« shameless credit vampire | Main | a promising cynicism »

May 03, 2011



ISI's biggest bargaining card is surely the nukes and related expertise isn't it? However bad Pakistan is, it isn't North Korea. If Obama says that, I think the reply is "shit that would be awful. We'd have to start tightening our belts and no mistake. I suppose we could put the uranium on eBay ..."

Dan Hardie

Hmmm, and then the further response is on the lines of 'wouldn't it be dreadful if a classified diplomatic cable outlining this discussion found its way into the New York Times? Why, we'd find it quite impossible to get Congressional approval for the IMF loan you'd need once the UN sanctions had kicked in.'

Richard J

If the Pakistanis were so gauche to make an explicit threat, perhaps, but I'd imagine you could get across the same message by pointed discussions about the effect of severe budget crises on funding internal security measures.

Dan Hardie

Yes, but I think that Obama really does have a new card to play. 'Gosh, your internal security is getting downscaled? Just as well you don't feel like trafficking in nuclear materials, because if you did you'd have problems staying alive without lots of bodyguards once a bunch of gun-toting sailors landed in your courtyard. And in fact, that might just happen even if you didn't downscale your security. How lucky do you feel?'

This Washington Post article, btw, is already saying that Washington is saying 'we are quite happy to talk to the Taliban...' at the same time as hinting 'and if they really don't want to talk to us, don't they all live in a bunch of walled compounds in Pakistan? Just like that dead guy, forget his name...'


I don't think there's an actual danger of the jihadis seizing the nukes: they're a money earner for all factions and if the real crazies do seize the state then the overclass are going to be the first ones starring in the youtube beheading videos. I think the thing to do from the US point of view is to lean on the GCC to deny wealthy Pakistanis sanctuary and, more generally, use whatever means you have to make the most of the corruption issue in whatever form it might apply to the dealings of the relevant people. If you can coop the Pakistani elite up in their own country you have more chance of making them actually do whatever it is you eventually decide to pay them to do.

Dan Hardie

No, I don't think dsquared or anyone else was talking about 'jihadis seizing nukes', but rather 'Generals threatening to put nuke knowledge on the market'. And I think that game's changed. The President can perfectly credibly threaten to go before Congress and ask for a shutoff of aid to Pakistan, because the voters know where OBL was hiding. They can't threaten to send helicopters full of gunmen into every single General's villa, but if you're a Pakistani spy, soldier or nuclear scientist, today you probably feel rather less safe about messing with the US than you did previously.

There isn't such a thing as a unified Pakistani elite, obviously, or the Army wouldn't have been quite so keen on throwing so many civilian politicians into jail over the years.

But in the short term, there's got to be a good chance that the ISI get told, both by the Americans and by other elements of the Army, not to mess with an Afghan peace deal, horrible though that prospect is to them.

In the longer term, perhaps more civilian polticians, and indeed Generals, start asking how well Pakistan was protected by the proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir, by the general paranoia about India and by the massive over-spending on the Army.

That's a lot to hope for, and it might not happen. But I do think there is a good chance that the ISI will be told, by people it has to listen to, to butt out of Afghan matters.


As Richard says, I don't think there's any need for anything like a threat; I was trying to lighten the mood there. The actual objective facts of the matter are that ex the Army, Pakistan is an anarchy, and ungoverned zones tend to sprout BadThingsForAmerica even when they aren't nuclear states. If the Army/ISI gang falls apart, the ensuing power vacuum is your best chamce of getting something nasty into the hands of the bad guys.

