A teaching moment, between Rob Forrest and Jack M Silverstein
From a discussion October 9, 2010
This past Saturday, while I was finishing the Daniel Crane interview and then transcribing an interview with guitarist Marcus Rezak of The HUE, my roommate Rob was sitting on our balcony and taking his first crack at Bob Woodward’s new book “Obama’s Wars,” a piece of reporting that covers the Obama administration’s continuation of the War in Afghanistan. As I do with any friend more learned than myself in a particular field, I routinely pick Rob’s brain on both domestic and international politics, particularly on the “chess matches” that take place between, say, Obama and the Republicans over health care, or between the U.S. and Iran over nuclear arms, or, in this case, between Pakistan, India, the U.S., and the Taliban.
Shortly after starting his reading, Rob exclaimed: “Oh! I had that idea two years ago!” As usual, I was quite interested in Rob’s thoughts on world politics, and as usual, I demanded he halt his activities and explain something to me. This time, though, I asked if we could record our conversation — I figured that there are plenty of other people who would care to be filled in on the doings of Pakistan-India-the U.S.-the Taliban-Afghanistan-Iran, and who would benefit from exposure to Rob’s perspective.
So here, slightly edited for form, is our conversation. I am now also reading the Woodward book; stay tuned for more conversations between the two of us on the issues in the book throughout the fall of 2010.
— J.M.S. 10-14-10–
Rob, please tell us why brokering a peace deal between India and Pakistan would take us closer to an end of… an end of what?
An end to the war in Afghanistan. The army of Pakistan is professionally involved with fending off India. That’s been their whole existential existence for decades and decades. This dispute, this contested border dispute, has been going on forever. And it’s led to, in the past, India getting a nuclear weapon, and then Pakistan following suit.
These things have been escalating, and they are terrified of each other, because they’ve been at war for a long time. Pakistan’s military doesn’t want to fight a war with the Taliban on its other border – it wants to fight a war with India, because that’s what it knows how to do. They know that once the Americans leave that region, that the power vacuum will be filled with either Iran or someone else. So they want to hedge their bets. They’re always hedging their bets, right?
Yeah, is hedging their bets. Pakistan’s military is split between its two borders, its border with India and its border with Afghanistan. And so Pakistan is not really policing its border with Afghanistan, which is where all the Taliban is. Right? The real war is going on in Pakistan…
Pakistan’s not policing their border with Afghanistan because they’re too busy fighting with India. Is that it?
Yes. They have thousands of troops stationed on their other border. Exactly. Tens of thousands of troops stationed on their border with India, because that’s the way it’s always been. That’s the war they like to fight. That’s the war they know how to fight. They have some troops on their other border with Afghanistan, but they don’t want to make enemies with the Taliban because when we leave and the Taliban takes over again, then they don’t want to be enemies with the Taliban. So they would prefer to fight on their other border with Inida.
And just ignore everything over there.
Yeah. If they don’t alienate the Taliban, then they won’t have a hostile neighbor when we leave Afghanistan.
Has this always been their approach? Have they always assumed that, you know, “We’re going to wait out the United States” –
…or “We’re going to wait out the USSR,” or whoever it was?
Well, Pakistan, this has been their approach for the past nine years.
Just the last nine years. This doesn’t go back to the USSR…
Right. Afghanistan has always been, they’ve always had occupants, and the idea that “we’re gonna wait them out.” And that’s because of tons of other things that we could go into, but basically because Afghanistan doesn’t have a national identity. They have a tribal identity.
Right. We’ve talked about that.
So anyway, if somehow America, who has tons of leverage on India – the Indian economy is booming, they want access to tons of our markets – India is a country in renaissance. They want strategic alliance with the United States. There’s a lot of things we could do with India. So if we leverage India to broker a peace deal with Pakistan, kind of settle – or maybe not even settle – but temper down to almost zero the disputed border region, then Pakistan would be able to relieve its troops from that border and send them to their other border.
India is in our debt. We have leverage with them. So we fill in whatever it takes to get them to be able to make peace with Pakistan –
…and in turn, Pakistan, now not having to defend itself from India, gets to turn around and fight the Taliban…
Put all of its troops on this other border. Right.
And that would make it easier to flush out all of the Taliban. There’s no Taliban in Afghanistan. There’s like a hundred Taliban in Afghanistan. Zero Taliban, essentially. We have three wars going on. There’s Iraq. There’s Afghanistan. And there’s Pakistan. We’re waging a secret war in Pakistan. There’s not two wars. There’s three wars. We’re bombing them on a daily basis…
Right – we’re bombing them with the drones.
Right. With the drones. And recently, last week, with helicopters.
Which we apologized for after Pakistan got really pissed off, because we didn’t clear it with them. There are secret agreements that we can fly drones in certain boxed-off areas in Pakistan, and the troops they do have there stay out of the way. They say, “This square, you can hunt terrorists in. And this other square we have our troops in.” So we go into this square and we bomb the shit out of a bunch of what we call “terrorists,” which may or may not be terrorists. You know. And they have their other troops in a sort of safe area, and so on.
You are reading the Woodward book –
…and you’re pretty much at the beginning…
…and you came to a point where you said “Oh, this is an idea that I had, and now they’re talking about it.” So what I would like to know is, Who’s talking about it in the book? And then, semi-colon, if YOU’ve thought of it, why aren’t we doing it? What is the reason not to do it?
