December 8, 2008 – Zbigniew Brzezinski likes to call the part of South Asia that includes the “border” between Afghanistan and Pakistan and related areas the “new Balkans,” which is an apt metaphor given the intense ethnic, religious, nationalist and proto-nationalist rivalries of the region that have already drawn in the major powers. Like everything else of consequence in the world, George W. Bush ignored this volatile zone in favor of his misguided unilateral action to remake the Middle East in the image of West Texas. With the recent attacks on luxury hotels in Mumbai, Americans are now getting a crash course on the India-Pakistan dispute in Kashmir, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and an obscure Islamic fundamentalist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has been fighting in Indian-occupied Kashmir since 1989, but can trace its origins, like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, back to the U.S.-supported anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan of the 1980s.
After the spectacular Mumbai attacks, the Indian minister in charge of security, Shivraj Patil, had the decency to resign his post in disgrace instead of serving up lies and spin like National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice did following 9-11. Bush believed that his “national security” adviser, after bumbling the biggest breach of the nation’s security in modern history, deserved to be promoted to Secretary of State. I doubt the Indian government will be giving Mr. Patil a promotion any time soon.
A handful of the Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters who assaulted tourist sites in Mumbai might have gotten training from the ISI, but I bet it was freelancers from one of the many global franchises that plotted and carried out the operation. There’s plenty of hate to go around and plenty of spin-off groups capable of such an attack. If Pakistan really wanted to use ISI to hit India it has far more lethal means at its disposal. Bush’s “coercive diplomacy,” which made the “War on Terror” the central organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, has been not only an epic failure but has strained the stability of Pakistan. Bush’s insistence on using drones for targeted assassinations inside Pakistan is stirring up trouble. At this point, in his final forty-two days in office, I guess we are lucky that Bush hasn’t attacked Iran and brought on an even wider war in the region.
But what of Bush’s other failures in Southwest Asia?
Let me count the ways.
Despite the fact that India never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Bush granted the Indian government special privileges in its relations with the U.S. nuclear industry, in effect, rewarding India for stockpiling atomic bombs. Bush also pressed the U.S.-backed President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, to forge stronger ties with India, which fueled unnecessary tensions and provided the context for the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul last July.
Bush gave the now de-throwned Pakistani dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, $10 billion in arms to help the Americans fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Musharraf diverted a lot of these military resources away from Pakistan’s Taliban-dominated western border and toward the east to bolster the permanent face off against India and Indian-controlled Kashmir. Bush supported Musharraf long after his political shelf life among Pakistan’s 160 million people had expired. By the time Musharraf resigned last August he had alienated large swaths of Pakistan’s moderates and pro-democracy elements, most notably those associated with the judiciary and the legal community. Bush never pushed for any diplomatic “peace process” in Kashmir to relieve the tensions between India and Pakistan, even while selling both nations arms. Bush made demands on Musharraf as if he were a school child and treated Pakistan like a banana republic instead of a nuclear power.
Every time the U.S. military or intelligence agencies kill Pakistani citizens, regardless of the context or justification, the U.S. loses “hearts and minds” inside Pakistan’s volatile political mix. American drones attacking wedding parties and towns inside Pakistan have fueled anti-American sentiment and made it more difficult for pro-U.S. moderates in Pakistan to maintain political support. Bush was far too willing to throw money and arms at the ISI and align U.S. interests with warlords in Afghanistan, even with their ties to fighters in Kashmir, including Lashkar-e-Taiba. He made the Taliban more popular by killing scores of innocent civilians and violating Pakistan’s sovereignty.
At the same time, Bush insisted on threatening Iran with military attack, saying “all options are on the table,” and denounced Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Iran’s cooperation in fighting the Taliban quickly dried up. Hence, he isolated Iran and cut-off diplomatic possibilities at the very moment the United States needed Iran’s assistance the most, not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq. Bringing Iran into the mix and “triangulating” against Afghanistan’s militants could have taken some of the pressure off Pakistan.
And let’s not forget that Bush’s military occupation of Afghanistan has somehow led to an enormous increase in opium poppy growing. Opium production has ballooned from about 60 tons when the Taliban controlled Kabul to over 4,000 tons today. The hard cash from this bumper crop of heroin provides the Taliban and Al Qaeda with lavish financing at a time when American intelligence officials claim they are trying to close down sources of funding for these organizations. This increase in opium production, and the American tolerance of it, is most likely connected to the tapestry of shadowy groups and Afghan warlords with which the U.S. has aligned in an effort to buy loyalty to the Karzai government. There is also evidence that elements within Karzai’s regime are deeply involved in the opium trade.
Bush’s aggressive and haphazard military actions in Afghanistan have now spilled over in the form of car bombings and suicide attacks in Peshawar, Pakistan. The violence threatens to destabilize parts of Pakistan where Islamic fundamentalists have strong influence. In short, Bush’s policies directed at Southwest Asia have been disastrous, and because of the nuclear component, even more dangerous than his failed policies in the Middle East.
A new report from the Project on Defense Alternatives calls for a dramatic shift in the diplomatic and strategic posture of U.S. foreign policy. “Despite initial successes in Afghanistan and Iraq,” the report’s executive summary states, “an over-reliance on military instruments has weakened America’s armed forces, unsettled its alliances, spurred anti-Americanism, and prompted balancing behavior on the part of China and Russia. Global terrorist activity has increased, not decreased. And there is no real end in sight for U.S. commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, instability is spreading to other countries and so are U.S. military operations.” The report goes on to outline the way out: “An alternative security policy would emphasize broad multilateral cooperation in containing and resolving crises, reducing conflict potentials, and redressing the sources of instability in the international system. And, it would recognize that the sources of instability today are not principally military, political, or ideological in character, but instead economic, demographic, and environmental.”
With hope, President-Elect Barack Obama will listen to the wisdom of the Project on Defense Alternatives’ December 2008 report. Carrying on even a semblance of the Bush policies in Southwest Asia and the Middle East should not be an option. From what I caught Obama saying yesterday morning on Meet the Press, I think he understands the new path we must follow. Although I disagree with sending more troops to Afghanistan and attacking targets inside Pakistan, I think we should give the new president the needed flexibility to begin the arduous process of cleaning up the horrific mess in Southwest Asia that George W. Bush is passing on to him.