Friday, May 22, 2009

Coffee & Counter-Insurgency: Analyzing the anti-Starbucks Jihad

The invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute recently posted a video from al-Nas TV in Egypt. A cleric named Safwat Higazi calls for a boycott against Starbucks because the Starbucks logo is Queen Esther (the heroine of Purim, a Jewish holiday celebrating a foiled plot to murder the Jews of ancient Persia.)

Higazi is not alone, another Egyptian cleric on another channel, citing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion cites detergents, soft drinks, as well as several chain fast food restaurants (including Little Ceasars along with Starbucks) as being Jewish-Zionist products that are part of a plot “to erase Islamic identity.”

This is, of course, like so much in the Arab media, simply ridiculous – feverish conspiracy theories intended to distract from a squalid reality. Hopefully recent Islamist calls to boycott Starbucks will not lead to violence. But the anti-Starbucks campaign has historic resonance and speaks to the root of frustrations in the greater Middle East.

Mocha vs. Java
Bernard Lewis’ The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years begins by describing a typical coffee shop in the Middle East. He writes:
In outward appearance this Middle Eastern café patron does not look very different from a similar figure sitting in a café in Europe… He will look very different from his predecessors in the same place fifty years ago, still more a hundred years ago. That of course is also true of the European sitting in his café, but the two cases are far from being the same. The changes that have taken place in the appearance, the demeanor, the garb, the behavior of the European during that time are almost entirely of European origin…. In the Middle East, on the other hand, the changes, for the most part, originated from outside, from societies and cultures profoundly alien to the indigenous traditions of the Middle Easterner.
Lewis then goes on to describe how virtually everything in the coffee-shop is of Western origin, from the newspaper read by the patron to the clothes he wears, to the furniture he sits on, is of Western origin. Trousers, newspapers, radios, and cigarettes – all items readily found in a Middle Eastern café – are innovations introduced from the West. But to understand the profound extent of these changes, consider that coffee was originally exported to Europe from the Middle East. The term mocha comes from al-Mukha a Red Sea port in Yemen that was a major center of the coffee trade. For a time in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, coffee was the key to prosperity, after the western powers mastered ocean routes to the Far East – undermining Middle Eastern dominance of the spice trade. But this did not last, Lewis writes:
By the end of the eighteenth century, when a Turk or Arab drank a cup of coffee, both the coffee and the sugar had been grown in European colonies and imported by Europeans. Only the hot water was of local provenance. During the nineteenth century, even that became doubtful, as European companies developed the new utilities in Middle Eastern cities.
Lewis’ book is about far more than the history of coffee in the Middle East. But coffee is an apt symbol of how Middle Easterners have been overwhelmed by the West and hopelessly buffeted by its overpowering military, economic, and cultural strength. Conspiracy theories flourish in that environment. 9/11 (and to some extent terrorism in general) is a product of this feeling of helplessness. Western military powers can bomb the Middle East at will. 9/11 was a response.

New Narrative Needed
None of the above is to justify terrorism. But the conflict with radical Islam is a global insurgency and in an insurgency the critical battlespace is hearts and minds. David KilCullen, in his landmark article Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency gives a ground level view of what is required – but it is worth considering and extrapolating to a global scale.
Since counterinsurgency is a competition to mobilize popular support, it pays to know how people are mobilized. In most societies there are opinion-makers: local leaders, pillars of the community, religious figures, media personalities, and others who set trends and influence public perceptions. This influence, including the pernicious influence of the insurgents, often takes the form of a —single narrative“: a simple, unifying, easily-expressed story or explanation that organizes people‘s experience and provides a framework for understanding events. Nationalist and ethnic historical myths, or sectarian creeds, provide such a narrative. The Iraqi insurgents have one, as do al-Qa‘ida and the Taliban. To undercut their influence you must exploit an alternative narrative: or better yet, tap into an existing narrative that excludes the insurgents. …you might use a nationalist narrative to marginalize foreign fighters in your area, or a narrative of national redemption to undermine former regime elements that have been terrorizing the population. At the company level, you do this in baby steps, by getting to know local opinion-makers, winning their trust, learning what motivates them and building on this to find a single narrative that emphasizes the inevitability and rightness of your ultimate success. This is art, not science.
The jihad against Starbucks fits into a well established narrative. The challenge of developing a compelling alternative remains.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Implementation Matters: Bureaucracies@War

A Washington Post article on SecDef Gates’ efforts to orient the Pentagon to addressing critical needs in Iraq and Afghanistan is a fascinating depiction of the nuts and bolts of bureaucratic politics.

While historians and journalists, for obvious reasons, often focus on the big decisions, how those decisions are implemented is frequently the difference between a policy’s failure and success. The article focused on Gates’ efforts to ensure that units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan had IED resistant MRAPS and that field commander requests for Predator UAVs were met. But really, it is an example of the kinds of things people at the top need to do to ensure that policies work. Since 9/11 we’ve seen all too many examples of articulated policies that were inadequately implemented.

Background on Bureaucracies
In his seminal work Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis Graham Allison argued for multiple means of understanding a state’s behavior. The first was the classical rational actor model of a unitary state carefully calculating its political interests. While this holds true in some conditions, Allison argued that there were other factors that shaped behavior: the processes and outputs of large organizations and bureaucratic politics. Organizational outputs can shape available options and perceptions. Large organizations require standard operating procedures in order to function. But these procedures can also be constraints and may hamper an organization’s ability to adapt to rapid changes.

The bureaucratic politics model is about the bargaining between the various officials involved in a situation. Each will have their own policy preferences, stake in the issue, and ability to shape the response. The organizational process and bureaucratic politics models are often considered together. Much of the literature looks at decision-making, but in another report Allison wrote, “implementation is at least half the problem in most government decisions or actions.”

There are situations where officials in the middle of the bureaucracy who are well removed from the top resist the decision. But in many cases implementation issues are not sinister, but like a giant game of telephone a policy’s intent is unclear as it moves down the chain of command or it is being balanced against competing priorities. For a mid-level official, the President or cabinet secretary is a figure well-removed from regular operations whereas a boss, a key subordinate, or a counterpart at another agency is an immediate concern.

The point is not to decry bureaucracies – they are absolutely necessary. It is that officials at the top need three things to deal with this fundamental reality. They need the capability and will to reach into the bureaucracy and make the appropriate adjustments. But first they need the ability to identify the key points in which to intervene. A cabinet secretary or president has extremely limited time relative to the demands placed on them. They need to be judicious in the fights that they pick.

Finding Predators
The Seretary Gates determined that field commanders were not getting the number of Predator combat air patrols needed and according to the Washington Post article took an active role in remedying the situation.
Gates's team went to extreme lengths to get more hours out of the available ground control stations and pilots. The task force arranged for experienced pilots to use stations normally set aside for training to fly combat missions during off hours. Because the Predators are controlled using satellite links, pilots can operate aircraft flying in Afghanistan and Iraq from bases in the United States.

The Air Force also lost a few hours of flying time each day because Predator pilots controlling planes from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., had to make an hour-long drive into town to buy lunch, visit the bank or pick up their children from day care. Gates set aside money to build a cafeteria, child-care facilities and other amenities at Creech.
There is no villain in this story. With hundreds of thousands of employees, thousands of aircraft, hundreds of billions of dollars of expensive equipment, and thousands of facilities spread all over the world the U.S. Air Force needs standard procedures to function. The base commander in Nevada probably does not have the discretion or budget to make the changes needed on his own – and he probably would not have made his superiors happy pressing them for larger budgets to build a daycare.

None of this is to argue that the policies are necessarily wise. There is some debate over whether or not Predators are an effective counter-insurgency tool or if they create more enemies then they neutralize.

