Friday, December 04, 2009

How the war looks from Afghanistan and Pakistan - Some vignettes from Trudy Rubin

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Middle East columnist, Trudy Rubin, recently came back from two weeks in Afghanistan and a week in Pakistan. On Wednesday (December 2), she and Steven Metz of the Army War College were on NPR's Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane to talk about AfPak prospects and dilemmas in the wake of Obama's West Point speech. (You can listen to the discussion here.)

To be honest, I didn't think Steven Metz had much to contribute that was particularly interesting, illuminating, or thought-provoking. With Trudy Rubin, as usual, it was a different matter. In listening to her reflective overview of the situation, I was especially struck by these two bits.

=> About Afghanistan:
What you hear from Afghans--and I talked to a lot of elders, I met with shuras from the east, which is along the border--and I think the bottom line [is] ... you hear something that's very similar to what I used to hear a lot in Iraq.

It isn't that the Afghans hate Americans or think that they're the Soviets. After all the Soviets killed a million people and napalmed the country. They hate that, the Soviets, and they hate the British--I'm not exaggerating very much.

With the Americans it's confusion. They assume the Americans could defeat the Taliban if they wanted, because they defeated them so quickly in 2001. So they can't figure out what the Americans are doing there.

They would not object to a temporary presence, if it were achieving something. So what you hear a lot now is: All right, we don't mind more Americans for a short time, if they deliver something. But what we really want is for all Afghans to sit down together, in a jirga--meaning the Taliban, too--and work out a peace settlement. That is what you hear a lot. They want a peace settlement, which Karzai has talked about.

Unfortunately, the US military believes, and I think they're correct, that in a situation where the Taliban think they're winning, you're not going to have a peace settlement with the big-T Taliban leaders, because they think they can get the whole thing without it. So one critical element is, if you change the momentum, might it increase the possibility of some kind of negotiations where big Taliban leaders would really break with Al Qaeda, or at least one of them or some of their major commanders might?
=> About Pakistan:
In Afghanistan, I think the attitude is what I said: They don't understand why we can't do more. And so the attitude is, show us.

In Pakistan, on the other hand, conspiracy theories are rife. [ ....] The United States is totally unpopular in Pakistan. And the conspiracy theories are astonishing. You know, basically, educated Pakistanis think that we are behind Al Qaeda, or that we are behind suicide bombers, or that we are behind the Taliban. It's quite amazing ... and so it's very hard to break through that.
=> By the way, Rubin is far from the first visitor to be startled by the extent to which these delusional tendencies seem to pervade political discourse in Pakistan. Listening to her account, I was reminded of some remarkably similar observations earlier this year by Anatol Lieven, whose perspective often tends to be pretty different from Rubin's:
In a way, however, you really have to know only one fact to understand what is happening: and that, to judge by my meetings with hundreds of Pakistanis from all walks of life over the past nine months, is that the vast majority of people believe that the 9/11 attacks were not an act of terrorism by al-Qaeda, but a plot by the Bush Administration or Israel to provide an excuse to invade Afghanistan and dominate the Muslim world.

It goes without saying that this belief is a piece of malignant cretinism, based on a farrago of invented “evidence” and hopelessly warped reasoning, but that is not the point. The point is that most of the Pakistani population genuinely believe it, even here in Sindh where I have been travelling for the past week; and the people who believe it include the communities from which the army's soldiers, NCOs and junior officers are drawn. Understand this, and much else falls into place.
I guess it does.

--Jeff Weintraub

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