If you're just making the point that the US has a big opportunity to tell the ISI what to do then fair enough, but the tactic of just saying "yessir" and then trusting to lack of interest and care to prevent any effective follow-up has served them well in the past. At the end of the day what you're saying is "if the USA decides to act intelligently and make dealing with Pakistan a priority and manages its relationship with the ISI properly, it can get its own way". Which is true, but it kind of points to a problem with the antecedent. And IMO the reason that the US tends to screw up its management of that relationship is (apart from the US/Pakistan relationship being the ultimate prestige post for the Pakistani careerists but a punishment detail for the State Dept) that they are always treading on eggshells because they are scared of finding out what's in the Pandora' Box that is "Pakistan without the ISI"


(In the meantime, the Pakistani ambassador is talking about Whitey Bulger, which is clearly a way of saying "look lads, if one of us goes to jail we all go to jail, let's remember we're mates and not start putting all our business of the last forty years out iin the street")


And finally, to complete the triple post = loon set, I'd suggest that from a game theoretic point of view, leaning on the Pakistani elite is like leaning on the Israelis - they just lean right back. For one thing, as JKG said, any ruling elite will always take the risk of losing all their status and power rather than voluntarily give up even a little bit. For another, as with the Israelis, they're not scared to put a gun to their own head and threaten to pull the trigger. In Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's terms, the USA has much more capability, but the locals have much more salience - they can't necessarily go anywhere else while the USA can always write a cheque. The relationship is how it is for deep structural reasons, as long as the ISI etc don't start literally taking the piss and becoming more trpuble than they're worth. It's a live question whether we've reached that stage but I think not.

Dan Hardie

No, one of the problems with all this is that you're assuming a unified, monolithic Pakistani elite. There are deep divisions within that elite- obviously between some of the civilians and the military plus their civilian stooges, but arguably also within the military and particularly between the non-spook military and the ISI. Read Imtiaz Gul and Ahmed Rashid.

And what benefit has Pakistan, or even most of 'the Pakistani elite', derived from the ISI's mad policies? Well, the Kashmir proxy war has led Pakistan to the brink of war with India twice in the last ten years. The ISI's nurturing of the Taliban has led to several hundred thousand NATO troops on Pakistan's border, frequent drone raids (and special forces ops as well, you can bet your life) against Pakistani targets, extreme US scrutiny of Pakistan's nuclear effort, increased radicalisation of Pakistani Islamists and lots of other good things. The ISI's long-term policy of allowing radical Islamist parties to recruit and train fighters for Kashmir and Afghanistan finally had to be more-or-less abandoned once the same fighters set up the various Pakistani Taliban militias and came out in open revolt against Islamabad. (See Gul's book 'The most dangerous place'.)

And now, it transpires that the ISI sought to protect Pakistan by sheltering the mass murderer of several thousand Americans in a military town. Not only that, but it couldn't do it successfully- the Americans went in, killed him, took his records, and left unharmed.

Right now, the ISI is looking rather like the Argentine military after the British won the Falklands war. The ISI, like the Argentine forces, have claimed the right to act as violently and repressively as they feel like, because only they can safeguard the sacred interests of the nation. And they've been shown up as violent fantasists, and, perhaps worse, as losers.

As to whether Obama will turn off the Pakistani subsidy, or some of it: after the revelation that the ISI was hiding Osama, he doesn't even have the choice. (Which, I strongly suspect, he intended to happen when his administration batted down early Pakistani claims that they had known of and even helped in the operation to kill Osama.)

Read the WaPo article I linked to above, or Tom Ricks's blog: Ricks says bluntly that he has never seen Congressional support for anything drain away as quickly as for the $2bn US annual subsidy to Pakistan. It's actually not even true, I suspect, that Obama will threaten to cut off the Generals' oxygen: more likely, he will say 'Congress wants me to cut your oxygen off. Now what can you give me that will make me go back to Congress and say we should still give you something?'

And he can get an underling to say, diplomatically, to any ISI man acting tough 'If you do think about nuclear trafficking, we don't even have to send the SEALs in next time- we just did that because we wanted Osama's body. Cruise missiles and rocket-armed drones work just fine. Hey, our President is a liberal lawyer, so maybe you'll be okay. What do you think?'


Nah nah nah I don't think your game theory works. The ISI nuclear trafficking threat isn't "If you do X, then I will do Y" - that would never work, because it's trumped by "If you do Y, I will shoot you, so you will not do Y, so I do X".

The ISI nuclear trafficking proposition is a version of "If you do X, then Y will happen and I will not be able to prevent it". That fundamentally changes the game-structure, because Obama now needs his response to be "I can prevent Y even if you can't, so X". Canonically, this is a chicken-game where one party has no steering wheel.

