Thinking Aloud: “America’s Invisible Wars,” Part I

April 15, 2016 by Darius 

I recently saw a panel discussion at the CATO Institute (I know, outside my normal range!) on “America’s Invisible Wars.”  The discussion focused on some of America’s lesser-known on-going interventions: Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  The panelists who presented on each of these three countries were all excellent.  Over the next few days, I’ll share their comments.  Today’s post will be the remarks of Moeed Yusuf of the US Institute of Peace, who discussed Pakistan.

The “invisible war” the US has conducted in Pakistan has stood out from the other invisible wars because it is entirely a product of US policy towards a separate country: Afghanistan.  Because its involvement in Pakistan has been overshadowed by its involvement in Afghanistan, the US has never psychologically seen itself as being at war in Pakistan.  At the same time, US counterterrorism policy in Pakistan is driven by a mistrust of the aims of the Pakistani government.  According to Yusuf, this mistrust is not just a matter of misunderstanding but instead reflects Machiavellian politics and a very real divergence of interests between the US and Pakistan.  However, American options vis-a-vis Pakistan are constrained by Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal: the US dares not push Pakistan too hard for fear that it collapses entirely, destabilizing its nuclear weapons.  Yusuf described the entire US-Pakistan relationship with the line, “We all know this is a bad marriage, but divorce is too expensive to try.”

Yusuf proceeded to briefly narrate US-Pakistani terror policy.  According to Yusuf, Pakistan’s prior military ruler and president, Pervez Musharraf, was very reluctant to send Pakistani troops into Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions to fight militant groups.  Although Musharraf eventually succumbed to US pressure and did so, the US and Pakistan drew very different conclusions from the fighting in the tribal regions.  The US thought Pakistan was too soft on the militant groups, whereas Pakistan concluded the entire venture was a costly mistake.

As a result of these diverging conclusions, the US decided that it could not trust Pakistan and needed to act on its own to protect US interests in Afghanistan, whether Pakistan liked it or not.  This policy manifested itself with some drone strikes and raids such as the one that killed Osama bin Laden.  Yusuf said there was originally an understanding between the US and Pakistan on US drones strikes within Pakistan, but that understanding fell apart at some point.

According to Yusuf, it is Pakistan, not the US, that has blocked transparency regarding the US’s “invisible war” in Pakistan.  The Pakistani government avoids transparency because the US is so unpopular in Pakistan that the Pakistani government fears a massive popular backlash if the scope of its cooperation with the US were to be revealed.  Instead, the Pakistani government opted for a policy of “public rebuke, private partnership,” at least until around 2011, when the entire relationship fell apart.  According to Yusuf, the Pakistani government’s refusal to allow greater transparency effectively killed the US’s campaign to win hearts and minds in Pakistan.  However, Yusuf believes that it is far too late for a paradigm shift in relations with Pakistan and that at this point transparency would do more harm than good.

Yusuf said that American and Pakistani divergence of interests does not stem from Afghanistan or the Taliban.  Instead, it comes from Pakistan’s obsession with India: Pakistan is disrupting the US in Afghanistan in an attempt to punish the US for getting closer to India.  Yusuf said there is no way the US can reconcile with Pakistan while keeping its relations with India; yet because of India’s sheer size and economy, US officials have decided (rightly so, in Yusuf’s mind) that India is much more important.  Yusuf felt that the US will not be able to achieve a solution in Afghanistan without solving the wider India-Pakistan problem.  (Good luck with that.)

Yusuf said that the insurgency in Pakistan against the Pakistani government was the result of years of bad policies by the Pakistani government but that the trigger for the insurgency was external—in this case, the 9/11 attacks.  Because 9/11 was so sudden, though, both the US and Pakistan were caught without a strategy in place.  They acted anyway.

According to Yusuf, all of the US’s counterterrorism campaign in Pakistan, including drones, was no more than a Band-Aid.  Instead, the US’s real attempt at a solution was to throw money at the problem, in the form of vast amounts of aid to the Pakistani government, much of which went straight to the military.  Unfortunately, as Yusuf noted, kinetic force and throwing money at the problem are completely ineffective in South Asia.

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