Hands Off Pakistan

There has been an increase in violence in Afghanistan, and some foreign commentators have blamed Pakistan for supporting those responsible.

It has been said that Afghan insurgents receive sanctuary in Pakistan, which is true, and that this state of affairs can be rectified by more effective policing of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which is nonsense.

It is impossible for Pakistan to do more than is currently being done in attempts to control its frontier with Afghanistan, and it is absurd to imagine the government of Pakistan doesn’t want to control it, because across that border pass vast quantities of drugs and illicit weapons, as well as numerous knaves, criminals, and thugs of all persuasions. It has always been thus, since the border was established. Some differences now are that insurrection and mayhem in Afghanistan are not being supported by Washington, as they were in the 1980s, and that drug production in Afghanistan has increased over a hundred-fold since the U.S. invasion, thanks to the regional warlords who were financed and otherwise supported by the U.S. because they opposed the Taliban government.

The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is policed by Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, a skilled but lightly armed body of 65,000 locally recruited soldiers led by regular army officers which has a score of regional forces with such romantic names as the South Waziristan Scouts and the Khyber Rifles. It has suffered 82 killed in action in the past year in operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border where over 200 regular army soldiers have been killed in the same period.

FATA is a semi-autonomous region in which there is intense resistance by the tribes to extraneous authority. Assertions that Pakistan can bring them to heel by military action are made by those who ignore history, social conditions, and terrain. The tribes do not accept the law of Pakistan and live according to their own tenets, which are difficult for Westerners to understand.

There has been advocacy by clever people in Washington of “an unconventional war that undermines popular support for the insurgents, captures or kills leaders and guerrillas, and destroys their support network” in the tribal areas. I remember identical proposals when serving in Vietnam. They were eagerly embraced in the shape of the monstrous Phoenix Program, and they failed, just as they would fail in FATA.

Large scale counterinsurgency-style operations in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas are being conducted because President Musharraf must be seen as following Washington’s priorities. But it is he who has to cope with tribal and wider domestic reaction to the conflict. The killing in July of alleged Taliban militants in a U.S. operation inside Pakistan created massive resentment, and the tribes are being kept under control only by threats of extreme punitive action by the 70,000 regular soldiers now deployed with the Frontier Corps along the border. At least nine tribal leaders who allegedly cooperated with the authorities have been assassinated. The Tribal Areas are in turmoil.

Musharraf was forced to act against the tribes by Washington and against the advice of experts who recommended the usually effective (but necessarily lengthy) process of bribery, chicanery, and subtly fomenting discord among the tribes in order to achieve government objectives. He has gone as far as he can in pursuit of militants in the border region, and current tactics are working for now. But the dire consequences for Pakistan include destruction of the painstaking process, already underway, by which the tribes were to be weaned away gradually from ultraconservative and archaic customs (which are encouraged by religious leaders and all other males, who are inflexibly opposed to female equality), and into mainstream political and social life in Pakistan. The attempted cure is spreading the disease.

Many insurgents in Afghanistan have close kin in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. The Frontier (the Durand Line) between British India and Afghanistan was defined in 1893, but to the Pashtun tribes it means nothing. They straddle the border in shared custom, religion, blood, and antipathy to foreigners, and they include most Pakistanis in the latter category. Of course, the fighters in Afghanistan obtain assistance from their brethren in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, just as they did during the Soviet occupation, with energetic U.S. endorsement. And they will always receive such support.

Between 1849 and 1939, the British waged 58 full-scale campaigns in the Frontier, trying to bring the tribes to heel. They failed. The Pakistan army is trying to do the same thing at the behest of Washington. It will fail. The tribal areas will remain in ferment for years, but Pakistan will survive, in spite of U.S. policies. On the other side of the border, things will be different.

Non-U.S. NATO is to increase its troop numbers in Afghanistan to 15,000, and its secretary-general states that instead of acting as a peacekeeping force, it will assume the combat role of U.S. troops, which is insane. Neither NATO nor the U.S. military is to have any role in eradicating drug production or smuggling.

The insurgency in Afghanistan will continue until foreign troops leave, whenever that might be. After a while, the government in Kabul will collapse, and there will be anarchy until a brutal, ruthless, drug-rich warlord achieves power. He will rule the country as it has always been ruled by Afghans: by threats, religious ferocity, deceit, bribery, and outright savagery, when the latter can be practiced without retribution. And the latest foreign occupation will become just another memory.

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