Dear Fareed Zakaria,
You are certainly a titan of journalism. Your CNN show, Fareed Zakaria GPS, is watched by countless worldwide, while your footprint can be found in publications such as Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, Slate, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, to name a few.
The career trajectory you’ve taken is nothing short of incredible. After leaving your home in Bombay where you were born to Rafiq Zakaria, an Islamic scholar and a politician associated with the Indian National Congress, and journalist Fatima Zakaria, a former editor at Mumbai Times and the Times of India, you eventually made your way to the US, where you graduated from Yale University, and later Harvard University. From here, you never looked back, striking one milestone after another.
Considering your reputation, I was disappointed by your 800-odd word opinion piece on The Washington Post.In ‘The key to solving the puzzle of Afghanistan is Pakistan’ you laid the entire blame of the failure of the 14-year American military campaign in Afghanistan, on Pakistan’s double dealing with the Taliban.
Your faulty cause and effect analysis was not only overly simplistic but granted far too much credit to Pakistan for Afghanistan’s problems. Yes, Pakistan carries a long list of issues, but to paint the nation as an all-powerful bogeyman dilutes the gravity of Afghanistan’s home-grown issues.
Now, before I continue, I’d like to clarify, I am not another Pakistani nationalist peeved by a journalist who still maintains strong ties with India. If anything, I find patriotism to be an entirely stupid emotion. My recent blog, which was eventually taken down, questioning Pakistan’s blind love for a national hero during a war, where they were the aggressors, was received more negatively than a teetotaling dwarf would be at a Dwarven pub in Middle Earth.
Yet even I was put off by your article.
Let’s start with when you say:
“Why, after 14 years of American military efforts, is Afghanistan still so fragile? The country has a democratically elected government widely viewed as legitimate. Poll after poll suggests that the Taliban are unpopular. The Afghan army fights fiercely and loyally. And yet, the Taliban always come back.”
It is as if you are about to start a fairy tale in which the US armed forces, along with the Afghan army and the new national government, created a utopia in Afghanistan, where unicorns fart rainbows and candy grows from trees. This was, as you say, until the Taliban, backed by the evil and jealous Pakistani neighbours, came back, leaving the heroes in turmoil.
In reality, the Taliban have been welcomed back by many Afghans due to the incompetence and corruption of their own government and law enforcement officials.
Take for example, the town of Marjah, where nearly 15,000 NATO troops alongside Afghan forces fought against the Taliban, promising the locals good governance as motivation to shun the brutal militants. Unfortunately, they did not live up to these vows. According to Associated Press, Marjah residents believe the ‘counterinsurgency experiment has failed’.
“Nearly three years after US-led forces launched the biggest operation of the war to clear insurgents, foster economic growth and set a model for the rest of Afghanistan, angry residents of Helmand province say they are too afraid to go out after dark because of marauding bands of thieves.
And during the day, they say corrupt police and government officials bully them into paying bribes. After 11 years of war, many here long for a return of the Taliban. They say that under the Taliban, who routinely punished thieves by cutting off a hand, they were at least safe from crime and corruption.
‘If you had a box of cash on your head, you could go to the farthest part of Marjah and no one would take it from you, even at night’, said Maulvi Daoud, who runs a cubbyhole sized-shop in the town of Marjah. ‘Today you bring your motorcycle in front of your shop and it will be gone. Now the situation is that you go on the road and they are standing in police and army uniform with weapons and they can take your money’.
Many claim the US-funded local police, a type of locally sanctioned militia, routinely demand bribes and threaten to accuse those who do not comply of being members of the Taliban. Good governance never came to Marjah, they say.
Daoud, the Marjah shop owner, said there was more security under the country’s Taliban regime that was ousted by the US-led invasion in late 2001.”
Reuters explains how the billions of dollars spent on fighting the Taliban are all for nothing when the new government is so corrupt. Having taken advantage of this, the militants have gained control of two out of seven districts in Kunduz, and are spreading their dark fingers fast across others.
Tell me Fareed, is Pakistan to blame for this as well?
“Sardar, a 23-year-old working in his brother’s barber shop in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz, said local officials had asked for bribes to resolve a long-running family dispute over land.
