What ‘cancer’ is in Pakistan?

Here inside the only Beltway that matters, the insiders, experts and politicos are going through one of their favorite rituals — a season of fevered discussions about the latest Bob Woodward book offering inside gossip about all the president’s people. As always, these holy days begin with a series of A1 excerpts from said volume in the Washington Post.

These rites require journalistic sermons on several topics:

(1) Who does this latest volume hurt more, the Republicans or the Democrats?

(2) Is this volume more embarrassing to the current regime than the volumes published during the previous regime (with optional discussions of whether Woodward is right, center-right, center or center-left in his political orientation)?

(3) Who looks worse in this volume, the president or the president’s top aides? What does this tell us about who leaked the most information to Woodward and his research team?

(4) And that old favorite: What kind of spell does Woodward cast over people to get them to talk to him when they know that it is almost impossible to keep sourcing secrets hidden for long here in the world’s most powerful high school?

What role does religion play in this new book? Well, that depends on whether one considers politics to be a form of organized religion.

However, part three of the “Obama’s Wars” series does include a very interesting ghost, one that even makes it into the headline: “Obama: ‘We need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan.’ ”

The story opens last May, when President Barack Obama sends retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, his national security adviser, and CIA Director Leon Panetta to Pakistan on a secret mission — to discuss with President Asif Ali Zardari the connections between the Times Square bomber and terrorist groups that operate inside Pakistan.

Saith Woodward’s omnipresent narrator voice:

Jones thought that Pakistan — a U.S. ally with an a la carte approach of going after some terrorist groups and supporting others — was playing Russian roulette. The chamber had turned out to be empty the past several times, but Jones thought it was only a matter of time before there was a round in it.

Fears about Pakistan had been driving President Obama’s national security team for more than a year. Obama had said toward the start of his fall 2009 Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review that the more pressing U.S. interests were really in Pakistan, a nuclear power with a fragile civilian government, a dominant military and an intelligence service that sponsored terrorist groups.

Not only did al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban operate from safe havens within Pakistan, but — as U.S. intelligence officials had repeatedly warned Obama — terrorist groups were recruiting Westerners whose passports would allow them to move freely in Europe and North America.

Safe havens would no longer be tolerated, Obama had decided. “We need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan,” he declared during an Oval Office meeting on Nov. 25, 2009, near the end of the strategy review. The reason to create a secure, self-governing Afghanistan, he said, was “so the cancer doesn’t spread there.”

The story rolls on. If the bomb had exploded, we are told, the United States would have been forced to act — using a secret plan that involved bombing 150 different terrorist camps inside Pakistan. By the way, that’s a lot of terrorist camps.

This threat confuses Pakistani officials, since bombs go off in their streets all the time. Why would Americans be so upset about one bombing? Etc., etc., etc. Finally, the Pakistani leaders receive this ultimatum:

“You can do something that costs you no money,” Jones said. “It may be politically difficult, but it’s the right thing to do if you really have the future of your country in mind. And that is to reject all forms of terrorism as a viable instrument of national policy inside your borders.”

“We rejected it,” Zardari responded.

Jones and Panetta had heard such declarations before.

So what is the religion ghost in this story?

To find it, try to answer this simple question: What is “the cancer” that is “in Pakistan”?

It appears that American leaders believe all terrorists are evil. It appears that on the ground, Pakistani leaders believe that some of the terrorists are evil and that some are not quite as evil and some, in fact, may not be evil at all, but worthy of support from elements of the national establishment.

Meanwhile, the Americans believe that the deadly problem in the region is a “cancer” that lives in Pakistan.

So, from the point of view of the Americans, what is this “cancer”? And from the point of view of the Pakistani officials, what is the difference between a good terrorist and a bad terrorist? At this point, I think that it’s appropriate to ask if these disagreements have anything to do with two terms that do not appear anywhere in this Washington Post story — “sharia” and “Islam.”

