Saturday, December 20, 2014

Is a Pakistani Turnaround Possible?

Because it is Pakistan, my first thought about the school attack was cui bono? Did the Pakistani military engineer this to gain world sympathy, particularly as the US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan and hence no longer needs Pakistan (and can thus deepen the growing alliance with India.)

Pakistan is a lush garden for conspiratorial thinking and it begins to rub off on those who study the place. More than a few Pakistani commentators have insisted RAW (India's intelligence agency) or some other outside power must be behind this. The reasoning being that Muslims cannot kill Muslims (spurious since across the world we see exactly that happening constantly.)

But, as the Egyptian polymath Tarek Heggy observes, in a statement all too appropriate to Pakistan:
The undemocratic rule contributes with his ideas, statements, and information media to consecrating the belief in the conspiracy theory, which is a useful fig-leaf behind which he can hide his won shortcomings and failures, in that it allows him to blame the problems and hardships faced by his people, and his inability to respond to their aspirations, on outside elements rather than on the real reason… conspiracy theory renders them [the people] defeatists and advocates of the line of least resistance, which is to bemoan their lot as parties conspired against...
Conspiracy is unlikely. The attack was on an army school, indicating the army itself is vulnerable. That would be a bridge too far for the brass of Rawalpindi.

That the Pakistani Taliban would carry out such an attack indicates that the military's offensive may be working - although these things are hard to know with any certainty. It is probably true that the Pakistani Army is causing mass casualties where it is fighting in the FATA, shelling, bombing and yes killing large numbers of civilians. That of course does not justify terrorism.

This has echoes of the Beslan attack in Russia. I for one have little sympathy for The Russian government across the board (I am grateful every day that my great grandparents had the sense to get the hell out of that place and come to the United States of America!!!) and they did terrible things in Chechnya. But Russian parents are like parents everywhere and one hates to see them lose their children. So I have great, great sympathy for the parents who lost children - AND the people of Pakistan in general.

Is this the event that will galvanize Pakistan to root out the deep deep cancer of terrorism?

It’s awfully pretty to think so. But there have been plenty of other mass attacks in the past decade, if they did not inspire the country to get its act together, it is difficult to see what would. (I’m not alone in my pessimism.)

In fairness to the Pakistani military, the mountains of FATA have been harboring outlaws since the dawn of civilization. But that is where sympathy for Pakistan’s rulers ends. They have continually fostered Islamist terrorists as proxies in their endless war with India and their desire to undermine any kind of effective government in Afghanistan.

Further, Pakistan has continually chosen to devote its national wealth to the military in order to challenge India. The military dominates Pakistan’s politics, allowing them to grow wealthy on the eternal war with India, although in fairness Pakistan's civilian elites aren't much better. This has systematically robbed the other critical needs of the nation. While news reports often focus on madrassas educating radical cadres, Pakistan’s public education system is no better. It is also underfunded, leading to high levels of illiteracy. Critical infrastructure such as the water and electrical systems are steadily decaying - endangering agricultural and industry. Pakistan is already a poor country, and the prospects for any kind of turn-around are dim.

While FATA is the center of a Pashtun insurgency, Karachi, Pakistan’s main port, largest city, and economic engine, is riddled with crime and violence. There are also regular massacres of Pakistan’s Shia minority by large well-armed gangs/political parties.

In the past Pakistan had an impressive Westernized elite. There continue to be a deep bench of Pakistani technocrats. But the very social fabric is challenged by Pakistan’s Orwellian blasphemy laws in which any criticism of Islam can bring criminal charges. Once the accusation is made, the accused (well before any trial) risks being murdered by vigilantes. This is terrible for Pakistan’s small non-Muslim minorities. But it will soon begin to shape discourse in all sectors and chill any dissent or discussion outside of very narrow and radical bounds.

I have every sympathy for the people of Pakistan. Unfortunately, without better leaders and a dramatic shift in national purpose - which would require political courage and wisdom of the highest order - I don't see what can truly better their lot and free them from the endemic violence and poverty in which they are mired.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Angling Havana: Reverberations in Tehran, Miami and Beyond

Big news one the Cuba front - I'm not really a LatAm specialist (I've dabbled), but this one has a lot of angles. I wrote a short piece for Discors, which is posted below, but it primarily focuses on the U.S. domestic politics angle. So first a few observations on the international affairs side.

