Pakistan, Kilcullen, Evans – a reply to David Miliband

by | Jun 2, 2009

British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband has responded to Alex’s post questioning the wisdom of drone attacks in Pakistan. Citing David Kilcullen, Alex’s argument was that drones killed too many civilians, contradicting basic counterinsurgency doctrine, which is, above all, to secure and serve the population.

Miliband (cautiously) agrees:

The threat to US and Pakistani (and UK) interests is real, the danger and damage of civilian casualties serious, and the range of options limited.

US technology is vitally important, but Pakistan is fighting its own struggle against violent extremism. The drone attacks have undoubtedly hurt the core of AQ, but I see the dangers. The first best solution is obviously to build up Pakistan’s capacity, but first best solutions are not always immediately available.

Miliband’s is right, I think, but there are, unfortunately, much deeper and darker questions to address. As I argued in August last year, Pakistan’s “struggle against violent extremism” has been mounted very much at the America’s behest – and its urgings have been wrong-headed at best, disastrous at worst.

Last summer, the Pakistani Prime Minister was given “an earful” by the White House and told to sort the border regions out. All well and good, except that the United States was pushing the Pakistan military towards a conventional encounter with the militants, something that it’s own manual on counter-insurgency advises strongly against.

The pattern was similaar in 2004, when General Musharraf was persuaded to attack the tribal areas. That led to fury among tribesman, forcing them into the arms of the Taliban. It also led to humiliation for the army, with one poor Colonel taking shelter in a mosque and then emerging to beg for mercy with the Koran on his head. Tribesmen stripped him of his uniform and sent him on his way.

Now, in 2009, we have a massive attack on the Swat valley, which has killed some militants – sure – but has led to the forceful displacement of 2.5 million people, “an exodus that is beyond biblical,” according to the Independent. In the long run, will this campaign contribute to Pakistan’s security? Time will tell, but I suspect not.

I am not, in way, pleading for tolerance for extremism. But I am demanding that we – the Americans in particular – start to stand account for the counterproductive nature of their Pakistan policy since 9/11.

Throughout its time in office, the Bush administration seemed intent on showing it could push a functioning state to the brink of failure. Pakistan’s complicity in arming and supporting the Taliban was ignored by the Bush administration. Instead, it pursued its short term goals in the war on terror with little care for the long term impact on a nuclear armed state with a young, fast-growing, and deeply frustrated population.

In his time in office, Bush hosed billions on the Pakistan army, but dedicated only around 1% of total aid to non-military purposes. America’s political strategy has been non-existent. Its influencing strategy even weaker. It really beggars belief that so much money could be spent only to achieve the reverse of the desired result.

Now, the Obama administration wants to engage in nation building, but it continues to focus efforts on the country’s most unstable zones, rather than supporting a comprehensive, nationwide response from the government. It is also arriving with its cheque book open, only to find that neither it nor the Pakistan government has much idea as to how or where the money should be spent.

Above all, it’s unclear whether – unlike in Iraq at the beginning of the surge, where there was a doctrinal revolution – the protagonists have truly accepted just how badly they have got things wrong. The US counterinsurgency manual describes insurgencies as ‘learning competitions’. If so, I fear that the best that we – the West – and the various arms of the Pakistan state can hope is some kind of consolation prize for taking part.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani people are abandoning hope for the future. The country faces massive and growing demographic pressure. Its population is young, uneducated, and will grow by more than the population of the UK over the next twenty years.

The country’s cities are broken. The power is off in most of them for hours every day. Energy demand will grow fourfold by 2030. Water will probably go beyond scarce and climate change is going to hammer the country hard.

Institutions too are broken. The army, in particular, is corrupt, having taken control of large swathes of the country’s economy. The money shovelled on it by the West has simply made a bad problem worse. In my experience, Western governments will do anything to avoid upsetting senior officers – with today’s security co-operation trumping any and every long term goal.

So…As David Miliband says, Pakistan must fight its own struggle against extremism – and we should support it. But only if every dollar and pound we are spending on its military is devoted to helping officers understand how to fight an insurgency. God knows, after the balls up in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have plenty of lessons to teach.

It’s true, too, that the “first best solution is obviously to build up Pakistan’s capacity” – but this must be interpreted in its very widest terms. Pakistan needs to reboot its entire society, while the international community needs to come to terms with how woefully inadequate its tools are for supporting a very frail state. We (the outsiders) must change as much as the Pakistanis, in other words.

And as for the Foreign Secretary’s final point that “first best solutions are not always immediately available,” I interpret that as meaning we must be prepared to take short term actions that may not be ideal in the long term, just because the situation has grown so bad.

Maybe. But what about turning this on its head? I suspect the Swat exodus is storing up a whole new round of problems against which the Pakistan state will struggle in years to come.

It’s part of a pattern where the need to do something in the short term makes matters worse in the long term – though we feel better, because at least we’ve kept busy. In Afghanistan and Iraq, Col H.R. McMaster, one of General Petraeus’s closest advisers, concluded that:

A short-term approach to long-term problems generated multiple short-term plans that often confused activity with progress.

I fear we’re still confusing activity with progress in Pakistan. And if I’m right, that’s something we’re all going to live to regret…


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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