Podcast • March 29, 2010

This "Year of India" (6): What’s Wrong with our Afghan War

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan. (30 minutes, 18 mb mp3) The dirty little secret of the US drone war in Afghanistan is that the civilian “kill rate” is worse in the Obama “surge” than it was in the bad old Bush ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan. (30 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

The dirty little secret of the US drone war in Afghanistan is that the civilian “kill rate” is worse in the Obama “surge” than it was in the bad old Bush war. The dirty little sequel is that our friends in India don’t think the Obama – McChrystal war in Afghanistan can succeed.

Siddharth Varadarajan, the strategic affairs editor of The Hindu, India’s “national newspaper,” speaks plainly (and fast!) about Pakistan’s double game in the Afghan war and about India’s dissent in the American war. Short form: the US is still going “soft on the Pakistani military,” and “hard on Afghan civilians.”

The American military strategy has three “fundamental weaknesses,” Mr. Vardarajan is saying. (1) The long-distance application of force, by air, cannot defeat the Taliban. Civilian casualties are still going up. The promise of a kinder-gentler counterinsurgency campaign has not been delivered. (2) Foreign troops (ours) cannot bear the brunt of a war on the Taliban in a country and culture that reject outsiders. The US and Britain have had almost a decade since 9.11 to train an Afghan army, and have almost nothing to show for it — a big point against our seriousness. (3) The US is outsourcing much of the Afghan problem to Pakistan, which isn’t much interested in a solution. The Palkistani military and intelligence, which run the country, are still nurturing links with the Islamist, anti-Indian Taliban. And all the more because President Obama has already scheduled his American exit, there’s a built-in incentive for the Pakistanis to stay in touch with their jihadis.

Historically the Pakistani miitary has used the jihadis the undermine democracy in Pakistan, to promote Islamism and muddy the waters in the region. The presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan is a symptom of the problem… You have to deal with the root cause of the problem, which is the nature of the Pakistani military, and there is a reluctance to do that. Just as the Pakistani military doesn’t want to give up 30 years of investment in the Taliban, I think the Pentagon and the State Department don’t want to give up 60 years of investment in the Pakistani military. So you have a tendency to cling on to your strategic assets in the hope that they will somehow do your bidding. But life doesn’t go that way.

Siddharth Varadarajan in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, March, 2010.

Podcast • March 12, 2010

This "Year of India" (5): … and the chronic crisis of Pakistan

Farzana Shaikh is a child of Pakistan who writes about her country now as the daughter of a distressed family. The thread through her pithy analysis, Making Sense of Pakistan, is that Pakistan’s problem is not fundamentally with India, much less with the United States and the world, but with itself and Islam. She begins:

More than six decades after being carved out of British India, Pakistan remains an enigma. Born in 1947 as the first self-professed Muslim state, it rejected theocracy. Vulnerable to the appeal of political Islam, it aspired to Western constitutionalism. Prone to military dictatorship, it hankered after democracy. Unsure of what it stood for, Pakistan has been left clutching at an identity beset by an ambigous relation to Islam…

Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, Columbia University Press.

Salman Rushdie’s irresistible prose is one touchstone of our conversation:

It is well known that the term ‘Pakistan,’ an acronym, was originally thought up in England by a group of Muslim intellectuals. P for the Punjabis. A for the Afghans, K for the Kashmiris, S for Sind and the ‘tan’, they say, for Balochistan. (No mention of the East West, you notice: Bangladesh never got its name in the title, and so eventually it took the hint and seceded from the secessionists….). So, it was a word born in exile which then went East, was borne across or translated, and imposed itself on history; a returning migrant, settling down on partitioned land, forming a palimpsest on the past. A palimpsest obscures what lies beneath. To build Pakistan it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface.

Salman Rushdie, Shame, 1983. p. 87.