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Clinton and the Taleban

Eric S. Margolis / 4 May 2009

The Taleban are coming! The Taleban are coming!

Last week, a bunch of lightly-armed Pashtun mountain tribesmen rode down from Afghanistan’s Malakand region on motorbikes and pickup trucks and briefly swaggered around Buner, only 100 km from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.     

Hysteria erupted in Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a newcomer to foreign affairs, warned these scruffy tribesmen were a global threat. The Pentagon fired off angry messages to Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Pakistan’s generals dutifully responded by attacking the Pashtun tribal miscreants in Buner who had disturbed the peace of the American Raj.

Mrs Clinton might not have overreacted so strongly had she read page 30 of my book, ‘War at the Top of the World:’ 

“In the first quarter of the 20th century…two wonderfully colourful figures emerged from the barren mountains of the Northwest Frontier. First, a fiery holy man with a wonderful name, the Fakir of Ipi. 

The old fakir rallied the Pashtun tribes against the infidel and came within a turban’s length of taking Peshawar from the British, who spent a decade chasing the elusive fakir through the mountains of Waziristan.

“Then, a fearsome figure, the ‘Mad Mullah’ (as the British press branded him), who rode down from the Malakand Pass at the head of 20,000 savage horsemen, determined to put the impious city of Peshawar (the main British Imperial base) to the sword.” 

Plus a change… A century later, Western imperial forces are again chasing unruly Pashtun tribesmen on the wild Northwest Frontier. Today, they’re called ‘terrorists.’ A later-day ‘Mad Mullah’ named Osama lurks somewhere up in the tribal badlands.

Pashtun (aka Pathan) frontier tribes - collectively mislabeled  ‘Taleban’ by Western media - are up in arms again because they are being bombed by US Predator drones, and attacked by the Pakistani Army, which the US rents for $1.5 billion annually, to support its widening war in Afghanistan. 

Pashtun civilian casualties - ‘collateral damage’ in Pentagon speak - are rising fast.  It’s like kicking a hornet’s nest.

The primary cause of the growing rebellion in Northwest Frontier Province is the US war in Afghanistan, which is rapidly spreading into Pakistan. Many Pakistanis see the Afghan Taleban and their own rebellious Pashtun as heroes fighting Western domination, and scorn their own increasingly unpopular leaders in Islamabad as too obedient to Washington.

But Pakistan is bankrupt and must dance to Washington’s tune.    

Even the British Imperial Raj’s most junior officer knew it was foolhardy to provoke warlike Pashtun. But Washington has done just this.  

Still, the Pashtun ‘Taleban’ have no influence outside their Northwest Frontier and, much smaller, in Balochistan. They are not about to take over the rest of Pakistan.

But Washington’s ham-handed tactics in Afghanistan and Pakistan have stirred up a bigger storm: a slow-motion rebellion in Pakistan against the Western-backed feudal oligarchy that has ruled it since 1947.   

Pakistan is among the world’s poorest nations. Half its people are illiterate. Most subsist on $1.13 daily. The feudal landowning elite, only 0.5 per cent of the population, holds over 90 per cent of national wealth. Corruption engulfs everything.  Democracy is a sham; the legal system a cruel joke.  

India is also equally poor, but many of its people have hope. Pakistanis have none. 

Islamic law offers the only justice in Pakistan that can’t be bought. Growing resistance movements in Northwest Frontier and Balochistan call for national leadership that represents Pakistan’s rather than Western interests.  Pakistanis are humiliated by being forced by the US and Britain to wage war against their own people under the pretext of ‘fighting Islamic terrorism.’ 

Everyone now asks, “are Pakistan’s nuclear weapons safe?” Yes. They are heavily guarded by crack army units and the intelligence service and will remain so unless the army splits in a power struggle. Pakistan’s nukes cannot be armed without special security codes.

Many American experts are warning that Pakistan could become another Iran. I’m not so sure, and certainly not soon. Islamic parties have never commanded much support. But Pakistan is headed into very dangerous waters and its political class is largely discredited.  Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif increasingly seems - even to some in the Obama administration - as Pakistan’s last chance.

Not to Hillary. She continues to fulminate about ‘Mad Mullahs’ with A-bombs and, it is whispered, talk to Israel about a joint strike against Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Eric S Margolis is a veteran US  journalist who has reported from  the Middle East, Pakistan and  Afghanistan for several years

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