Pakistan: The War Party’s New Frontier
“What a world! What a world!” That’s what the Wicked Witch of the West exclaimed as she melted in one of the final scenes of The Wizard of Oz, and today her plaintive cry seems the only possible reaction to the headlines reporting trouble every which way: Pakistan about to explode, the Taliban retaking Afghanistan, Iran spreading its influence deep into “liberated” Iraq, and a new cold war brewing in the steppes of the Caucasus. From Eastern Europe to the Far Eastern reaches of Central Asia, a storm is gathering. Whoever is president in 2009 is going to be facing some of the most dangerous crises since the Great War, when a single shot fired in Sarajevo sparked a global conflagration, giving rise to two world wars and the bloodiest century in the history of mankind.
The most serious eruption in this world of trouble at the moment is the crisis in Pakistan, where the corrupt Pakistan Peoples Party of the late Benazir Bhutto has taken power in the latest elections and governs in a very shaky coalition that is already threatening to rip apart. New President Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of the assassinated Bhutto, is known as “Mr. Ten Percent” on account of his reputation for corruption. He is being actively undermined by the Muslim opposition parties, and he enjoys very thin support throughout the country. Worse yet, his ascension to the presidency coincides with an upsurge in violence emanating from the Taliban, the tribal areas, and indigenous Muslim fundamentalist groups. The whole country looks about to burst apart at the seams, with U.S. policymakers no doubt already nostalgic for Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani strongman forced to step down because of his notable lack of “democratic” credentials.
As to whether Pakistan needs more democracy instead of more generals like old Mushie – who never hesitated to crack down when the cracking was called for – hardly seems debatable. The only question is whether or not the country can survive the next few months in one piece.
That is a vitally important question, as far as our national security is concerned, because of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Musharraf, America’s best friend in the region, once stood guard at the gates of the nation’s nukes, but no more. Now the avaricious Zardari, weak and corrupt, is all that stands between Osama bin Laden’s friends in the region and a considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons. At this point, U.S. officials should be singing the chorus loud and clear: “Oh Mushie, won’t you please come home!” It’s too late for that, of course, although if I were Mushie, I’d answer with a song of my own: “Who’s Sorry Now?“
There was a lot of pressure from the U.S. – particularly from the Democrats in Congress, such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden – to force Mushie out and to bring “democracy” to the country. Now the crisis created by U.S. interference needs to be “solved” by even more forceful intervention, and it somehow comes as no surprise that Pakistan is the preferred battlefield of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who once proposed invading the country and now gleefully points to cross-border raids into the tribal areas by U.S. forces as evidence that he was right all along.
Yet precedents set by the Bush administration hardly constitute evidence of rationality and deep thinking. These are, after all, the same people who led us to disaster in Iraq. Who’s to say their policies – continued and expanded on by an Obama administration – won’t do the same in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Indeed, that is precisely where we are headed.
The idea that the U.S. can invade and occupy Pakistan and Afghanistan just as it has invaded and occupied Iraq – albeit this time successfully – is perhaps the single most dangerous concept prevalent among partisan Democratic policy wonks and the politicians who heed their advice. Large-scale military action in Pakistan and a stepped-up war across the border in the Afghan south would dwarf our earlier error by several orders of magnitude.
The Pashtun people, who make up the great majority of anti-Western opposition forces in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Afghanistan, have successfully resisted waves of invaders stretching back to ancient times. More recently, they defeated the British and the Russians, who sought to impose forms of colonial rule, and the list of the vanquished goes back to the time of Alexander. It is not for nothing that Afghanistan has been called “the boneyard of empires.” If this history is too ancient to be considered relevant in our day and age, then one has to wonder: Have the Americans learned nothing from their Iraqi adventure?
Much is made of the Taliban’s incursions into Pakistan, but this is nothing new. Tribal fighters have been crossing what is called the “Durand line” – established by British colonial authorities as the official border between Afghanistan and what was then British India – ever since it was demarcated by the British foreign secretary, Sir Mortimer Durand, in 1893. That Pashtuns live on both sides of this divide is a fact that has bedeviled the authorities in Pakistan since 1947, when the Afghan loya jirga declared the Durand line invalid. This region, like much of the rest of the world, is cursed with the legacy of colonial borders imposed by foreigners and fiercely resented.
