For the past few years, a low level theme that occasionally pops into my news feed is the idea of greater Sino-Pakistani cooperation. Now this has a certain amount of realpolitik sense to it. The United States and Pakistan are not exactly on the best of terms, China is a rising power, they share a comon interest in containing India, yadda, yadda yadda. As a result, there has been the occasional press story about closer ties, which begets the inevitable U.S.-based blog posts about China expanding its "string of pearls" strategy of more deepwater ports in the Asia/Pacific region.
There's just one thing. The more closely one reads these stories, the less clear it is that China wants a string of pearls. Most of these stories talk about great Pakistani enthusiasm for more Chinese involvement. That enthusiasm is not really reciprocated by China, however. Consider Jane Perlez's New York Times story from October 2011:
A rising China with global ambitions is unlikely to supplant the United States in Pakistan, according to Chinese experts on Pakistan, as well as Pakistani and American officials. And while Pakistan’s latest flirtations with Beijing have been received cordially, Pakistani officials have walked away from their junkets with far less in hand than they might have hoped....
China’s core interests lie elsewhere — in its competition with the United States and in East Asia, experts say. China has shown little interest in propping up the troubled Pakistani economy, consistently passing up opportunities to do so.
Despite China playing it cool, Pakistan has continued to fall all over itself to attract greater Chinese engagement in their country. Which leads us to today's headline in the New York Times: "Chinese Firm will Run Strategic Pakistani Port." Sounds ominous for U.S. interests... until one reads Declan Walsh's actual story:
Pakistan is handing management control of a strategic but commercially troubled deep-sea port to a Chinese company, the information minister confirmed Thursday....
The fate of Gwadar, once billed as Pakistan’s answer to the bustling port city of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has been a focus of speculation about China’s military and economic ambitions in South Asia for the past decade. Some American strategists have described it as the westernmost link in the “string of pearls,” a line of China-friendly ports stretching from mainland China to the Persian Gulf, that could ultimately ease expansion by the Chinese Navy in the region. Gwadar is close to the Strait of Hormuz, an important oil-shipping lane.
But other analysts note that Gwadar is many years from reaching its potential, and they suggest that fears of creeping Chinese influence might be overblown. “There may be a strategic dimension to this, where the Chinese want to mark their presence in an important part of the world,” said Hasan Karrar, an assistant professor of Asian history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, referring to the management transfer at Gwadar. “But I wouldn’t go so far as saying this implies a military projection in the region.”....
Pakistan has failed to build the port or transportation infrastructure needed to develop the port, the property bubble has burst and, according to the port management Web site, the last ship to dock there arrived in November. “The government never built the infrastructure that the port needed — roads, rail or storage depots,” said Khurram Husain, a freelance business journalist. “Why would any shipping company come to the port if it has no service to offer?”
According to reports in the Pakistani news media, the Port of Singapore Authority sought to withdraw from the management contract after the Pakistani government failed to hand over land needed to develop the facility. (emphasis added)
This greater Chinese involvement, it should be noted, also comes after Beijing rebuffed Pakistani requests to turn Gwadar into a naval base.
So, to sum up: despite Pakistan prostrating itself before China, Beijing has been extremely leery of getting too enmeshed in that country. It has rejected repeated requests for military basing, and only now has a commercial Chinese company agreed to manage a port that appears to be the Pakistani exemplar of "white elephant."
So please, no "strong of pearls" posts from the national security blogosphere today. These pearls are about as fake as you can get.
Am I missing anything?
As a group, foreign policy analysts and international relations theorists tend to focus on how large, impersonal factors affect the contours of world politics. We're like this for two reasons: a) Large-scale factors -- like, say, demographics -- really are pretty important; and b) We get allergic reactions to media narratives that stress the ways in which one person or one decision made all the difference.
Because of this trait, an event like bin Laden's death has lead to an orgy of blog posts and essays pointing out that not much has changed. Charli Carpenter's first response was to ccharacterize it as "a single operation in a vast and endless war, that apparently will have no impact on our foreign policy." Daveed Gartenstein-Ross recounts the myriad ways in which Al Qaeda still matters in a post-Osama world. Neither Nate Silver nor David Weigel thinks that the effect on Barack Obama's political popularity will be that great. Ben Smith points out that conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this, just like they have a field day with everything else.
