed reforms to help Turkey start EU membership negotiations." (emphasis, mine.)

Economics is the bottom line. If Turkey joins the EU—and economic liberalism has always been a part of Erdogan's agenda—the secular class in Turkey has nothing to fear from the otherwise self-righteous Islamists.

The Republican People's Party (the liberal opposition) should focus on the ballot box instead of coups and convoluted court rulings. They should hone their message—bashing the conservatives as reactionaries and sexists all they want—and win an election.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

All Battles are Confusing

Courtesy of An American Pessoptomist comes this scary story about war crimes that may have been committed by Somali and Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia.

And in the American version of Somalia, these are the good guys?

No wonder the radicals on the other side have traction.

What's Next?

The New York Times is rolling out a series of lengthy stories about the reemergence of Al Qaeda. In the last two days they've documented Qaeda's strength in Pakistan and Algeria.

The stories have an obvious for-the-history-books agenda about them: The NYT wants to mark the end of the Bush era with documentation of President Bush's ultimate failure—Al Qaeda is alive and well.

In addition to all of Bush's other failures, this one is intended to be the most embarrassing for the outgoing president: His only remaining plus is supposedly his tough-guy Republican schtick, but it looks like he's even botched that one too.

Sure liberals hate him for illegal wiretapping (what a bunch of nudge-y sticklers we are about the Constitution), but now the case is being made that Bush isn't even good at GOP type stuff like beating up on the bad guys.

The problem is: In their need to mark Bush as a monumental failure, the NYT is coupling this parting shot indictment with a de facto prescription for the next president (most likely Barack Obama). These fear mongering-stories are hot with a war agenda.

I understand that liberals are getting off on being stronger patriots than Bush, but the chest-thumping seems like a simple-minded way to kick off the Obama era. (I think Obama's talent is that he knows how to lower the temperature.)

I wish the The NYT would also file some editorials on Al Qaeda to provide some direction to the coverage, which otherwise seems like straight up saber rattling.

Let's cool it on the Qaeda fetishism and let Obama fully break with Bush. Figuring out a way to get out of Iraq and into Pakistan would be a smart change, but I'm not sure it would be a fundamental change.

It's time to reevaluate our priorities. Qaeda sure seems like one, but—despite the title of this blog— I'm beginning to wonder if militants boxed into the netherlands of Western Pakistan and the hills of Algeria should be our #1 concern.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

FYI, the Reason the Doha Agreement is Failing in Lebanon...


is because Hezbollah didn't get everything it wanted.

Yes, as was widely reported in late May, after a week of street fighting where Hezbollah routed pro-government militias: Hezbollah scored big in the cease fire talks in Doha.

Despite being a minority in the proposed governing coalition with the majority March 14 Coalition, Hezbollah won veto power over cabinet decisions and got the government to back off the demand that Hezbollah dismantle its independent telecom system.

However, something else happened after Doha: The new governing coalition re-appointed the Sunni March 14th-Coalition's pick for prime minister, Fouad Siniora. (Hezbollah boycotted the governing coalition 18 months ago when Siniora was appointed the first time by the majority March 14th Coalition. The Hezbollah boycott is what eventually what led to the street fighting.)

Hezbollah's aspirations for power are at odds with the political facts on the ground, which demands compromise and coalition.

The fighting will continue.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Correct Afghan Analogy: 2002 not '89.

Al Qaeda wants to set up a pre-fab Afghan War in Pakistan, and the U.S. just might go in. As the NYT reports, NATO was drawn in and returned fire this afternoon.

By "Afghan War," Al Qaeda means the Soviet/Afghan War of the 1980s.

By "pre-fab," I mean that a U.S. shoot out with the Islamist fighters in the mountains of Western Pakistan might look and feel like the Soviet standoff with the Mujahideen in the 1980s, but the comparison would be dumb.

Yes, the Afghan Mujahideen was a religious army, but at its root, the movement was a nationalist fight against an illegitimate government, not a holy war without a nationalist base. Indeed, bin Laden's "Afghan" template for defeating the U.S. in Pakistan is ill-conceived for two reasons: 1) His edited version of what went down in Afghanistan in the 1980s—where he commanded what was known at the time as "The Brigade of the Ridiculous"—is off base to begin with and 2) the current situation in Pakistan doesn't line up with the situation that actually existed in Afghanistan in the '80s either.

Bin Laden made the same mistake about Afghanistan after 9/11 when he predicted—conjuring up images of the Soviet defeat— that a U.S. invasion there would destroy the U.S. rather than doing what it actually did: topple the Taliban and send Al Qaeda into retreat in Pakistan. Obviously, the U.S. has botched things since, but that has more to do with subsequent policy by the Bush Administration—shifting the fight to Iraq (?), effectively baling on Karzai— than with any equation on the ground that naturally favored Al Qaeda.

Unlike the Afghan Mujahideen of the 1980s (who defined the nationalist uprising), the radical Islamists in the Western region of Pakistan are far removed from the political action currently redefining Pakistan. The movement, which seems poised to oust the Musharaff government today, stars mainstream political parties, all with bases of popular support—the conservative PML-N, the liberal PPP, and the lawyers movement.

For example, Aitzaz Ashan, the leader of the lawyers movement —which sent hundreds of thousands to the streets in peaceful protests earlier this month— is, in fact, a member of the left-leaning PPP.

Translating the current situation into a fight against an American (or NATO) invasion of Western Pakistan seems several steps removed from the action. (Although, there is some wiggle room for smoke and mirrors by the Islamists because the blockheaded U.S. still supports Musharaff.)

If the U.S. wasn't in Iraq, I would support calling Al Qaeda on its bluff and pulling off another "Afghanistan." And by "Afghanistan," I mean the U.S. victory there in 2002 (not the Soviet fiasco in the '80s)—because that's the template that actually fits the facts on the ground.

Indeed, another thing Bin Laden's "Afghanistan" fantasy leaves out: Lots of U.S. money and missiles helped drive the Soviets out in the 1980s.