Iran Angle
One of the big issues in negotiating with Iran is that they don't believe the U.S. is capable of making a deal. Opposition in Congress etc. will torpedo any agreement made with Washington, and leave Iran in a weaker position. This allows Iranian hardliners who oppose any deal with the U.S. to shrug off any progress made in negotiations.

However, by quickly doing a 180 on US-Cuba relations, the president is demonstrating that he can make things happen - if the other side will play ball. The Iranians should take note, the president can make a deal, U.S. policy can change. But it won't if they aren't ready to deal.

(There is definitely evidence that they are all hard-liners who are just playing us. That's another issue. I still believe the U.S. should negotiate in good faith. That way, if/when negotiations fail, the U.S. is in a stronger position to garner international support for further sanctions and - if necessary - militayr action.)

National Security
My good friend BJ Tucker, an insightful analyst who has followed Cuba carefully, notes that without a superpower patron, Cuba is not a major strategic problem. However, they punch well above their weight in penetrating U.S. intelligence. In his own post on Discors he wrote:
Cuba may be a small nation with limited convention military power and a minuscule economy, but it compensates rather skillfully for these shortcomings by aggressively engaging in espionage against its larger neighbor to the north. In fact, Cuba ranks in the top five among nations that aggressively target the U.S. 
Beyond the Myers and Montes cases, Cuba has worked with Iran in cyber-espionage related activities, and most recently hosted Russian signals intercept vessels. Cuba is also known to provide intelligence collected on the U.S. to third parties. 
The totality of these cases requires the U.S. to dedicate substantial resources to counter these activities – resources that could be employed elsewhere against larger foes. A normalization of relations will not stop Cuba from collecting on the U.S. However it will slowly change target prioritization and veracity of Havana's collection efforts.
As a guy who studies national security decision-making, it is important to note how issues - even small ones - can clog up the process and devour high-level time and energy. Short-term, Cuba will take up a lot of time as the relationship is reorganized. But long-term this will free important resources both at the working levels in the bureaucracy and at the top levels of the National Security Council.

Also, U.S. policy towards Cuba has long been an irritant throughout Latin America. A minor Cold War holdover that got in the way of doing business. With this removed, the U.S. may be better positioned to cooperate throughout the hemisphere. Also, Latin America generally feels ignored or bullied by Washington (and with some reason). Undertaking a major initiative in which the U.S. changes its policy will be a generally positive step.

Cheap Oil
Mexico may be collateral damage of cheap oil - Cuba may be a gift horse. Cheap oil leaves Venezuela struggling and will little extra cash to throw Havana's way. This loss of a patron, may have left Havana far more willing to talk seriously with the U.S.

Cheap oil is going to have a range of complex effects, some good, some ill. The longer it goes, the more comples the impact.

Domestic Politics in Cuba & the US
Finally, there are the questions of how this will affect Cuba and the U.S. For that, here is my post in Discors:

First and foremost, it is wonderful that Alan Gross is home, free, and re-united with his family. There are many terrible things happening all over the world. But one tragedy is over. 
The strategic implications of a new relationship with Cuba are not enormous. Still, it will remove and ongoing irritant in U.S. relations with Latin America and a distraction from more serious national security concerns. Castro and company remain thuggish kleptocrats, but this will be an important test case for the power of an open economy to transform an autocracy. Hopefully the lot of the Cuban people will improve. 
The implications for domestic policy in the United States are interesting. President Barack Obama could certainly use a win, and this is precisely the sort of game-changer that presidents are uniquely capable of creating. Future presidents will undoubtedly appreciate that this annoying Cold War holdover no longer crosses their desk. 
But the new relationship with Cuba may cast a shadow on 2016. The diehards of Miami’s Little Havana will never forgive any Democratic nominee for opening up to Cuba. But imagine Clinton vs. Bush, with Miami's Little Havana as a key battleground? Shades of 2000? How did Cuba become such a central player in our political clan warfare? Will history repeat itself, this time as a farce?