Now, are there Muslims who reject all acts of terrorism? Yes there are, millions of them, in fact. Are there Muslims who believe that terrorism is justified in conflicts with infidels and other enemies of Islam? Yes, there are. Are there other Muslims who believe that acts of terrorism can even be justified in conflicts with other Muslims? Yes, there are.

What does this have to do with the story that Woodward is telling? Beats me.


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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.herbely.com Herb Ely

    There are some tough issues here. Were I a journalist writing about this, I would go find a retired Military chaplain who is also a graduate of one of the war colleges and versed in military strategy. Such people do exist. I went to the Army War College with them 20 years ago. The Post story speaks about collateral damage – but ignores the moral issue. The just war criteria should be issues – but I find no mention of them.

  • Jerry

    Pakistan’s (ISI) sponsorship of terrorist groups have been fairly extensively reported in the media but I think in this case I agree it would have been a good idea to go over that again to provide context.

    A biggest ghost to me is the lack of historical coverage. For example, I’d love to read about how religious extremist “letters of marque” differ from that employed by governments such as the United States during the revolutionary and post-revolutionary eras.

    There is a similarity in power between the American Revolutionaries and Britain and what Pakistan faces with India today. Of course there are also differences and those similarities and differences would be a dynamite story.

  • Ben

    from the point of view of the Pakistani officials, what is the difference between a good terrorist and a bad terrorist?

    The good guys for Rawalpindi, or Army HQ and ISI, are the ones who fight more-or-less exclusively outside Pakistan’s borders. So, the Haqqani family (attacks Afghanistan) and Lashkar-e Taiba (attacks India and Kashmir) are the ones that Rawalpindi is still believed to support. A few years back, the US intercepted a conversation in which Army Chief Gen. Kiyani described Haqqani as “an asset.”

    The reason for supporting the groups attacking India is that India is much stronger and these groups, they believe, even the playing field a bit while giving Pakistan plausible deniability.

    The reason for supporting the Haqqanis and other groups attacking Afghanistan are many. A couple: Pakistan doesn’t want two fronts to defend, so it needs a pliant regime in Kabul. And that pliant regime must be Islamist in nature, not secular Pashtun, because Afghans have never accepted the Durand Line that separates the Pashtun population between Pakistan and Afghanistan. If a Pashtun in Kabul ever got uppity enough, he could reopen calls for “Greater Afghanistan,” which include a good chunk of Pakistan. Islamists, on the other hand, don’t base their claims to power based on ethnicity and so would, maybe, be less likely to exert those claims once in power.

    Rawalpindi has gone after other Islamist groups like the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) because these guys attack the Pakistani military and fighting within the country. While Pakistani intelligence tried for awhile to work with these guys, it became clear they were intent on fighting the Pakistani state, so in spring 2009 the Army seriously went after the group.

    I assume you think it’s about religion, but groups like the TTP and the Haqqanis and LeT ALL believe in sharia, and all gorge on militant interpretations of Islam. For Rawalpindi, all that matters is whether they pee in their own yard or not.

  • Ben

    <blockquoteSo, from the point of view of the Americans, what is this "cancer"?

    They fear that Pakistani society could be radicalized as some of these Islamic militant groups are allowed to operate inside the country. The radicalization of the country could at some point pose a threat to the Pakistami military’s control over a nuclear state, is the fear.

    I suspect that this fear was greater in 2009 than it is today, and I don’t know when Woodward was doing the reporting for the book. Up until the spring of 2009, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was expanding into even settled areas of the country. Now the group has been pushed back and I think the Army has shown pretty conclusively that it isn’t about to give up power to some uneducated religious nuts in the hills — and undermines the notion that “saving Pakistan” is a valid reason for continuing this level of US involvement in Afghanistan.

  • Dave

    Calling Obama’s use of the word “cancer” a religious ghost is a stretch too far.

    Were we fighting a conspiracy of terrorists organized around a secular basis, such as the anarchism of 100 years ago, the conversation could have used identical language. No ghost.