So my analysis would be that the more chaotic and faction-riven the Pakistani military/ISI are, the stronger their negotiating position. Their value proposition has never been "Hey, we're a bunch of really cool and competent guys, pay us 'cause we're getting things done" - if it was they would be gone years ago. It's always been "This is a crazy, violent and totally dysfunctional mess, but if you give us $2bn to spread around, we can probably paper over the cracks and keep the wheels on[1] for another year". The spectre of good governance in Pakistan destroys the equilbrium that they live off - this is, IMO, consistent with observed behaviour.

This is all Thomas Schelling stuff and it sounds a bit eleven-dimensional, but it works. I have seen at close hand a version of the same behaviour and the "My god what a total shit-show! Better pay everyone lots of money!" dynamic defining the relationship between the London investment banking arm and the European head office of a number of major financial services groups.

[1] Not a mixed metaphor if you assume the ISI are living in a caravan.

Dan Hardie

The Tom Ricks article I referred to is worth reading. Sample:
'Here's Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., NJ) on MSNBC: "they are among the largest recipients of foreign aid, $8 billion; over eight years, $20 billion. And proposed now, almost 4 billion (dollars). We don't have that kind of money to spend around with people who are not our friends."

Dan Hardie

Firstly, all the game-theoretic stuff has to start from explaining the Osama raid. The Pakistani military apparently have all these terrible reprisals they can unleash on the Americans if they really have to. Okay. So why did the Americans not only invade Pakistani airspace to kill a man under the protection of that country's intelligence service, but then publicly and humiliatingly refute Pakistan's face-saving claims that it had known about (or even sent troops on) the raid. Why didn't Obama inform the Pakistanis about the raid, or at least allow them a nice face-saving 'we knew about this' statement, if he was so terrified about the Dreadful Consequences of crossing the ISI? I rather feel a bluff has been called.

Richard J

D^2> More succinctly, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Likewise, I can name several incidences from my last employer, generally also involving hideously loss-making overseas offices.

Dan Hardie

Yes, but this squeaky wheel has been squeaking for decades, perpetually threatening that Dreadful Things Would Happen if (eg) there were US special forces raids on Pakistan to kill jihadist leaders. Well, that just happened, and Obama doesn't seem too horrified by the Dreadful Things. He doesn't even seem to think they will happen.

And in fact, when the Pakistanis began claiming that oh, nothing happens in Pakistan without the fearsome ISI being behind it all, Obama obligingly made it clear that actually, the ISI knew damn all about the raid until Osama was dead and that yes, the President of the United States had actually authorised a clear-cut act of war against Pakistan. Acts of war don't actually get more obvious than flying two dozen commandos several hundred miles across someone else's airspace without that country's permission, but with orders to land and kill people living under that country's protection.

Yes, it really does look like Obama's terrified of the ISI. That must be why he just did all he could to publicly humiliate them.


the squeaky wheel gets the grease

More like "the broken machine gets the maintenance" but yes.

Dan - the point is that the only way that the ISI can activate its "reprisals" involves its own destruction, but that the reprisal is an inevitable consequence of that destruction. errrm, bad analogy coming along:

Say you walk into your living room ready to watch the Cup Final, and find that I have wired up my life-support machine to your television. I am basically stealing your electricity, but if you switch off my life-support machine then your telly will blow a fuse.

I know that you really want to watch the Cup Final, so in principle if I could threaten to blow up your telly then I could get you to fetch me a beer, but the only way I could do that would be to switch off my iron lung, so all I can do is sit there stealing your electricity. For your part, you can slap me around as much as you like when my presence gets irritating, but as long as you want to watch the match, you're going to have to put up with me.

Also assume that electricity costs $2bn a year, that the Cup Final goes on for an indefinite period of time, and that there is no way to just kill me and chuck me out of the machine, by way of repairing this extremely poorly thought out analogy.


And ignore the question of how I dragged the life support machine in there in the first place, please.

