The US has been in a bizarre state of semi-war against its ‘ally’ Pakistan for months, launching covert ground and air raids into its territory while claiming to be a close ally of Islamabad in the so-called war on terror.
This week, it was revealed that President George Bush has given the Pentagon the green light to launch major ground attacks inside Pakistan’s tribal territory.
Pakistan, first under the US-backed dictator Pervez Musharraf, and now the new, US-backed president, Asif Zardari, has been put in the impossible position of waging a small war at the behest of Washington against its own pro-Taleban Pashtun tribesmen in the frontier zones known as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) that is bitterly opposed by most Pakistanis and regarded by many as treasonous.
Zardari, the widower of the late Benazir Bhutto, is inheriting this dangerous problem and a host of other ones. Pakistan is almost bankrupt, with less than eight weeks of hard currency reserves to pay for vital imports of food and fuel. Half of Pakistan’s 165 million people live on less than $2 daily.
Financial and political support from Washington helped engineer Zardari into power. He has been put in charge of the millions a month in overt and secret cash flow from Washington — $11.2 billion officially since 2001 — that Musharraf used to buy influence. Contrary to Washington’s claims it was neutral in the race between Zardari and his rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Washington spent a great deal of money and energy trying to sideline Nawaz, who has long been unpopular in Washington as insufficiently responsive to US interests.
Zardari became notorious as ‘Mr. 10 per cent’ when he was minister of public contracts during his wife’s tenure as prime minister. Zardari claims all the corruption charges against him were politically motivated and denies any wrongdoing. But many Pakistanis, particularly in the powerful armed forces, are not happy seeing as their new prime minister a man of dubious reputation and a penchant for personal excess.
Even so, Zardari has apparently assumed all of the sweeping powers held by former president Musharraf. Now that Zardari is seen as Washington’s new Musharraf, these charges against him will redouble. Few outside his People’s Party see Zardari as an ideal choice for Pakistan’s leader in a time of growing crisis, but he may yet rise to the occasion. He has certainly pleased Washington by vowing to prosecute the internal war against pro-Taleban tribesmen and aid the US-led war in Afghanistan. Rising violence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border threatens a far wider crisis. There have been frequent clashes between Pakistan paramilitary units and US forces attacking inside FATA. A major overt US commando raid against a Pashtun village inside Pakistan killed up to 20 civilians last week and brought threats from Pakistan’s chief of staff, Gen. Afshaq Kayani, the 650,000-man armed forces would fight to defend the nation’s territory.
Deeply frustrated by the failure of its war in Afghanistan and inability to defeat Taleban, the Bush administration wants to expand the war into Pakistan tribal areas which are supposedly serving as a base for the Afghan resistance to western occupation. The Pentagon’s influential Special Operations Command, whose senior ranks hold a number of militant Christian fundamentalists, leads the effort to expand the war into Pakistan.
Once again, arrogance and ignorance are misleading the US into another misfortune. Increased US incursions into FATA will almost certainly arouse most of the Pashtun tribes to resist the attackers and eventually involve units of the regular Pakistani armed forces. Pashtuns, 20 per cent of Pakistan’s population, are heavily represented in the higher ranks of the military and intelligence service, ISI.
US attacks will inevitably produce ‘mission creep,’ as American forces are sucked ever deeper into Pakistan. Worse, continuing US attacks on FATA could provoke a major Pashtun tribal uprising and re-ignite a simmering secessionist movement for an independent ‘Pashtunistan’ in the strategic northwest frontier that could tear always fragile Pakistan apart and invite Indian intervention as occurred in East Pakistan in 1971. This explosive issue is barely understood in Washington. Meanwhile, Pakistan is a ticking time bomb and the new Zardari government appears headed into a storm of instability and growing opposition.
Eric S Margolis is a veteran American journalist who reported from the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the ‘80s and ‘90s