So first, who’s talking about it in the book?
The director of national intelligence is talking about it in the book. And at the time, the director of national intelligence was… (looks at book flap) Michael McConnell. (reading) Vice Admiral Michael McConnell. So in the book, it’s a very short sentence. It says:
“The best way out of this would be for Obama to broker some kind of peace between India and Pakistan,” the DNI had said. If Pakistan felt significantly more secure in its relations with India, it might stop playing its deadly game with the Taliban.
The “deadly game with the Taliban” is hedging its bets –
The game with the Taliban is not going after them.
Not going after them. Because if the Taliban does take control again of Afghanistan, Pakistan wants friends on their other border. They don’t want enemies. They don’t want people that they tried to kill the previous year governing the country next to them. And that’s why it might not work – even if we did relieve the troops on the southern border, Pakistan might still be insecure that the Taliban would take over Afghanistan, and that they would essentially have to deal with an enemy that they were trying to kill just the previous year. If this whole Afghanistan war doesn’t work, then the Taliban takes control of Afghanistan. It’s not good for the U.S., but Pakistan – well, they’d prefer it not to happen, but it’s not the end of the world.
Because they’re already getting bombed.
So who gives a fuck.
Exactly. Whether it’s the U.S. or it’s the Taliban, it’s the same. Right. But why would they want to set up something where they could lose? Why would they want to take the risk to alienate the Taliban? They don’t want to do that. And that’s Julian’s argument against it.
He’s against this idea?
He says it won’t work. For us, it’s a win-win, even if it doesn’t work. But for Pakistan, it’s not. That’s the thing.
So if Pakistan agrees with India…
…but the U.S. loses in Afghanistan…
…then Pakistan has signed on with India and now they’ve got the Taliban to the north fucking them up.
Right. It would mean two things. Not only would they sign a peace deal with India, but then they would have to actually aggressively go after the Taliban with all of their troops and all of the force of their national military.
Okay. But if we pull out of Afghanistan, and the Taliban takes over, Pakistan’s already aligned itself with India –
Woodward and Obama.And Pakistan has fought with the Taliban, who now controls their neighboring country. That’s right. So all the Taliban that are hiding in Pakistan right now, they go back and govern Afghanistan, and now you have a neighbor that is governed by people you were trying to kill the previous year. They don’t like that. And there are also more intricate details. Like: there are sympathizers in Pakistan.
What I’m saying is, we broker a peace deal between India and Pakistan, Pakistan sides up with India and squares up against the Taliban, but the U.S. decides to leave Afghanistan, and now the Taliban doesn’t have to worry about the U.S., and they can just turn and fuck with Pakistan.
And Pakistan now has to fight the Taliban. But, by extension, if they’re aligned with India and India is sort of aligned with us, aren’t we still sort of involved there, even indirectly?
Yeah, we’re involved, and we would still try to help Pakistan at that point to try to eradicate the Taliban – but now the Taliban has its own country. Again. (Laughs.) We’re still fighting through Pakistan. But we can’t fight directly because they’re a sovereign nation. They don’t want U.S. air fighters landing in their airports, and taking off and fighting against Afghanistan again. Which is what we would have to do if we no longer had control of Afghanistan. We’d have to fight through Pakistan. They’re a proud people. They don’t want to be a staging area. And now they have hostile neighbors on both sides. They have India, who no longer has a reason to have a peace deal with them, and now they have the Taliban on the other side.
I understand where the pressure is for Pakistan’s decision, the pros and cons – what would be the reason that the U.S. wouldn’t use that India leverage to use Pakistan then against the Taliban? It seems like…
Because they think that they’d go through all that effort and Pakistan wouldn’t change. They wouldn’t move on to step two, which is actually fighting. Pakistan doesn’t have any reason to do that. Even if we went through all the effort of, like, calling up India, and going through all the motions of making this peace deal and settling the border dispute, Pakistan would still want to hedge their bets in Afghanistan. They wouldn’t want to alienate the Taliban. Even if we did all that for them, they are terrified –
We’d have to somehow prove to them that that would be the final piece that would allow – that India, Pakistan, and the U.S. and the UK and whoever else – that would be the final piece that would allow them to permanently put the hurt on the Taliban.
Right. And Pakistan is kind of a mess. It’s one of these deals where the President has power but the military kind of is always looking at maybe taking over, or actually are the power players. It’s like politics in the United States. It’s not just one actor playing out the moves. It’s the military. It’s the President. It’s a whole lot of craziness happening.
No, I understand. And so we think that it’s possible that even if we did this, that Pakistan wouldn’t help. But at the same time, even if Pakistan was still concerned about the Taliban, and only half-assed it, it’s still double what we have. Is that correct?
Yes, that’s correct. Absolutely. In the art of diplomacy, part of the chess match is taking away the excuses of the other side. Making it harder for Pakistan to say no. And that would do it. One argument says that it wouldn’t work, and that’s true. But like you said, there might not be a downside to going to the effort to try to do that. That would be a big win diplomatically, anyway. And so I was just reading the book, and that kind of jumped out at me.
Jack M Silverstein is a freelance writer covering music and culture in Chicago. His first book, “Our President,” a non-fiction collection covering Obama’s election night at Grant Park and his Inauguration, is available at Amazon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or say hey at twitter/readjack or facebook/readjack.
Rob Forrest is a particle physicist who has worked on nuclear non-proliferation policy.