Back to Afghan front

SOURCES in Washington report the Pentagon and CIA are studying possible military operations against Pakistan’s autonomous’ tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

By Eric Margolis

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Published: Tue 24 Jul 2007, 8:51 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:13 AM

The Bush Administration is ready to lash out at old ally Pakistan, which Washington now blames for its humiliating failures to crush Al Qaeda or defeat Taleban resistance forces in Afghanistan. US attacks would include limited hot pursuit’ ground incursions, intensive air attacks, and raids by special forces into Pakistan’s tribal region.

The US claims the 27,200 sq km region, home to 3.3 million Pashtun tribesmen, has become a safe haven for Al Qaeda and Taleban, and a hotbed of anti-American activity. Indeed it is, thanks mostly to the US-led occupation of Afghanistan which drove opponents across the border.

I spent a remarkable time in this wild medieval region during the 1980’s and 90’s, travelling alone where even Pakistani government officials dared not go, visiting the tribes of Waziristan, Orakzai, Khyber, Chitral, and Kurram, and their chiefs, called maliks.’

These tribal belts are always called lawless.’ Pashtun tribesmen could shoot you if they didn’t like your looks. Rudyard Kipling warned British Imperial soldiers over a century ago, when fighting cruel, ferocious Pashtun warriors of the Afridi clan, save your last bullet for yourself.’

But there is law: the traditional Pashtun tribal code, Pashtunwali, that strictly governs behaviour and personal honour. Protecting guests was sacred. I was captivated by this majestic mountain region and wrote of it extensively in my book, War at the Top of the World.’

The 40 million Pashtun – called Pathan’ by the British – are the world’s largest tribal group. Imperial Britain divided them by an artificial border, the Durand Line. Today, it forms the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pakistan’s Pashtun number 28 million, plus an additional 2.5 million, mostly Pashtun refugees from Afghanistan. Many of the most senior Pakistani officials and military officers are Pashtun. The 15 million Pashtun of Afghanistan form that nation’s largest ethnic group and half the population.

The Pashtun of the tribal agency created by Imperial Britain reluctantly joined Pakistan when it was created in 1947, however, with express constitutional guarantee of total autonomy and a ban on Pakistani troops entering there.

But under intense US pressure, Pakistan’s President, Pervez Musharraf, ignored his nation’s constitution by sending 80,000 federal troops to fight the region’s Pashtun tribes, killing 3,000 of them. Pashtun in Baluchistan were also attacked.

In best British imperial tradition, Washington has been paying Musharraf $100 million monthly to rent his sepoys (native soldiers) to fight increasingly rebellious Pashtun tribesmen. As a result, Pakistan is fast edging towards civil war. The recent bloody storming of Islamabad’s Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) and waves of bombings against government forces underline this growing danger.

The anti-communist Taliban movement is part of the Pashtun people. Taliban fighters move across the artificial Pakistan-Afghanistan border, to borrow a Maoism, like fish through the sea. Osama bin Laden is a hero in the region, and likely shelters there.

The US just increased its reward for bin Laden to $50 million and plans to shower $750 million on the tribal region in an effort to buy loyalty. Bush/Cheney & Co. do not understand that while they can rent President Musharraf’s government in Islamabad, many Pashtun value personal honour far more than money, and cannot be bought. That is why bin Laden has not yet been betrayed.

Any US attack on Pakistan would be a catastrophic mistake. First, air and ground assaults will succeed only in widening the anti-US war and merging it with Afghanistan’s resistance to western occupation.

Second, Pakistan’s army officers who refuse to be bought may resist a US attack on their homeland, and overthrow the man who allowed it, General Musharraf. A US attack would sharply raise the threat of anti-US extremists seizing control of strategic Pakistan and marginalise those seeking return to democratic government.

Third, a US attack on the tribal areas could re-ignite the old secessionist movement to reunite Pashtun parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan into a new, independent state, Pashtunistan.’ That could begin unraveling fragile Pakistan, leaving its nuclear arsenal up for grabs, and India tempted to intervene.

The US military has grown used to attacking small, weak nations like Grenada, Panama, and Iraq. Pakistan, with 163 million people, and a poorly equipped but very tough 550,000-man army, will offer no easy victories. Those Bush administration officials who foolishly advocate attacking Pakistan are playing with fire.

Eric S. Margolis is a veteran American journalist and contributing foreign editor of The Toronto Sun.

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