So, let me go against my instinct to agree with all of the above points and suggest why bin Laden's demise really is, in the words of the VPOTUS -- a big f***ing deal:
1) Pakistan. You can slice this any way you want, the brute fact is that bin Laden was living in the Pakistani equivalent of Annapolis -- a posh resort town that happens to house a lot of Pakistani retired generals, not to mention their main miltary academy. This doesn't look good for Pakistan, as their continued silence suggests. As he promised in his campaign, Obama violated Pakistan's sovereignty, sent in special forces, took out bin Laden, and did it all without consulting the Pakistanis about it. So not only does the Pakistani leadership look incompetent, they also look impotent.
I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that anything that destabilizes Pakistan is a BFD -- and the way this played out destabilizes the country.
2) The United States just re-shaped the narrative. International relations scholars assume that most actors in world politics care about some combination of power, wealth and prestige. The U.S. killing of bin Laden strengthens American prestige and weakens Al Qaeda's. According to reports, Bin Laden used
his wife a woman as a human shield to protect himself during the firefight, which will tarnish his legacy, even to AQ operatives. Perceptions matter, and this symbolic victory for the United States will affect perceptions of American power.
Of course, all it takes for for the debt ceiling not to be raised and this'll disappear, but still...
3) The United States has increased its bargaining leverage in the Af-Pak region. As both Matthew Yglesias and Ross Douthat suggest, the death of bin Laden is one of those symbolic moments during which U.S. policy in the region might be re-evaluated. There are reasons to believe that this blow is actually going to sting for Al Qaeda.
It's at this moment when a president might have more credibility in bargaining with either Afghanistan or Pakistan. A large-scare withdrawal is now politically feasible in ways that it wasn't 24 hours ago -- and anti-war members of Congress are already getting frisky about it. They also have the American public on their side.
If the administration is smart, they will use this pressure to withdraw to start actually withdrawing, or at least pressure Afghan and Pakistani officials into acting in a somewhaqt more cooperative manner.
4) Al Qaeda won't be able to exploit the Arab Spring. Al Qaeda had already whiffed badly in handling the Arab unrerst of 2011, and bin Laden's popularity in the region had been falling as of late. That said, think of bin Laden (in this way and only this way) as like Sarah Palin -- someone who had declining poll numbers but a still-very-rabid base of support. It's not obvious that this support will transfer to any other jihadist.
Al Qaeda's remnants and affiliates might be able to operationally exploit the regimes changes in the region -- but they've lost whatever slim reeed they had at a political presence.
5) It's a social science bonanza!!! Terrorism experts should be positively giddy about this development. Bin Laden's death is a great "natural experiment" to see whether Al Qaeda is as decentralized and resilient as some experts claim. The AP reports that, "U.S. forces searched the compound and flew away with documents, hard drives and DVDs that could provide valuable intelligence about al-Qaida." I, for one, hope that bin Laden's location in Abbotabad means that he was more of a central node than analysts expected.
Readers are welcomed to proffer their own explanations for why this is a big f***ing deal in the comments.
I was going to title this post, "Osama bin Laden, R.I.P." but the thing is , I really don't want him to rest in peace.
He's definitely dead, however. I'll write a longer blog post about the implications of this tomorrow, but for now, commenters should post their own thoughts about this in the comments. For now, three quick points:
1) If what Obama said is correct, then I'm genuinely impressed at the fact that operational security was so well preserved;
2) Everything I've read about Al qaeda suggests that bin Laden's role on the operational side was pretty limited, but this is still, to use the words of Vice President Joseph Biden, a big f***ing deal.
3) Peter Bergen said on CNN that bin Laden's death is "the end of the War on Terror." Do you think he's right? I'd like to think so, but my worry is that the politics of this gives some politicians a very strong incentive to ratchet up this threat. So... is it really over?
What do you think?
As Ian Bremmer announced over at The Call, Eurasia Group recently released their top risks for 2011. Coming at no. 7 is the U.S. political system: "In 2011, headline risk will be driven by both parties loudly promoting priorities for which there is no path forward."