When the backhanders failed to have their desired effect, he turned to the Taliban, the austere Islamist movement that has been fighting foreign forces since it was ousted from power 13 years ago.
‘They came to our home in Chahar Darah and took two days to solve the problem’, he said.”
Huffington Posts says the Afghan government is not the saint you describe it to be:
“The Taliban has since charged that Afghan intelligence purposely gave the US the hospital’s coordinates. Even the possibility that such an accusation is true — and the duration of the sustained attack suggests that something unusual happened — points toward the reason that Afghanistan is headed back toward Taliban control: The government is thoroughly corrupt, and the US has been unwilling to take measures to address the situation. While a handful of civilian and military leaders identified corruption as an existential threat to the country, the problem remains unsolved.”
The New York Times weighs in:
“Over the past few years, faith in the government and the warlords who were allied with the government, never strong, has rapidly diminished. Militias and Afghan Local Police forces installed by the American Special Forces were largely unaccountable. They extorted protection money from farmers, and committed rapes and robberies. But because they had guns and the backing of local strongmen close to the government, people’s complaints were ignored.”
Meanwhile, the Afghan army you write in favour of is led by some commanders who are partial to sleeping with children.Bacha bazi was something the otherwise deplorable Taliban stood against, which is why so many frustrated Afghans are turning back to the militants. I am sure you’ve read the report from The New York Times on American soldiers forced to ignore Afghan commanders involved in child sex abuse.
According to The New York Times, Afghan village elders are frustrated by the freehand given to commanders involved in child sex abuse.
“The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights,” said Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain who beat up an American-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave. “But we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did — that was something village elders voiced to me.”
The Washington Post:
“Like it or not, there was better rule of law under the Taliban,” said Dee Brillenburg Wurth, a child-protection expert at the UN mission in Afghanistan, who has sought to persuade the government to address the problem. “They saw it as a sin, and they stopped a lot of it.”
National Public Radio (NPR) journalist Sarah Chayes has written a book, Thieves of State, on the matter. I suggest you should read it.
Fareed, next you say:
“The answer to this puzzle can be found in a profile of the Taliban’s new leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. It turns out that Mansour lives part time in Quetta, The New York Times reports, ‘in an enclave where he and some other Taliban leaders… have built homes’. His predecessor, Mohammad Omar, we now know, died a while ago in Karachi. And of course, we remember that Osama bin Laden lived for many years in a compound in Abbottabad. All three of these cities are in Pakistan.
We cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan without recognising that the insurgency against that government is shaped, aided and armed from across the border by one of the world’s most powerful armies. Periodically, someone inside or outside the US government points this out. Yet no one knows quite what to do, so it is swept under the carpet and policy stays the same. But this is not an incidental fact. It is fundamental, and unless it is confronted, the Taliban will never be defeated. It is an old adage that no counterinsurgency has ever succeeded when the rebels have had a haven. In this case, the rebels have a nuclear-armed sponsor.”
Strong words, with just the right amount of fear mongering thrown in.
Let’s assume this is true, and for some reason Pakistan is sponsoring the Taliban. As has been pointed out earlier, the Taliban have been gaining momentum due to the vacuum in justice felt by the Afghani people. If this is resolved, with or without Pakistan, Taliban would find it difficult to gain a foothold.
Also, in your assessment, Pakistan has been deceiving the American military for decades.
I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in Pakistan, but we aren’t as clever as you think. We are a country where scores, instead of seeking shelter, flock to the beach when there is a tidal wave warning, where the populace trusts and passionately defends a fraud who claims a car can run on water, where a popular politician and his drones only believes a free and fair election occurs when he wins.
Recently, a fraudulent multibillion dollar company called ‘Axact’ was running under Pakistani noses for years until it was busted, thanks to investigative journalism from The New York Times. Axact rose from obscurity to riches by selling fake diplomas, and no one in the government considered it odd that the Pakistani version of Microsoft wasn’t actually creating any notable software to speak of.
And you think this government has been outsmarting the US military?