Richard J

I suppose Dan's point is using this (to be quite frank, bloody awful analogy) is that while you've been loudly proclaiming how important your life support system is to yourself, and indirectly Dan, Dan's just noticed that the iron lung has been knackered for years.

Dan Hardie

Again, your game theoretic treatment of all this is massively oversimplified. You're writing a two-player game (Obama vs the ISI), when we have a lot more players than that. If Obama really was just playing the ISI, possibly the matrix would be as you say it is. As things are, Obama is not the only US player: he's already got Congressmen and Senators saying 'not one more cent for Pakistan', and so he can plausibly say to the Pakistani Generals and politicians 'I can only give you x subsidy if you give me y concessions to take back to Congress. No more business as usual- frightfully sorry, but my hands are tied.'

And there is certainly more than one set of players on the Pakistani side. We simply don't know how many, but certainly the PPP have long had an adversarial relationship with the military and the ISI; even Sharif fell out with one set of Generals, led by Musharraf, when their foolproof scheme to beat India in Kashmir went wrong; if you read Imtiaz Gul, the police and the judiciary and probably at least some of the Generals hate the ISI because they are the ones that create and nurtured what became the Pakistani Taliban, which is now fighting the Pakistani state and (at least part of) the Pakistani Army.

Some of these domestic players may be emboldened to do what they've always wanted to do, others will see new incentives to turn against old allies, and the US may well decide that it can offer incentives to anyone turning against the ISI. Certainly the current US President appears entirely willing to humiliate the ISI. The last four US Presidents failed to even significantly challenge the Pakistani spooks, although at least two of them had good reason to do so.

This is way more complex than your model, which in consequence is really rather lacking in relevance.


Right now, the ISI is looking rather like the Argentine military after the British won the Falklands war. The ISI, like the Argentine forces, have claimed the right to act as violently and repressively as they feel like, because only they can safeguard the sacred interests of the nation. And they've been shown up as violent fantasists, and, perhaps worse, as losers.

But not for the first time, though: the ISI/armed forces bunch* have been humiliated before, in 1965 and in 1971 and in 1999, and for that matter in 2001 when they almost caused a war by attacking the Indian parliament with their proxies. And in a sense the bin Laden killing is maybe less of a humiliation than being defeated in outright battle by the arch enemy, or than almost getting your country incinerated.

*I'm not sure how meaningful it is to try to draw a distinction between them here.

Richard J

*I'm not sure how meaningful it is to try to draw a distinction between them here.

I think I'd agree with Dan on this point - on an institutional level that seems about right; on a personal level, I suspect the non-ISI faction within the complex has just been given a massive boost.

Dan Hardie

Ajay, what's different this time is that the ISI and Army have pissed off the people who pay a lot of their bills; the Americans. In 1999, American interest in the Pakistani state and army was very low- see eg Steve Coll's 'Ghost Wars'. There were sanctions in place from 1998, triggered by the nuclear tests, but no very active or coherent attempt by the Clinton administration to change any of Pakistan's policies. There was a brief threat by the US against Pakistan in September 2001, and as soon as Musharraf fell in line with Bush, the US immediately again adopted a policy of 'whatever the ISI wants'. They even continued with this policy once informed opinion in the region became convinced that the ISI was sheltering, arming and advising the resurgent Taliban, who were killing US troops- many sources, eg Ahmed Rashid's 'Descent into Chaos'.

I know it's dangerous to say 'this time it's different'. But this time, the ISI and the Army haven't just pissed off Pakistan's civilian politicians- who, in the past, the army has been quite willing to jail or assassinate or execute. But this time, it's annoyed the biggest boy on the block. I don't say things will be different, but it's certainly possible.


I think they can both be true; my point was that repeated humiliation in the past of the ISI/armed forces complex hasn't made them unacceptable to the Pakistani public as rulers of the nation; but also, I'd agree with Dan that there are very definitely factions within the ISI/army with differing views on India, Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, and the various ISI-funded Kashmiri muj groups, and how they should all be treated.


