It’s All Wrong

I wrote a bit on Friday about the, uh, ambition inherent in assigning U.S. trainers to mentor the Pakistani army in counterinsurgency. That PBS Frontline documentary that I mentioned last night had a scene that underscored the point better than I could have.

In "Children of the Taliban," reporter Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy presented an overview of the destruction of the Swat Valley by the Pakistani Taliban, highlighting their confidence that they can defeat the Pakistani army. (By the time she visited Swat, they were on the verge of cementing their victory in seizing the valley.) After visiting internal-displacement camps and interviewing civilians caught in the crossfire of the battle — some blame the U.S., some blame the Taliban, some blame the Pakistani army — she interviews Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, commander of the Pakistani army’s effort in the area. "They’ve been very successful, very intense, very high-casualty rates, but we have succeeded," Khan says, sounding like a U.S. general in Iraq from 2003 to 2006.

Obaid-Chinoy asks Khan about teenagers who sympathize with the Taliban in the wake of the army’s destruction of their homes and the deaths of their relatives. His response:

Yeah, they probably were the Taliban, and they run away from [Bajaur, in the tribal areas] and they’re sitting out there hiding in the refugee camps, because you can’t tell who’s where, like I say. But those people who complain about it are probably part of the problem and are not part of the solution.

Khan is commander of the Frontier Corps, the component of the Pakistani military designated to fight in the tribal areas and that the Obama administration’s Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund is designed to support. Note his dismissal of the idea that civilian casualties are counterproductive; his assumption that embittered civilians are nothing more than disguised Taliban; his confidence that the measure of success is a body count; and his inattention to the idea that the Taliban feeds off of legitimate civilian grievances unaddressed or exacerbated by his war plan.

How does the U.S. think an officer so senior and so self-assured is going to respond to an adviser who says ur doin it wrong? This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan, where the U.S. has been effectively in charge of those nations’ militaries. In Pakistan, we won’t be telling, we’ll be asking. And the people we’re asking may not be so inclined to listen.

Crossposted to The Streak.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman