In the Arena

Cavedwellers Upset

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The Washington Post says that Al Qaeda is boggled by Barack Obama.

The New York Times says the Pakistani government is boggled by the Taliban. This is a far more concrete and disturbing story, with tremendous downside potential. It seems clear that the Pakistani Taliban–and we should begin distinguishing these guys, as best we can, from the Afghan Taliban–are having a fair amount of success moving out from the Northwest Frontier Province into more mainstream Pakistani areas. And it seems equally clear that the Pakistani Army is either unwilling or unable to fight them. My guess is more the latter than the former. The Pakistanis have trained for a big-bang war with India and have no idea how to conduct low-intensity conflicts:

From 2,000 to 4,000 Taliban fighters now roam the Swat Valley, according to interviews with a half-dozen senior Pakistani government, military and political officials involved in the fight. By contrast, the Pakistani military has four brigades with 12,000 to 15,000 men in Swat, officials say.

But the soldiers largely stay inside their camps, unwilling to patrol or exert any large presence that might provoke — or discourage — the militants, Swat residents and political leaders say. The military also has not raided a small village that locals say is widely known as the Taliban’s headquarters in Swat…

When the army does act, its near-total lack of preparedness to fight a counterinsurgency reveals itself. Its usual tactic is to lob artillery shells into a general area, and the results have seemed to hurt civilians more than the militants, residents say.

It seems obvious that one thing the U.S. could offer the Pakistani Army is training in counterinsurgency tactics. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to condition U.S. military aid to Pakistan–which should be targeted for the Taliban war–on Pakistan’s willingness to have its troops trained by U.S. advisers. I know, I know: for people of a certain age, the term “U.S. advisers” summons forth the early days in Vietnam, where the term camouflaged a slow-motion invasion and marked the beginnings of the quagmire. That problem can be mitigated by having the training take place away from the war zones (even in the United States for some of the more promising Pakistani officers).

On the other hand, the situation in Pakistan is far more consequential than Vietnam or Iraq (or the possibility than Iran may build a bomb). We’re talking about a country with a nuclear arsenal. The Taliban are 100 miles away from it. This is as serious a foreign policy crisis as we have.

Update: Commenter Cliff asks why we should distinguish between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Answer: because the Pakistanis do. They have begun to see the indigenous Talibs as a real threat to their government…at the same time, though, their army and intelligence agency maintain the hope that they can keep the Afghan Taliban as a destabilizing force in their neighbor to the north. The proof of this that Mullah Omar and his leadership group operate openly in the Pakistani city of Quetta. By the way, it’s interesting that there have been no U.S. Predator strikes in Quetta, even though it is the home base for many of the Taliban commanders who have been running the war against the NATO forces in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. This leads me to believe–contra the public complaints–that the Pakistani government is complicit in the Predator strikes against Al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban operatives in Waziristan.