I don't think that complicating the model makes it that much more relevant because the different groups in Pakistan just give you a bunch of subgames which are all structurally the same game; the decision is always "is this client group more trouble than it's worth", where "it's worth" is determined by "how bad could things get if it all fell apart in Pakistan?".

The added subgame between Congress and Obama is on the other hand a genuine complication I'd ommitted (as long as you assume that most of the players believe that there is meaningful Congressional oversight of the ISI relationship). But it's still a structurally similar game - it only makes a difference if Congress genuinely believes that its payoff under the state of affairs {Pakistan falls apart} is no worse than the current running cost of the game. Which is AFAICS what Ricks is implicitly saying, but I don't think I agree.

I don't think Richard's interpretation of my analogy is right, but I think we can all agree it's best not to try and fix that one, so let's stick to the concrete one that we know works.

Imagine that you're a large global professional services firm which has a regional office in Freedonia. Freedonia is an important enough territory that you need to have a presence there in order to give your clients a credible global service. As it happens, your Freedonian subsidiary is run by a spineless crook, and its various departments are headed up by venal politicians and maniacs who hate each other. The Freedonia office always loses money, generates two or three embarrassing industrial tribunals a year, and in general is a total pain in the ass.

On the other hand a) you need to have a presence in Freedonia, and b) you are currently sorting out a massive litigation risk in Freedonia, which you are handling as best you can, but which could potentially destroy your global reputation if sensitive details of it were leaked to the press.

Every year, bonus time rolls around and the assorted crew of crooks and assholes come into your office saying "God it's awful! All my staff are resigning! We have a terrible reputation in the industry, and we simply cannot hire people unless we pay well above market rates and give people multi-year guaranteed contracts!"


That's the model. Now you can add to it something analogous to the Osama affair - ie, you have to clear up another local shit-storm, which the local partners didn't tell you about. I don't think that changes much.

And you can add shareholders (Congress) who start asking you tough questions at your general meeting. In principle, you might end up biting the bullet and closing down the Freedonia office, but in actual fact, this very rarely happens.

Dan Hardie

No, if we use that model, the Osama affair is a case of the local employees saying to head office 'If you do x, y, or worst of all perhaps z, my God are things going to blow up in your face. So don't do those things, and also give us lotsa money, because otherwise the consequences will be unthinkable'.

And Obama's just said 'Oops, I just did z. And you know, I did it because I wanted to do it and because I really don't like or trust you guys, and just to make that plain I'm going to tell every journalist in the world. Now, remind me what the dreadful consequences were going to be. Those are the dreadful consequences that mean I also can't do x or y, right?'

Richard J

I think the key distinction between the analogy and the Pakistani/US situation is whereas in the former, firing the spineless crook and his venal politicians would be a non-starter, simply because doing so would destroy your own position back home (i.e. A: "They're all a bunch of useless crooks!" B: "Why did you hire them then?"), the USA, not directly owning Pakistan [1], can play the Captain Renault card and be shocked, shocked to have found gambling going on.

[1] Pedantic objections regarding the underlying legal structure of multinational professional service firms are noted, and then ignored.


Well yes, but the answer is a) "we were bluffing about z, and probably x too, but we do need y and the money and you know it", and b) "the dreadful consequences are that everyone will resign, you won't have a Freedonian office and Schmenron case will probably end up in the papers".

Now maybe Obama's response is "screw you guys, I think you're bluffing about y and the money too", or maybe it's "to be honest it's worth the trouble just to be shot of you lot". But that's not how I'm betting.

Part of the reason for not putting my counter down on that side is that I think the nuclear-chaos outcome is a lot more of a danger than I think you do. But also, remember that there is a massive salience gap. The most likely outcome in a real-world, noisy-information-and-costly-monitoring game is something like:

Freedonia: "We are terribly terribly sorry sir, kiss your arse, just give us a bit more money and we promise we will deliver x and y right away".

Obama: "That's a bit more bloody like it. Now take this cheque and get cracking. Dammit, I've got lots more important things to spend my time on than constantly checking up on you lot".

Freedonia: "Yes ... you do, don't you sir? [...]"


In a decidedly untheoretical way*, jamie and I had a brief exchange on this on an earlier thread.