More importantly, Pakistan has paid an enormous cost since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan post 9/11. The Taliban increased their presence in Pakistan after working their way in from across the border. Finally, after developing a consensus to use force, the army has all but squashed the Pakistani Taliban.
So why would Pakistan nurture them back to health in Afghanistan, where they can develop into a threat again?
“The Pakistani army has been described as the ‘godfather’ of the Taliban. That might understate its influence. Pakistan was the base for the US-supported mujahideen as they battled the Soviet Union in the 1980s. After the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan in 1989, the US withdrew almost as quickly, and Pakistan entered that strategic void.”
Fareed, as you say, Pakistan slept with the Taliban in an intoxicated stupor when the nasty new Soviet neighbours became unbearable, and yes, the US was more than a willing partner in this ménage à trois:
Those are just a few mujahideen visiting Ronald Reagan at the White House. According to Business Insider, the photograph is from 1983. Soon after this, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) set up training camps in Afghanistan where the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden later began their careers.
If Pakistan was at fault for ‘filling the void’, then was the US not at fault for creating one?
Instead of abandoning men trained in the art of killing with advanced weaponry, should it not have invested in an alternate future for them?
To appreciate the deep flaws in your cause and effect argument, let’s examine the horrible events of September 11th. There were 19 men who acted as hijackers on this terrible day. Reportedly, the first two arrived in January 2000. The next three arrived in the middle of 2000. Others came later. These men had apparently trained in jihadist camps in Afghanistan.
The first two men to arrive, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, spent nearly two years in the US, training in flight school in America, and boasted previous terrorist activities. According to journalist James Bamford, this duo was known to the National Security Agency, yet action wasn’t taken against them.
Was it a conspiracy?
No, of course, it wasn’t.
It was a security lapse, pure and simple.
The 19 men who conducted this terrible attack on American soil remained unhindered until they carried out their crime, yet Fareed, you don’t claim the US government was involved, do you?
It would be stupid to do so. So how does your mind turn towards conspiracy theories when it comes to Pakistan without presenting an inch of evidence?
In Pakistan, countless terrorists escape unhindered after committing heinous crimes. This is partially because in terms of infrastructure and population density, Pakistan is a very different environment than the US.
For example, we all watched in admiration as the two Boston bombers were captured after an entire town was sealed down by law enforcement. Such an operation would be very difficult to execute on the teeming streets of Pakistan.
It is certainly not an excuse. The most wanted man having been found on Pakistani soil is a source of embarrassment. But it should be considered to be a security lapse as well, unless proven otherwise.
You finally conclude with:
“Pakistan is a time bomb. It ranks 43rd in the world in terms of its economy, according to the World Bank, but has the sixth largest armed forces. It has the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal, and the most opaque. It maintains close ties with some of the world’s most brutal terrorists. By some estimates, its military consumes 26 per cent of all tax receipts, while the country has 5.5 million children who don’t attend school. As long as this military and its mind-set are unchecked and unreformed, the US will face a strategic collapse as it withdraws its forces from the region.”
More fear mongering.
You say Pakistan has the sixth largest armed forces, yet you also warn of Pakistan being a time bomb.
Let me ask you, Fareed, considering Pakistan’s fast growing nuclear arsenal, would you not prefer the army be large, powerful, and well-fed? Or would you rather hand this dangerous weaponry to a smaller more disgruntled military?
Your points about Pakistan’s low budget allocated towards education as compared to the exorbitant military spending are well made though. Education can help fight the Taliban, but at the same time, so can a quick, free, and transparent justice system. As Malala Yousafzai wrote in her book, the Taliban were initially welcomed by her people because they brought a swift end to corruption. It is only then they began their own brutality, revealing themselves as wolves rather than sheep.
Haroon Ullah, ‘a senior State Department advisor and a foreign policy professor at Georgetown University’, has an interesting opinion. He believes that rather than literacy and poverty, the real issues driving extremism are lack of law and order, and social injustices.
If the Afghanistan government is to repel the Taliban, it must win the heart of its own people. Similarly, its allies such as the US have to take a deeper interest in local policies. Shoving atrocities and corruption under the rug isn’t nearly as harmless as the Americans think. This vacuum in justice is what the Taliban feed on before they take their final form.