These lines on a map are the cause of most of the wars occurring in the latter half of the 20th century. The Durand line has no legitimacy, and it is fading along with the memory of the imperial power that gave it force. There is no way that the Pashtuns, a majority in Afghanistan and the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan, are going to respect this crumbling remnant of Britain’s imperial heyday.
Many of the same people who excoriate Bush’s decision to invade Iraq are champing at the bit to launch a U.S. invasion of Pakistan, most of them partisan Democrats who support the ostensibly antiwar Barack Obama. They argue that this is the war we ought to have been fighting all along: Iraq was a diversion from fighting those who actually attacked us on 9/11, namely, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization, who were last seen enjoying the hospitality of the Taliban.
Yet the Taliban is not al-Qaeda. The Taliban movement grew up as a reaction to the warlordism and lawlessness that plagued the country after the Soviets withdrew. The power vacuum was filled by characters who by no stretch of the imagination qualified for the title of “freedom fighter,” as their American sponsors described them during the Cold War years.
The Taliban started as a movement among religious students who grew up in the refugee camps in Pakistan. In the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal and the rise of bandit gangs as the only “law” in the land, the Taliban – students educated in the madrassas of Pakistan, imbued with the strictures of a fanatical devotion to Sharia law – held out the promise of stability.
The first Taliban revolt and attempt to seize power was sparked by the taking of a young boy by a local warlord, to serve as the warlord’s male concubine. Homosexuality is rampant in the region because of the unavailability of women, who live lives of seclusion strictly enforced by their male relatives. As long as it’s kept quiet, it is allowed to flourish. However, this open display of impiety was too much for the deeply conservative rural population of Kandahar, and so, in 1994, the Taliban rose up, overthrew the warlord, and sparked a prairie fire that eventually enveloped the capital city of Kabul.
As the only organized alternative to warlords gone wild, the Taliban gained the one thing essential to all governments, everywhere, whether democratic or despotic, and that is legitimacy. Al-Qaeda had nothing to do with the coming of the Taliban to power. Bin Laden latched on to them in his search for refuge, which had taken him out of Sudan and into the wilds of Afghanistan – the leader of a small group of fringe fanatics who had no support in the Muslim world and no base anywhere other than the cave they chose to hide in.
Bin Laden gained enormous stature only in the wake of 9/11, and this is not, I contend, because he planned these terrorist acts, but because he got away with it – in spite of, or, perhaps, because of the massive and hurried U.S. invasion. The inspirer of the 9/11 terrorist attacks escaped under cover of the very war unleashed to destroy him, and he survives to this day, camouflaged by the chaos unleashed by our lumbering, thoughtless aggression.
Impelled by politics rather than a real desire to capture bin Laden and his followers, the U.S. government launched a showy act of “retribution.” It had to be immediate, it had to be massive – and, by its very nature, it had to fail. Lost in the fog of war, bin Laden and his cohorts slipped out of the dragnet and into the popular imagination of Muslims worldwide as a heroic figure.
Consider an alternate history in which the U.S. authorities – instead of being driven by internal political considerations and the emotions of the moment – had refrained from launching an all-out attack, and instead, keeping bin Laden in their sights, had prepared a precision strike that would have cut off the head of the snake. We are reduced, today, to slashing at the monster’s tail. Our insoluble problem is that each time we cut it off, it grows another in no time at all.
The irony and paradox of our eternal “war on terrorism” – whether waged by Republicans or Democrats – is that it is a great gift to bin Laden and his burgeoning legion of imitators worldwide. As in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when our planes were used as weapons against us, al-Qaeda and its allies use our technological and military prowess against us. The very fighter jets that sow destruction in the hinterlands of Pakistan will reap a bumper crop of little Osamas – now one of the most popular names parents give to their male children across a wide swath of Pashtunistan and throughout the Muslim world.
Pakistan looks to be the War Party’s new frontier. Now there’s a phrase we haven’t heard for a while, until very recently. It was first utilized by the administration of John F. Kennedy to prettify his program of statism at home and war abroad. Obama is often likened to Kennedy, in his youthful attractiveness and promise of “change” – but I’m afraid that, in the realm of foreign policy, there will be no new frontiers for the Obama administration, only old ones that have long since been explored and mapped. Which only goes to show, once again, the veracity of that old truism: the more things change, the more they remain the same.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I don’t always write about politics or foreign policy, especially when I publish in other venues. For example, here I am with an essay about HGTV, the home decoration/real estate channel. Go on over to Taki’s Magazine and check it out…
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