Unless I misunderstood him, jamie's version of the 'things blowing up in your face if you do x, y or z' threat was the Pakistani elite deciding not be a US client any more and throwing in their lot with China. (which would make it a very different set of calculations than the Israeli analogy made upthread, as Israel hasn't got any similar potential alternative Great Power suitor). How does this possibility fit in all these game playing scenarios?

*Well, on my part anyway


I don't think it's a credible threat. I think the exchange would go "Hi, we're the Pakistani elite and we'd like to break off all our relations with the USA and become a client of yours!"/"Piss off and lose my phone number".


I think the nuclear-chaos outcome is a lot more of a danger than I think you do.

There are basically three big nuclear worries here. Pakistan nukes someone officially; Pakistani nukes fall into the hands of someone else; Pakistani nuclear knowhow falls into the hands of someone else.

The first has come very close to happening already, in 2001-2, and I am not sure that changes in US policy towards Pakistan will affect this directly; if Pakistan nukes someone, it's going to be India, and whether that happens or not will depend a lot more on Indo-Pak relations than on Pak-US relations.
The third has been happening already thanks to AQ Khan. At worst, it could keep happening; no change there.
As for the second: no nation in history, even the nuttiest, has ever willingly passed sole control of a nuclear weapon to any other nation, even its closest and most stable ally, or to any non-national entity. I don't see Pakistan doing the same. And the "falling into jihadi hands" problem is one that Pakistan itself will have considered at length; safe to say that, in any falling-apart scenario, the last thing to pass out of the hands of the Pakistani government will be the nukes.

Richard J

I do have to wonder if the USSR thought the same thing about Egypt in the mid-70s though.

Dan Hardie

'Dammit, I've got lots more important things to spend my time on than constantly checking up on you lot"....

Yes, but Obama really doesn't have too many things more important than getting US troops out of Afghanistan without having Kandahar fall to the Taliban the very next day. Everyone knows who has been helping the Taliban, and everyone also knows who has played rather an obstructive role in the attempt to get peace talks going between the Taliban and the Karzai government.

Obama's got tough with the ISI once and the roof hasn't fallen in on him- rather the reverse. And he's got good incentives to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan in circumstances other than a complete military defeat.

If I was a senior Pakistani General, or a politician, I might not want to listen to the next ISI zealot who tells me 'we have to support the Taliban because they are vital to our security against India'. Apart from anything else, it might rather occur to me that my interests, while not identical to Obama's, are rather closer to his than to those of the Machiavels of the ISI.

The saner Pakistanis want some kind of peace in Afghanistan, and a reduced chance of war with India, which in turn means less violence in Kashmir and fewer jihadist bombings or shootings in Indian cities. Some of the saner Pakistanis- the civilians and possibly some of the soldiers- will also want a reduction in their country's grotesquely bloated military spending, and a move towards equality before the law, rather than one rule for the soldiers and one for everyone else.

Oddly enough, Obama wants much the same kind of thing, and he pays a lot of the bills. The ISI could easily find that they are not the dominant force in Pakistani politics.

Richard J

the last thing to pass out of the hands of the Pakistani government will be the nukes.

Given where much else of value in Pakistan has ended up, this could possibly make the British Virgin Islands a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics.


ISI director may be sacked. Although apparently he was the chap Kayani picked from outside the intelligence world to keep an eye on them.


The inclination among the Chinese policy elite in private seems increasingly to view Pakistan as something akin to North Korea - an embarrassment they're lumbered with for historical reasons, that might be useful sometimes. I don't think there's any great inclination to get further involved.


Although I'm not sure how much the theoretical dispute (genuinely interesting though it is) translates into practical disagreement about what's going to happen, since as far as I can work out, getting the Taliban into some sort of modus vivendi with Karzai is something that (influential elements of) the ISI want to achieve too. So I guess the empirical test will be a) does the money keep flowing to Pakistan as a whole and b) does the ISI get knocked off its perch within Pakistani society, rather than anything more global.

The comments to this entry are closed.

friends blogs


Blog powered by Typepad

my former home