Bipolar Dilemma

The American raid into Abbottabad to take down Osama bin Laden has illuminated the tortured relationship between Pakistan the United States. Before we try to examine this relationship, it will do us well to remember that diplomacy is the official language of duplicity. Nations lie to each other as a matter of course, it is just done in an elaborate Kabuki of bows, scrapes, circumlocution, silk suits and embarrassingly expensive dinners at embarrassingly expensive hotels. So the maddening disingenuousness of Islamabad is a difference of degree, not of kind.

Pakistan, like Egypt, is a nation run by its military – never mind the periodic elections – but unlike Egypt, Pakistan’s military is not hostile to radical Islamists among its people. Indeed, their intelligence agency, the ISI, created the Taliban to govern Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and still hosts its remnants. Imagine the tightrope Islamabad must walk in order to maintain a partnership with America in dismantling al Qaeda, another Sunni radical Islamist organization and operational partner of the Taliban, who hosted them in Afghanistan. Why would they undertake such an arrangement?

Money and insulation. We have promised billions to Pakistan to train their military in the ways of counterterror and small unit operations in order to assist in patrolling the largely lawless tribal regions in the Khyber Pass area of the northwest, where al Qaeda and the Taliban were holed up after their escape from Tora Bora. And, Pakistan felt secure in their absolute paranoia about being invaded by the militarily superior India over their ongoing dispute in the Kashmir. Islamabad was gambling that they could do enough to flush out al Qaeda and provide enough dribbles of intelligence to keep the money flowing, and then hold up the Americans as deterrence against Indian adventurism. At the same time, they couldn’t do too much, else risk upsetting elements among their own population who held sympathetic views toward the “Islam versus the infidel West” narrative, not to mention elements within the military and intelligence corps who had vested interests in maintaining the Taliban. The whole house of cards is duplicity wrapped in disingenuousness surrounded by lies. Why would we undertake such an arrangement?

Geography and area denial. If you look at how Afghanistan is situated, you’ll see that access is through Iran, Pakistan and three of the ‘Stans (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – all of whom, in turn, require access through Russia). If we are to operate within Afghanistan, we must, from a practical standpoint, do it through Pakistan. We are also aware of the aforementioned schizophrenic persona of the Pakistani population regarding internal terrorism and the state’s unstable relationship with India … and the unsettling fact that Islamabad is in possession of over 100 fission and fusion warheads. If Pakistan has a bifurcated rationale for working with the United States in its war next door, we have compound-complex reasons to do so.

Each wants from the other things that cannot be given, yet the relationship demands the illusion of the attempt. Thus, as an example, ISI informs us of the location of an al Qaeda training camp (knowing that al Qaeda and the Taliban cohabitate and co-train as a matter of course), and then act shocked when Pakistanis are killed in the resultant Predator strike (leaving out the detail that they ware all sitting around assembling IEDs as a family after-dinner activity). It’s all a wink-wink nod-nod part of the duplicity that is diplomacy. Pakistan’s tip allows us to further weaken the outside forces threatening our troops and efforts in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s outrage saves face among its people.

Our anger at Pakistan must be tempered by the danger of causing a collapse of the regime, because chaos is ruled by the ruthless, and whatever replaces the current government is all but guaranteed to be worse, more hostile to the West, likely aligned with jihadists, and in possession of that nuclear arsenal. Pakistan’s anger at us must be tempered by the danger of diminishing returns in both money and protection from India, as well as the usual fear of ruling elites – being exposed to the whim of their conquerors.

It’s a tenuous relationship from whatever angle you wish to view it.

Now to the bin Laden riddle. Did they know? How could they not? If they knew, didn’t they know we would find out? If we did find out, how were they going to handle that? The whole situation defies credulity, whichever way you come down on it.

Here’s my take on it. First of all, in an authoritarian regime, transparency isn’t an attribute, it’s an accident. I don’t believe that the executive level of Pakistan’s government knew of bin Laden’s presence in-country, although a select few at the three-star level (or so) did. In a government operated by the military, things would naturally be compartmentalized, and this operation would have been highly compartmentalized with that. Thus, the head of ISI could – honestly – deny knowledge, let alone complicity, in the maintaining of bin Laden, and indeed, offer his resignation to the legislature over the embarrassing situation. Having said that, and remembering the example of the Predator strike on the al Qaeda/Taliban training camp, this denial is the only thing Islamabad could say in the wake of the raid. But I believe it. The risk was too high, and the alternatives too numerous – hide out in the Peshawar, where Islamabad’s authority is non-existent; seek a quiet working asylum in Iran, where the native opaqueness of that government would prove impenetrable to Western intelligence; return to Sudan or Somalia where outside governments fear to tread. There was just too much to lose by government at the highest levels being caught secreting bin Laden.

the Middle Kingdom Revisited

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Photos from Chinese internet/montage by EagleWatch

Chinese J-20 stealth fighter prototype

I have written of PRC’s epiphany regarding their outmoded military doctrine, and the resultant rush to modernize both platforms and methods since, in these pages before[1]. While their work on aircraft carriers and cruise missiles especially designed to threaten our carrier strike groups are well known, they somewhat surprised people with the unusually public test flight of their stealth fighter prototype, designated as J-20 Chengdu, during US SecDef Robert Gates’ visit to Beijing in January of this year.

