Understanding the Crisis that Pakistan Faces Today
The Boston Globe: August 15, 2007
The United States has a real problem with Pakistan. But Pakistan has real problems of its own, and the solutions may not mesh with what Washington wants.
After having said he didn't spend much time thinking about Osama bin Laden, the latest National Intelligence Estimate has forced President George W. Bush to face up to the fact that a reconstituted Al Qaeda in Pakistan is a major threat - perhaps the major threat - to the United States.
Clearly, President Pervez Musharraf's attempt to buy peace and loyalty on the northwest frontier has backfired. He had hoped to head off increasing support for Islamist extremists, but instead Al Qaeda has been the beneficiary. Frances Townsend, Bush's Homeland Security adviser, spoke the truth when she said; "It hasn't worked for Pakistan, and it hasn't worked for the United States."
The siege and storming of the Red Mosque has riled the faithful, and Musharraf's unsuccessful attempt to unseat Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry has made the president of Pakistan look foolish.
But what to do? There have been hints of military action against Al Qaeda in Pakistan, some of them clandestine to avoid embarrassing Musharraf who has forbidden American troops on Pakistani soil. Presidential hopeful Barack Obama has advocated attacking Al Qaeda in Pakistan no matter what the Pakistanis think - a formula for disaster. The idea of Navy Seals, CIA or Special Forces operating in some of the most remote and desolate territory on earth without benefit of local knowledge or Pakistani help would be counterproductive in the extreme.
Moreover, the American way of war depends on massive firepower from the air, not the determined, loss-inflicting, village-to-village way that is necessary in irregular warfare. The number of civilian deaths being inflicted in neighboring Afghanistan by American and NATO forces has caused President Hamid Karzai to protest time and time again - the reason being that these civilian deaths are turning the local population against the government. When the tipping point arrives, all U.S. efforts in Afghanistan are doomed. To repeat this in Pakistan would be a strategic blunder on the scale of Iraq.
A result of American armed intervention in Pakistan could be the dissolution of Pakistan itself. The border lands with Afghanistan, Balochistan and the Northwest Frontier Province - never mind the tribal territories - are a major problem for Pakistan. Costly and nation-threatening revolts have plagued the government since Pakistan was formed.
The British had constant problems in the border regions during their tenure, with armed rebellions in Waziristan as late as the 1930s. The strange arrangement of the tribal territories, which are not completely under the government's control, are a legacy of those times when the British tried to buy peace on the frontier.
I can remember 20 years ago taking a steam train, the Landi Kotal local, up to the Khyber pass. I knew I was in the tribal territories when I saw tribesmen getting on board without paying for a ticket as I had done back in Peshawar. When I asked why, they slapped their rifles and said "this is our ticket."
The frontier territories have always been deeply religious. When Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of British India, went up to Peshawar in order to explain the partition of India just before independence, he faced 100,000 angry tribesmen and wasn't able to address the crowd. Only his green army uniform saved the day. The tribesmen thought he was wearing the color of Islam to honor them.
I believe Musharraf is sincere when he says he wants to rid the country of Islamic extremists. But he has to tread carefully, as the tribal nationalism of the frontier is interwoven with Islamism, much of it extreme. His previous attempts at military intervention have been even less successful than his try for a truce. The political ramifications of a full scale revolt on the frontier would be, for Pakistan, far worse than Al Qaeda's presence. Such an event would be worse for America too.
Unfortunately not everybody in Pakistan, including some in the intelligence services, think it a bad thing to have a Taliban card to play just in case Afghanistan turns against Pakistan at some future date. Pakistan has not forgotten that once the Soviets called it quits and withdrew beyond the river Oxus, America lost interest and just walked away, leaving the region in chaos.
The real tragedy is that the United States bungled the job when Osama and Al Qaeda were still in Afghanistan.
H. D. S. Greenway's column appears regularly in The Boston Globe.