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    Posted: 16 September 2005 at 10:09pm

Marking time wisely

By Ayaz Amir

LESS because of bin Laden or Al Qaeda and more because of American folly and bumbling — now truly on an epic scale — our region, from Iraq to Afghanistan to the western borderlands of Pakistan, is in turmoil. And no one, least of all the Pentagon or the CIA, has the slightest idea how this will end and a modicum of stability return.

It is now clearer by the day, even to the benighted, that Iraq has become a sequel to Vietnam, the United States once again bogged in a quagmire. There’s no way America can win Iraq and no easy way America can get out because that would be a huge blow to superpower prestige, an end to the neo-con dream of recasting the Middle East in terms yet more favourable to the US and Israel.

And this is a deadlier version of Vietnam. It took years before Vietnam really became nasty for the Americans. Iraq turned nasty right from the moment the Americans occupied Baghdad. And it is becoming nastier by the day, Americans afraid of venturing out of their concrete fortresses. In Vietnam, Saigon by and large was secured territory, the bar-girl industry, among other things, flourishing. Not so Baghdad where an American, or indeed any other foreigner, displays a spirit of adventure at his peril.

Doubting Thomases who still think the Iraq war is not going this badly should read Mark Danner’s account in the New York Times Sunday magazine titled ‘Taking Stock of the Forever War”. It came out on September 11. Its central message: bin Laden is not losing this war. He’s pretty much fighting it on his terms. The Iraq invasion was a boon for the bin Ladenites because they got the Americans where they wanted: in a deepening quagmire.

Far from reducing Islamic militancy, Iraq has fuelled it, bringing more recruits to the bin Laden cause. If trapped in Tora Bora in Nov-Dec 2001 — from where on horseback he eventually escaped — someone had told bin Laden that four years thence the Americans would be trapped in distant Iraq, he would have put it down as a harebrained possibility. As for Iran, nothing would please Al Qaeda more than an American attack. For it would mean more American overstretch, more recruits for the war against America.

The Americans of course committed another mistake. They went into Iraq before they had quite finished with Afghanistan. The Taliban were not defeated nor quite destroyed. Before superior force they vacated their cities as part of a strategic withdrawal. Classic guerrilla strategy: when the enemy is strong you withdraw, when he is weak you attack.

Vast swathes of Afghanistan remain outside Karzai or American control. The very intensity of the charges against Pakistan that it is not doing enough to seal the border or deal with Taliban elements points to America’s troubles in Afghanistan.

But because of American pressure on us to do something, and the Pakistan Army having reached the stage where it is more than willing to accept this pressure, we are getting burned in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

There are more Pakistani troops along the Afghan border than ever before (by latest count 80,000) but despite launching several operations in South and North Waziristan, the situation far from stabilizing remains pretty dangerous, with pro-government tribal leaders being killed by ‘insurgents’ and the army itself afraid to venture out of its fortified positions. Pakistani military casualties run into the hundreds.

The typical Pakhtoon tribal understands the language of money, trust and friendly engagement, not the language of force. The British kept the tribal areas quiet through political means — the office of the political agent — and the distribution of money where needed.

This system worked quite well for 50 years and more. But under American pressure, and as a result of shortsightedness in Islamabad and GHQ, the political approach gave way to the use of force in Waziristan, with disastrous consequences. While this may have earned brownie points with the Americans, it may also have gone some way to alienate tribes whose patriotism hitherto was taken for granted.

Former Frontier governor Lt Gen Iftikhar Shah was said to favour the political approach to tackle the problem of pro-Taliban militants in South Waziristan. But the then corps commander, Lt Gen Orakzai (now secretary, defence production), was said to favour the use of force. I wonder what Orakzai has to say about this policy now.

Incidentally, Orakzai is the same person who as corps commander Peshawar wore a turban over his uniform and sat in on public meetings organized to gather support for Gen Musharraf during the farcical referendum of 2002 (Musharraf giving himself a further five-year presidential term courtesy the same referendum). When soldiers play at being politicians, the results are often not funny.

The Orakzai policy is being faithfully carried forward by the present corps commander, Lt Gen Safdar. When he assumed charge of the Peshawar corps he made some pretty rash remarks about crushing and killing the militants. In the first assault he ordered in South Waziristan, the army and para-militaries suffered heavy casualties. He has since learnt to be more guarded about his public utterances although it has yet to be seen whether he has any better plan to bring peace to the Waziristan area. On top of all this comes Gen Musharraf’s gratuitous offer to erect a fence along the Pak-Afghan border. Why should we take it upon ourselves to build any kind of fence there? Israel wanted a wall along the West Bank, it built one. The Indians wanted to fence their side of the border with Pakistan. They have done it and are in the process of completing it along the Line of Control in Kashmir. Let the Americans build a fence along the Pakistan-Afghan border if they so desire.

Kasuri, our well-meaning but often over-enthusiastic foreign minister, says Pakistan is tired of being told it is not doing enough to stop militants from crossing over into Afghanistan. He needn’t be so agitated. We’ll have to live with these charges as long as Afghanistan is in turmoil. The more American forces come under pressure in Afghanistan the greater the temptation to look for a scapegoat, none more readily available than Pakistan. So we should understand this situation and learn to keep our cool.

Pakistan is in a danger zone, no doubt about it. We don’t know how Iraq and Afghanistan will play out. Bush is already getting to be a stricken president what with his vacuous handling of Hurricane Katrina and growing public disquiet about the ‘forever’ war in Iraq. Given this uncertainty, the brightest option we have is to mark time, waiting to see how the many storms on the horizon break.

It is a military axiom not to reinforce failure. It could be taken as a civilian axiom not to reinforce foolishness. Pleasing the Americans should be national policy up to a point. It shouldn’t cross the limits of prudence.

What we have to guard against, above all, is getting our fingers burned in the fires America has lighted in Afghanistan. The more trouble the Yanks face there the more they’ll lean on us to do more. We should do what is necessary. We shouldn’t do anything that comes to haunt us later.

Whereas this requires a degree of political smartness, we face a structural problem in the Frontier with not everyone’s idea of a smart governor in the person of Commander Khalil and a corps commander often given to shooting from the hip. The two of them should inspire trust. Instead, they add up to a minor nightmare.

Remember Cambodia, circa 1970 onwards. Frustrated in their fight against the Viet Cong, the Americans, looking for excuses and flailing in the dark, accused Cambodia (then ruled by Prince Sihanouk) of providing safe sanctuary to the Viet Cong. They encouraged a coup against Sihanouk, installing their favourite, Gen Lon Nol, in his place. Then American forces entered Cambodia in pursuit of the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong of course were not defeated but Cambodia was gutted and devastated. It has still not recovered from the after-effects of that disastrous intervention.

Far-fetched as this analogy may sound, it wouldn’t hurt to keep it in mind. We may have no choice except to go along with American policy regarding Afghanistan, bin Laden, Al Qaeda, etc. But let us only do what is essential, on no account alienating our own people or falling for the temptation we Pakistanis find so hard to resist: being more loyal than the king.
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