Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The problem with drones and the flourishing system of esteem among the Taliban

The article in today’s NYTimes by Eric Schmitt and Jeane Perlez ["Strikes Worsen Qaeda Threat, Pakistan Says" ] tells us some useful details about the struggle with the Taliban-AlQaeda in Pakistan. The Pakistani officials are saying that the drone strikes have had their effect but they also generate more volunteers for the cause. What I wonder about is whether the Pakistan objections by the military are not mere admissions of how much trouble they are in, now that they have created a “monster” and nourished it all these years. The article helps me understand the system of esteem at work in the tribal areas where the Taliban are flourishing. And it turns out that Arab zealots are key in it.

Some significant statements in the article.
• “But they express growing alarm that the drone strikes in particular are having an increasingly destabilizing effect on their country. They also voiced fears that the expected arrival of 17,000 American troops in Afghanistan this spring and summer would add to the stresses by pushing more Taliban fighters into Pakistan.” [Does this suggest that they haven’t actually minded much that the Taliban were able to operate so freely inside Afghnistan?]
• There is “no cessation to the attacks by Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban aimed at undermining Pakistan’s government.” [This is the reason for their worry.]
• “Pakistani officials suggested that Al Qaeda was replenishing killed fighters and midlevel leaders with less experienced but more hard-core militants, who are considered more dangerous because they have fewer allegiances to local Pakistani tribes.” [From what we already know the Taliban are not tribal and have worked hard to undermine tribal authority – killing 48 tribal leaders a few months ago. Dozens if not hundreds of tribal leaders have been assassinated by the Taliban, so this claim seems unconvincing; the Taliban have never been responsive to tribal controls.]
• “Al Qaeda was using sophisticated Web sites and sleeper cells across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia to enlist young fighters who were less patient or inclined to plan and carry out far-reaching global attacks and who had instead redirected their energies on more immediate targets and on fomenting insurgency in Pakistan, the officials said.Qaeda leaders have also increased their financing and logistical support for the Taliban and other militant groups, having come to see the survival of Qaeda sanctuaries as dependent on the ability of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan to hold territory.” [What seems to be new here is that the new focus of AlQaeda attack is Pakistan. No wonder then that the Pakistanis are complaining. But to blame drone attacks for this seems disingenuous, as they have harbored AlQaeda-Taliban for so many years. It is true, though, and we can sympathize, that they now have a monster on their hands.]
• The complaint is that “the missile strikes cause too many civilian casualties and that they hand the militants a propaganda windfall.” [This is hard to deny. Air power in its various forms seems effective technically but socially and politically it seems consistently to create anger on the ground. From here it would seem that without an effective thrust on the ground the use of drones is likely to continue. So the Pakistani army has a case.]
• “The Pakistani intelligence assessment found that Al Qaeda had adapted to the blows to its command structure by shifting “to conduct decentralized operations under small but well-organized regional groups” within Pakistan and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has given up training sites and shifted to mobile training teams, which Pakistani intelligence officials say are still effective. They often consist of just a few bomb-making or tactical experts schooling a handful of fighters in a private house, . . . “ .
• “The flow of new recruits comes largely from countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia and Uzbekistan, Pakistani intelligence officials said. They often travel through Iran, enter Pakistan through Baluchistan Province and then move onto Waziristan for training, . . .” [That this is being published indicates how well know it is. The one source of recruits that seems curious is Uzbekistan. These recruits are creations of Karimov’s repressive measures there; anyone he distrusts he calls an Islamist, a Wahhabi. So is he creating his own “Wahhabi” movement up there? Note that the training is centered in Waziristan. This has been a major target of the drone attacks.]
• “Uzbeks affiliated with Al Qaeda carried out the brunt of the militants’ operations against civilians and the army in Swat, . . . The Uzbeks, who were driven across the border from Afghanistan with the Taliban and Qaeda after 2001, have been particularly ruthless as they helped their allies secure sanctuary in the tribal areas. They have now been unleashed on Pakistani soldiers in Swat, . . . .”
• “Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Taliban in Swat, was backed by about a half-dozen Arab fighters from Al Qaeda who served as the “main motivators,” . . .
• The Arabs who traveled from the Qaeda bases in Waziristan across the tribal belt to Swat are held in high esteem by Pakistani Taliban fighters, the agent said. “The Arabs motivate the local guys, who see them as people who have forsaken all their money for jihad,” [The Arabs thus appear to be wealthy, or are believed to be so by the Pakistani Taliban.]
• [A social movement is an esteem system and it seems that Arabs are now much admired among the Pakistani Taliban. Arabs considered wealthy and zealous for their faith are inspiring young Taliban to follow their example. In fact, the Arab influence in the movement in Pakistan seems to be a critical feature of the situation the Pakistani military have to deal with. Note the following concluding statements in the article:] “the Arab leaders of Al Qaeda were intent on promoting their fighters up through the ranks to overcome the loss of leaders like Mr. Kini, . . . The Arabs have a strategy to elevate people to a higher position, . . . If someone is killed there is always a replacement. The training goes on.”

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