Rather, it is to re-emphasize the aphorism that the devil is in the details. In fighting complex, networked trans-national enemies it is essential that political leaders not only have strategic vision – but that they exercise a certain logistical savvy in implementing their policy. Frequently, this virtue is in short supply.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pakistan Fissures II: Ethnic Cleavages

In the Washington Post yesterday Selig Harrison, wrote an op-ed arguing that the Punjabi-Pashtun ethnic conflict underpins the rise of the Taliban. The Punjab is Pakistan’s most powerful province. Home to about half of the country’s population, the Punjab dominates Pakistan politically and is the primary source of manpower for the army. Harrison argues that Pakistan’s Pashtuns are cut off from Afghanistan’s Pashtuns and marginalized. Pashtuns are the largest single ethnicity in Afghanistan, and combined with Pakistan’s Pashtun population would dominate that country. In addition to fostering dissatisfaction among the Pashtuns, the situation creates an incentive for Pakistan to keep Afghanistan weak and off-balance – so that it is less able to foment trouble among Pakistan’s Pashtun population.

The well-informed Pakistan Policy blog takes issue with several of Harrison’s assertions and criticizes Harrisons policy prescription of incorporating the tribal FATA with the “settled” NWFP as a map re-drawing “fetish” of “old white men.”

Pashtun vs. Pashtun
The truth is probably somewhere in between. The Pashtuns have, to a great extent, allied with the Punjabis and serve in Pakistan’s armies in substantial numbers – but, at the same time, Pashtun nationalism has absolutely been a concern for Pakistani elites. The Taliban’s rise could also be understood as settled Pashtuns vs. tribal Pashtuns. This is the oasis people vs. desert people paradigm set forth by the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun over 600 years ago (this plays into the issue of feudalism raised in my previous post. Many of the settled Pashtuns of the NWFP look towards Islamabad and ally with the Punjabis, while some of the tribes of the FATA seek closer bonds with the Pashtuns on the other side of the Durand Line.

One of Many Ethnic Conflicts
While Pashtun nationalism is a potentially serious challenge to the integrity of the Pakistani state, unfortunately, it is only one of a myriad of ethnic conflicts that shape Pakistani politics.

Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest and poorest province has been in a state of on and off again insurrection, virtually since the state was founded. Baluchistan’s resources are important to Pakistan’s staggering economy and the new Chinese-built port in Gwadar has the potential to serve as a transit point serving central Asia and the Persian Gulf area. Needless to say, the Baluchis have not benefited from these projects (the Pakistani government blames the Baluchi leaders – again, see the post on feudalism in Pakistan). This conflict distracts the Pakistani military from other missions and fosters suspicions (not entirely unfounded) that the Baluchis are receiving aid from foreign powers – particularly India.

In a sense the Pashtun-Punjabi and Baluchi-Punjabi conflicts are dwarfed by the Sindhi-Punjabi conflict. The Sindh is Pakistan’s second largest province in population. Most importantly, the great city of the Sindh, the sprawling megalopolis of Karachi, is Pakistan’s primary port. Both the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Bhutto clan are Sindhi. However moves by the Pakistani government, have led the Sindhis to feel slighted by the state. A substantial amount of Sindhi land has been granted to retired army officers (primarily Punjabis) and the capital was moved from Karachi to the newly constructed city of Islamabad. At Benazir Bhutto’s funeral, crowds cried, “We don’t want Pakistan!”

Punjabi vs. everyone is not the complete extent of the ethnic divides within Pakistan. Pashtun-Baluchi relationships have not always been ideal, nor have Sindhis always had amicable relations with the Pashtuns or Baluchis. Mohajirs (descendents of Muslims who fled India when the partition occurred) dominate the city of Karachi and have fought with the Sindhis in the past and are now engaged in clashes with Pashtun immigrants to Karachi. (The multi-faceted violence that regularly roils Karachi will receive its own post.)

Implications: Hanging Together or…
None of these latent, or not so latent, conflicts mean that Pakistan is about to fall apart. First, the Pakistani army remains, by far, the dominant force in the country – none of the provinces have the capacity to defy it indefinitely. Also, it is not clear that any of the provinces would be terribly successful outside of Pakistan. Sindh would be dependent on Punjab for water and the Punjab would be dependent on the Sindh for an outlet to the sea. A Pashtunistan would be landlocked and an independent Baluchistan would be desperately poor.

Every country fears separatist movements, but for Pakistan ethnic separatism strikes at the very core of the state – which views itself as home to India’s Muslims. Worse, Pakistan has already suffered a split, when Bangladesh (originally East Pakistan) became independent after a Pakistani-Indian war in 1971. Fear of another runs very deep in Pakistani security services. That Bangladesh’s independence came due to foreign interference has fueled paranoia among Pakistan’s leadership about foreign conspiracies to dismember the state.

In this context, U.S. drone strikes are matches thrown onto gasoline.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Pakistan Fissures I: Hating the Manor-Born

The New York Times published a very important article that explained how the Taliban used class divides to take control of the Swat Valley. The lion’s share of the coverage of Pakistan seems to focus on the increasing sway of the Taliban and their ilk. All of this is unfortunately true, but Pakistan is riven with complex internal divisions that make it vulnerable to extremists. These divisions need to be properly understood if there is any hope to arresting the country’s steady slide into chaos.

According to the article, about four dozen landlords dominated Swat Valley. The Taliban organized peasant militias who then began pressuring the landlords. When the landlords fled, the peasants were rewarded with access to resources controlled by the absentee landholders.

This social divide is not unique to the Swat Valley. It prevails throughout rural Pakistan. Landlord may be a misnomer. They are more akin to feudal lords (within Pakistan they are referred to as the “feudals.”) They often control local politics, access to key resources, and even have private armies and prisons. Recent generations have acquired Western educations and can often articulate Western values and address Western concerns when speaking to that audience. Some of them may be committed to modernizing Pakistan. But the most landholders are focused on maintaining their positions and status. The Bhutto clan, which controls Pakistan’s leading political party the PPP is also one of most powerful landholding families in the country.

Nearly every study of Pakistan’s society and economy has noted the detrimental effect that the feudals have had on Pakistan’s development. Although there have been numerous attempts at land reform, the feudals have remained in power.

In 2002 Asian Development Bank’s Poverty in Pakistan: Issues, Causes and Institutional Responses stated:
Pervasive inequality in land ownership intensifies the degree of vulnerability of the poorest sections of rural society, because the effects of an unequal land distribution are not limited to control over assets. The structure of rural society, in areas where land ownership is highly unequal, tends to be strongly hierarchical, with large landowners or tribal chiefs exercising considerable control over the decisions, personal and otherwise, of people living in their area, as well as over their access to social infrastructure facilities….
The structure of society in Pakistan thus contributes significantly to perpetuating poverty in rural areas, through a combination of social, political and economic factors.
In short, Pakistan’s feudal system contributes to keeping the Pakistani people in poverty, not only through economic means but also by stymieing efforts to improve education and health. Poor water and land management has also contributed to environmental degradation, which has hurt agricultural productivity and exacerbated rural poverty. While economics is not the key generator of insurgencies and terrorism, it is hard to see how massive poverty helps. One important consequence of poverty in rural Pakistan is massive underemployment – which creates armies of potential recruits to Islamist organizations.

The Taliban are not alone in exploiting anger against the feudals. In a recent article in the Pakistani daily The News former emir of Jamat-e-Islami (roughly Pakistan’s equivalent to the Muslim Brotherhood) wrote:
The ensuing tug-of-war between the small minority of feudal [lords] and capitalists led by the colonial bureaucracy trying to replace colonists, and the vast majority of people yearning to materialize the dream of Pakistan into reality, led the country toward the state of affairs it is presently beset with.
After Bhutto was assassinated, when journalists asked then President Musharraf if he was complicit in her death, he answered, “I am not a feudal, I am not a tribal.”

The immediate focus must be on stabilizing Pakistan. But long-term if Pakistan is to cease lurching from crisis to crisis, the fundamental structural problem of disproportionate feudal influence on Pakistani politics and society must be addressed.