Tuesday, July 21, 2009

This seems like a totally viable counterinsurgency campaign plan (UPDATED)

I mean, it worked for Curzon, didn't it? So why wouldn't collective punishment work now? The world hasn't changed that much in 108 years... right?

The crackdown on the Mehsuds was spelled out in an order from the top political official in South Waziristan, Shahab Ali Shah, on June 14. Because the Mehsud tribesmen had not handed over Taliban fighters, Shah wrote, he was satisfied that they had acted "in an unfriendly and hostile manner toward the state" and that the tribe's "people and their activities are prejudicial to peace and public tranquillity."

Senior government officials have said repeatedly that their target is Baitullah Mehsud and his followers, not his entire tribe, but Shah's wording was broader. He ordered the "seizure, where they may be found, of all members of the Mehsud tribe and confiscation of movable/immovable property belonging to them in the North-West Frontier Province and the arrest and taking into custody of any person of the tribe wherever he is found."

(This is basically the approach that some of the folks commenting at Abu Muqawama would have us take to the entire Muslim world, as far as I can tell, but I sort of digress here.) While I appreciate that this is the law of the land, I wonder how effective we can expect an approach like this to be. Does the Pakistani government imagine that it can solve the challenges of ethnic separatism or any other kind of anti-government rebellion -- particularly narrow, political ones that aren't focused on tribal or ethnic identity -- by declaring a section of the population to be "other," punishable for the crimes of their compatriots? It seems counterproductive to stoke feelings of alienation and separateness from Pakistani identity in people who are predisposed to oppose the government by the simple fact of their isolation (not to mention Islamabad's general indifference to anything going on in the tribal areas so long as no problems emerge). And I know we can say "that's what they signed up for, the tribes want to be left alone, this is part of the trade-off," but is there anyone who believes that this is an effective solution in 2009?
"They are asking the people who are besieged, the people who have left their homes, 'Why you are not tackling the terrorists?' " said Said Alam Mehsud, a doctor from the same sub-tribe as Baitullah Mehsud. "Just imagine, what a demand. It's like if America asked me: 'Why are you practicing as a pediatrician? Why have you not captured Osama bin Laden?' "
As others have said before, those who believe in the usefulness of collective punishment or coercive isolation usually overrate the ability of a neutral or pro-government population to impact the actions of anti-government elements in their midst. When I hear stuff like this ("we'll just crack down on the whole tribe 'til they turn him over!"), I think of the Ann Coulter solution and the band of raving lunatics shrieking about how if there were any such thing as "moderate Muslims," they'd refuse to tolerate the existence of terrorist and extremists.

Do we really think that a family in Gaza can stop Hamas? Do we really think that a pediatrician in Peshawar can capture Baitullah Mehsud? Don't we recognize that coercion is useless when its object is unable to give you what you want? I suppose, considering the political dialogue on the utility of torture, that about half of us don't understand.

UPDATE: Josh Foust is on this too.


  1. Was not the Sadrist and Badrist backlash following the Samarrah firebombing not one big, ethnic cleansing mash of collective punishment against the Sunni Arab population?

    And didn't this backlash convinced the Sunni Arabs that they were indeed smaller than the organized forces of the Shiite Arabs and, moreover, those very Shiites weren't the timid country mice they thought they were but rather some fanged rats willing to feast on their foes?

    Something broke the will to fight of the Sunni Arab militias and the populations that supported them. If it wasn't the US Army, then what was it?


  2. Something broke the will to fight of the Sunni Arab militias and the populations that supported them.

    Sure. And are you equating the entire Mehsud tribe, or the entire population of the FATA, to the Sunni militias and/or "the populations that supported them"?

    Do you think that the Sunni militias were swayed by indiscriminate violence against their co-religionists, or by a shifting perception of the power balance? I'd suggest that a significant number of those who were leaving night letters or chopping heads off probably weren't particularly concerned about the escalation of violence, but rather about their calculation of how to emerge from that violence in the best position.

    I also don't think we can discount the fact that a lot of the violence slowed down because of the thoroughness and effectiveness of the ethnic cleansing; geographic separation allowed the involved parties to feel that they'd come to an arrangement they could live with, i.e. "no more Sunni/Shi'a in my neighborhood." May not be a question of "will to fight" so much as determining that they'd gotten what they were fighting for (at least to the extent realistically possible).

    In other words, I'm not sure the Iraq example is a particularly useful one here.

  3. Governing through fear is nothing new, to the Near East, Middle East, the West, hell... anywhere.

    Turning tribes against the government though is not the problem. The people of Pakistan largely distrust their government to begin with, and these types of tactics aren't anything new to them. However, this is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Continued collective punishment creates relative deprivation problems which will ultimately result in greater conflicts down the road (even though it might be useful in sweeping up the bad guys now).

    The important distinction here is, as the indigenous force, the Pakistanis can afford to do this. As a third-party the US/NATO can not have this type of kinetic/Callwell-like(?) policy. It's the whole "my brother can tease me because he is my brother, but you do it and I will punch you in the baby-maker!" I mean, this is what happened in Sri Lanka and it worked (for now). The real problems never get solved, but order is restored. Maybe the problems can't be solved in some countries unless drastic changes are made (which will never be made by those in power). So realistically we are hoping for some utopian idea, when in fact, the real underlying problems in Af-Pak have been here forever, and are virtually certain to remain. Realistically, maybe accepting this "order" over a "utopia" is the only thing we can do.

    However, maybe it isn't a "utopia" maybe it is just freakin' difficult (see Nagl's Afghanistan=Chad in 20 years calculation), costly, and politically unviable.