The Opportunity in Pakistan
Paris, February 21, 2008 – The outcome of the Pakistan elections was a defeat for the United States even more than for its close ally, President Pervez Musharraf. However this is unlikely to daunt a Bush administration, Democratic opposition, and national security establishment convinced that military alliance with Pakistan provides the road to victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that victory over the Taliban is essential to victory in the war against terror.
Hence the constant pressure that was put on the Musharraf government to intervene against the tribal forces in Pakistan's regions bordering Afghanistan, and the threats sometimes made of unilateral American intervention in that region, both contributing to last week's electoral reaction against Musharraf and what was seen as his subordination of Pakistan to Washington.
And yet where and what is victory? Who is going to surrender? The Taliban are part of the effort by the majority ethnic community in that region, the Pathans or Pushtoons (40-million strong in all), to reclaim the dominant role they held in the past.
It is foolish not to recognize that the Taliban movement is currently the most important vehicle of Pathan ethnic-national ambition in Afghanistan. But the ethnic composition of the Afghan government is in the long term a matter to which the United States government and NATO should be indifferent. That is the concern of the Afghans and their neighbors.
The Pathans have played a large historical role in Asia for more than three thousand years, and if they outlasted the Persians, Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, and the British Empire, they can reasonably be expected to outlast George W. Bush, plus John McCain, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
There is no victory to be found in fighting them. What might be done is try to broker a deal among them and their ethnic rivals in Afghanistan, and with the Afghan government, a possibility certain British agents there have tried to explore. The Taliban have no interest in attacking Americans or Europeans outside Afghanistan, or interfering in the Middle East. Why on earth should they do that?
I have always argued in favor of non-interventionist policies and a minimum of American military action as more likely to serve American interests than the kind of military response to which the Washington policy community and bureaucracy are addicted -- as well as the politicians and press -- demanding that when there seems a threat to American interests the appropriate response is to invade or bomb another country.
Hence I do not expect much positive response to the following advice on what to do about Pakistan today, but it may be worth putting on the record.
There is no foreign aggression or grand geopolitical menace in the Afghan situation. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda may cooperate with the Taliban, but they have no natural place or intrinsic role in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Theirs is an Arab movement, led mainly by Saudi Arabians, under the influence of fundamentalist and puritanical Wahabi religious doctrines.
Al Qaeda is an enemy of the United States because of purely Middle Eastern issues: the supposed corrupting presence of infidel American military forces in the Moslem holy lands, Israel's role in Palestine and the fate of the Palestinians, and control of the oil resources of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf. Its leaders, presumably including Osama bin Ladin, currently are in the untamed tribal regions of Pakistan because it is a good place to hide out.
The Pakistan election that has just taken place provides a opportunity for the United States to wind down a military and political adventure in Central Asia that because of the human and historical realities of the situation is headed for certain failure.
The leaders of the prospective new majority in the Pakistani parliament want to stop the radicalization of religious conflict inside their country, and they want a new relationship with Washington.
Let Washington cease interference in Pakistani politics and government. Let it make plain to the new government that the presence in Pakistan, and the intrusion into Afghanistan of the Taliban and the tribal forces supporting them, is Pakistan's and Afghanistan's problem, which the United States will not and cannot solve for them. It is for both of them an issue of national sovereignty; it's theirs to deal with.
NATO and American policy currently rest on a belief that control of the key Central Asian states contributes to the struggle with Moslem militants in the Middle East. The fact that individuals from the region have migrated west and turned up in Iraq or the Caucasus, and because of the ideological concordance among the militant movements, the false notion of a global "war" of civilizations and religions has been reinforced in some western circles.
There is today a war over who is going to run Afghanistan.
There is another war over who is going to inherit Iraq when the United States leaves. But the two have nothing to do with one another other than that both involve Moslems. They are different kind of Moslems, with different ambitions and interests. It is essential that this be understood.
© Copyright 2008 by Tribune Media Services International. All Rights Reserved.
William Pfaff, "The Opportunity in Pakistan"--2/21/08
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