The respected military-oriented Australian think-tank, Air Power Australia, has published a report on the J-20, based on what sketchy data has been released by PRC, and by evaluating the knowns – size, shape, observation of available videos, etc. “Scaling the dimensions of the J-20 against proximate ground vehicles of known types in photographs does yield very accurate dimensions,” the report states, “showing that the J-20 is a large fighter, in the size class of the US F/FB-111 family of aircraft. This in turn indicates an empty weight in the 40,000–50,000 pound class, depending on construction technique used in the design, and an internal fuel load of up to 35,000 pounds. Inevitably, this yields subsonic combat radius figures in the 1,000–1,500 nautical mile class, subject to the thrust-specific fuel consumption of the production engine in subsonic cruise. The J-20 is therefore a fighter built for reach, and would be competitive in range performance against the F/FB-111 series, the F-15E Strike Eagle series, and the new Russian Su-35S Flanker series[2].”

The prototype is probably fitted with imported Russian Item 117S engines common to the Su-35S, but could accept the Al-41F1, an evolution of the supersonic cruise engine developed for the experimental MiG I.42, and is more powerful than the Item 117S engine[3]. This would produce a truly high performance stealth aircraft, arguably capable of competing in most cardinal performance parameters (i.e. speed, altitude, stealth, agility) with the F-22A Raptor, and superior in most if not all cardinal performance parameters against the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

If true, this is a game changer.

This development renders “inoperable” SecDef Robert Gates’ 2009 statement to Congress that the [F-22’s] natural enemy, highly sophisticated fighter aircraft, simply do not exist[4]. That statement also ignores the Russian work being done in highly maneuverable stealth fighters by Mikoyan-Gurivich and Sukhoi airframers.

Just as the Raptor was developed to defeat the F-15, as Russian and Chinese aircraft approached the capabilities of the Eagle, we need to be developing technology to defeat the Raptor as Russia and PRC begin to field similar platforms. Cutting F-22 production in half and cutting defense budgets are both short-sighted and will have the quite predictable results of setting us up to be, again, “surprised” by events. We are not even budgeting anything for R&D on sub-gigahertz counter-stealth radars; we have shut down the highest-tech production line in the world (depriving LockheedMartin of promised profits which could be spent on sixth generation fighter R&D – and the associated jobs both would entail).

While spiking the bin Laden football in state after state, this administration is cutting off the hand that fed it its only foreign policy victory yet. Short-sighted.


[1] See the Middle Kingdom, posted on Friday 24 April 2009.

[2] Carlo Kopp and PA Goon, Chengdu J-XX [J-20] Stealth Fighter Prototype; A Preliminary Assessment, Technical Report APA-TR-2011-0101, Air Power Australia, January 2011.

[3] “Изделие 129” для ПАК ФА создадут раньше срока (“Item 129” for the PAK-FA will arrive ahead of schedule), News report, Lenta.ru.

[4] Comments made to Congress while arguing for the cancellation of the F-22 program beyond 187 aircraft, rather than fulfilling the contract for over 600 planes.

How Could They Not Know?

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A 6’4” Arab living for five years in a walled compound, 600 yards from Pakistan’s military academy, in a city known for its former military and intelligence community retirees, and Islamabad (35 miles away) claims not to have known he was in their country? Incredible (as in “not credible”).

We’ve all seen the aerial shots of the compound – white stucco, high walls topped with barbed wire; windowless buildings; single entry-point with two guard stations; they burned their trash; on and on – and we are to believe that no suspicions were raised in a country known for its repression of dissent and constantly on guard against its neighbor India. We had overhead imagery of “a tall Arab walking around inside the compound,” and I’m sure they did as well. The Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI), the Pakistani intelligence agency, has countless eyes and ears in the city. We knew that the million-dollar compound suspiciously had no phone lines or internet connections, and again, I’m sure they did too.

Of course they knew.

On last night’s 60 Minutes, President Obama alluded to the fact that almost certainly bin Laden had to have some sort of support network within Pakistan, “we [just] don’t know who or what the network looks like.” He went on to say that the network could have lived inside or outside of government, and that’s true. My experience tells me that is was largely outside of active government personnel and agencies. But someone at ISI (and probably in the Pakistani military) knew of, and possibly oversaw (or directed) the network’s activity. This would provide the government with the necessary plausible denial, with only a very limited number of portals into government itself. A classical black operation.

We need to remember something that the media hasn’t gotten around to yet. The Taliban is a creature of the ISI, organized to establish a Pakistani-friendly government in neighboring Afghanistan after the Soviet pullout. There is a sympathy for Taliban/al Qaeda among the more fervent Muslims in Pakistan’s population, and among elements of the ISI and the Pakistani military. In addition to the handful of complicit officials, there would be a natural three monkeys – hear, see, speak no evil – approach to the situation. It is this kind of implicit and explicit cooperation that a general impression of American weakness spawns. It probably never entered their minds that ever-ponderous Barack Obama would actually green light such an operation – especially in light of the ongoing brouhaha over Predator strikes inside Pakistani territory.

Ayman al Zawahiri – heir apparent to al Qaeda’s throne – and Mullah Omar – Taliban spiritual and operational leader – still enjoy Pakistani hospitality. American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki works out of Yemen, and could rival al Zawahiri for al Qaeda leadership. Al Qaeda-in-the-Arabian-Peninsula (AQAP) is the strongest franchise right now, able to work internationally, and al Awlaki is the group’s ace recruiter and most prolific propagandist. One can only hope that the “treasure trove” of intelligence recovered from bin Laden’s compound includes threads to these three vermin. Decapitations of al Qaeda-core, the Taliban and the premier al Qaeda chapter would be a strong message to jihadi followers that they may be on the weak horse after all.


If they honestly didn’t, everyone in Pakistan’s intelligence agency senior enough to have his own desk needs to be found, slapped and fired!

May Day 2011

In 1995, Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa – a ruling by a respected Islamic scholar – declaring a holy war on America. “It is the duty of Muslims to kill Americans, in or out of uniform, wherever they are found,” he wrote. As it turned out, the last thing bin Laden found were Americans standing in his bedroom.