The Death of Optimism

by Joshua Foust on 2/19/2010 · 3 comments

The Washington Post captures the Mullah Baradar zeitgeist:

The capture of senior Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan represents the culmination of months of pressure by the Obama administration on Pakistan’s powerful security forces to side with the United States as its troops wage war in Afghanistan, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.

Indeed, it forms the basis for Spencer Ackerman’s declaration of qapla—that because the Obama administration has adopted a “positive sum” approach to counter-terrorism, Pakistan has now jumped on board.

But then read the New York Times.

New details of the raid indicate that the arrest of the No. 2 Taliban leader was not necessarily the result of a new determination by Pakistan to go after the Taliban, or a bid to improve its strategic position in the region. Rather, it may be something more prosaic: “a lucky accident,” as one American official called it. “No one knew what they were getting,” he said.

Huh. That story, filed from Washington, is kind of the opposite of what the Post reported from Karachi. The Times quote at least one official who says he doesn’t see any evidence of a major strategic shift in Pakistan. Furthering this claim is the bizarre artifact that the Pakistanis apparently don’t realize they’ve captured Baradar. So was this a “rogue” element of the Pakistani security services that has yet to brief everyone else about what they did? We don’t know.

But in one major way this makes sense: after all, Pakistan is behaving as it always does when it captures these senior figures by denying him to the Americans. So it’s possible all my initial optimism was unwarranted.

But what of the other high profile captures? Can they tell us much about whether Pakistan has strategically shifted toward the U.S. or not? Unfortunately, the picture with these other guys is even more muddled than with Baradar (and than I initially thought). The BBC summarizes this pretty well:

On Wednesday, Newsweek magazine reported that Mullah Abdul Salam had been arrested in Faisalabad city in Punjab province.

But Mr Omar told Reuters news agency on Thursday that both Mullah Abdul Salam and Mullah Mohammad Mir had been arrested in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province.

The New York Times says the two leaders were picked up from the town of Akora Khattak in the North West Frontier Province, the location of a major seminary, Darul Uloom Haqqania, where many senior Taliban leaders have studied.

So, if we were to map the possible area in which Mullah Abdul Salam was captured, we have…

… pretty much all of Pakistan. The Pakistani government’s inability to discuss any of these captures in any consistent or meaningful way should be raising flags to all the people who think these arrests represent a sea change within Pakistan. David Kenner lists some more reasons to stay wary, as well—starting with the Haqqani Network (which we’ve mentioned before) and continuing to Lashkar-e-Taiba and Pakistan’s continued sponsorship of anti-Indian terrorism.

Those are all strong points, and should be an antidote to the triumphalism infecting the Pakistan discussion these days.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Toryalay Shirzay February 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Pakistan’s behavior can be better explained by the large number of nuclear weapons it has accumulated vis-a-vis Saudi Arabian and American patronage.Check the article in Scientific American ,Jan.2010 where Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are discussed.All this nuclear power make the Pakistani establishment quite emboldened to pursue their objective of keeping Afghanistan under their control and eventual takeover of Kashmir by proxy and making India fear Pakistan in perpetuity .Pakis feel they can accomplish all this because India will not risk a nuclear war on those limited objectives mentioned above and the US wont be able to do a damn thing about it except minor pushing and shoving here and there.

Jason W-S February 19, 2010 at 2:38 pm

There will come a time when nuclear weapons will lose the ability to be a long term strategic deterrent. Does Iran fear US retaliation? Does North Korea? Does Pakistan really think that even India will be neutered by a nuclear Pakistan? As occurred when nuclear weapons were pioneered in the 40’s of the last century, the United States will do the heavy lifting on alternatives and protections against nuclear arsenals, while they establish the next, most pre-eminent and effective military solution–un-manned drones.

While the Pakistani occasionally and publicly denounce the use of drones, they secretly salivate at the relationship and possible purchasing opportunities these drones provide. Given the number of operations, the gain of equipment for the advancement of their own drone program will advance. As a PR weapon, a nameless, faceless drone, can’t be captured and made to announce embarrassing things on the internet or TV broadcast. A drone has a connotation of lacking human motive or convictions. The pilot of these drones and his chain of command are insulated, faceless and far from the target, despite the shortness of the trigger. No, Pakistan’s nuclear advancement is inconsequential in this time period. Their access to drones and gradual, “publicly begrudged” support for drone attacks, is the real story. It is like the advent of modern warfare during the American Civil War, and those who fail to notice it before the next major conflicts erupt, fail to see that traditional weaponry is rapidly becoming obsolete.

RM February 19, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Drones are to aircraft what tanks were to the horsed cavalry.

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