It's telling that political risk assessments need to be used for the United States, but not surprising. The U.S. political system does not always work terribly well.
The events of the past week would appear to expand that sentiment to U.S. political culture, however, which is several cognitive leaps too far. For example, Gideon Rachman compares the murder of a Punjabi governor in Pakistan to the attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords:
Events in both Pakistan and America suggest what happens when you not only disagree with your political opponents - but when you demonise them as enemies of the faith or the nation. At that point, some may conclude that it is legitimate to end the argument with bullets.
Sigh… let's all take a few deep breaths, shall we?
Let's turn to Lexington's response to Rachman:
Well yes, America could become like Pakistan if people concluded that it was legitimate to settle arguments with bullets. But in America, where guns are plentiful and political and religious feelings intense, the telling thing is that almost no one at all considers political violence to be legitimate. The killings have been met with universal condemnation by ordinary Americans and the whole political class. The violent act of one probably deranged individual doesn't show that America is heading down the same road as Pakistan. And the response to it suggests that the political cultures of the two countries are fundamentally different.
Indeed, seen in historical context, Adam Serwer points out that the United States' political culture has trended away from violence:
Political violence in the United States has never been more illegitimate. There was a time when a member of Congress could walk into the Senate and beat a political rival senseless and walk away unmolested. The South was once a place of unrestrained terrorist violence conducted with the tacit approval of local authorities. Even when those authorities were brave or responsible enough to press charges, securing guilty verdicts would be difficult because of a local culture willing to accept crimes committed in service to white supremacy. We live in a time where no major political movement would be willing to openly justify such behavior.
This is why, in the aftermath of the incident, both the left and right began placing the blame on the other side.
Finally, we get to James Pethokoukis:
[P]olitical violence has been rare in the United States in recent years. That's despite the disputed 2000 presidential election, the unpopular Iraq war and the election of the first black president. Indeed, the World Bank ranks America above the UK when it comes to "political stability and absence of violence." And the U.S. rank has actually been on the rise in recent years.
There's going to be a rollicking debate about whether political vitriol contributes to political violence. Fine. But let's put things in perspective -- extremist rhetoric or not, this kind of thing is blessedly rare in the American polity.
Answer: they both pretty much put me to sleep.
Call me shallow, call me jaded, call me cynical, but there's not that much there there in either effort. Day 1 of the Top Secret story was the most informative of the bunch, no doubt -- but even that story was frustratingly short on detail. Day 2 and Day 3 were worse, in that they didn't tell me anything I already know. Day 2 of Top Secret America told me that outsourcing to private contractors is bad, bad, bad, and very expensive. Day 3 was kind of like your local news teasers: "Are NSA employees living RIGHT NEXT DOOR TO YOU?!" If you live in the vicinity of BWI, it turns out the answer is, "yes, but it's not a big deal." Again... yawn.
If Top Secret America actually prompts hearings/reform efforts, then yay, dead tree journalism. Otherwise, the reveal was far less than the hype.
As for Wikileaks, Blake Hounshell and Andrew Exum sum up my feelings on the matter. So it turns out that the war in Afghanistan is not going well and Pakistan is playing a double game? Well, knock me down with a feather!!
In essence, neither story provides much in the way of new information -- they merely serve as news pegs through which intractable policy issues can be debated anew. If those debates prove fruitful, that's great -- but during a summer in which I've seen the Stupidest Topics Ever become cable show fodder, I ain't getting my hopes up.
This might be my own subfield prejudice at work. Every once in a while someone from security studies tells me that international political economy is really, really boring and that they can't understand how I could find it interesting. I think today is one of those days in which I would tell them the same thing.
Am I missing anything? Seriously, anything?
Reuters' Inal Ersan reports on a shocking announcement from Al Qaeda:
If it were in a position to do so, Al Qaeda would use Pakistan's nuclear weapons in its fight against the United States, a top leader of the group said in remarks aired Sunday....
"God willing, the nuclear weapons will not fall into the hands of the Americans and the mujahideen would take them and use them against the Americans," Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the leader of al Qaeda's in Afghanistan, said in an interview with Al Jazeera television.
Well, blow me down!! I had no idea that this would have been their intent! It's a good thing Al Qaeda clarified their policy on nuclear weapons, because there had been some ambiguity on the matter. I, for one, am also unclear about Al Qaeda's position on Israel, or whether they think Adam Lambert got jobbed in American Idol.
Seriously, there was one interesting wrinkle in the interview:
The militant leader said al Qaeda would be willing to accept a truce of about 10 years' duration with the United States if Washington agreed to withdraw its troops from Muslim countries and stopped backing Israel and the pro-Western governments of Muslim nations.
I'm not saying the United States should take Al Qaeda up on the bargain, but I do find it interesting that they occasionally float bargains like this out there.
There is a lot of talk about in Pakistan media that American think tanks have issued a map about dividing Pakistan. I have read some where that you were on that team. If you have made such a report can you kindly send me a copy of that report and map, I ll also like to know about the research mathodolgy of that report. If I am wrong about that can you kindly give me any whereabouts from where I can get that report.Based on press reports, I suspect that this query was about the Pakistan Policy Working Group, which did release a report in September about Pakistan. I have no idea why it took three months for this to permeate the English-language Pakistani press. Anyway, for the record, I was not a part of that report. Indeed, the only way I would ever be a part of a report on Pakistan is if a crackerjack terrorist group managed to knock off the plethora of economists, political scientists, and sociologists who actually know something about Pakistan. That is all.
[Q] …Should we be talking to the Taliban? I don’t mean you. [BO] You know, I think that this is one useful lesson that is applicable from Iraq. The Great Awakening, the Sunni Awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally. It could not have occurred unless there were some contacts and intermediaries to peel off those who are tribal leaders, regional leaders, Sunni nationalists, from a more radical Messianic brand of insurgency. Well whether there are those same opportunities in Afghanistan I think should be explored.Now, what's interesting about this is that Jane Perlez and Jane Zubair Shah have a fascinating piece in the New York Times on Pakistani efforts to trigger this kind of tribal awakening in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier:
The tribal militias, known as lashkars, have quickly become a crucial tool of Pakistan’s strategy in the tribal belt, where the army has been fighting the Taliban for more than two months in what army generals acknowledge is a tougher and more protracted slog than they anticipated. And, indeed, the lashkars’ early efforts have been far from promising. As the strength of the militants in the tribal areas grows, and as the war across the border in Afghanistan worsens, the Pakistanis are casting about for new tactics. The emergence of the lashkars is a sign of the tribesmen’s rising frustration with the ruthlessness of the Taliban, but also of their traditional desire to run their own affairs and keep the Pakistani Army at bay, Pakistani officers and law enforcement officials say. Some in Washington have pointed to the emergence of the lashkars as a hopeful parallel to the largely successful Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq, which drew on tribes’ frustration with militant jihadis to build an alliance with American troops that helped lessen violence in Iraq. But there are significant differences, a senior American government official acknowledged. In Anbar Province, he said, the Iraqi tribes “woke up to millions of dollars in government assistance, and the support of the Third Infantry division.” But the support by the Pakistani Army and civilian government for the tribal militias has been “episodic” and so far “unsustained,” he said. In addition, tribal structures in Pakistan have been weakened in recent years by the Taliban, unlike the situation in Iraq. The tribesmen, armed with antiquated weaponry from the 1980s Afghan war, are facing better equipped, highly motivated Taliban who have intimidated and crushed some of the militia.... Even in the best of times, there are basic unwritten rules about the tribal militia in Pakistan that limit their impact. The Pakistani military, for example, can lend moral support but not initiate a tribal militia, the generals said. The lashkars come with their own weapons, food, and ammunition. They have their own fixed area of responsibility, and are not permanent. Indeed great care is taken to make sure the lashkars do not become a threat to the military itself. “We do not want a lashkar to become an offensive force,” said one of the generals, who spoke frankly about the lashkars on condition of anonymity. For that reason, the military was willing to lend fire support artillery and helicopters but would not give the militias heavy weapons, he said.Here's a question that should be asked of both John McCain and Barack Obama -- should the United States be providing direct support to these lashkars as a way to squeeze the Taliban?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.