One is immediately reminded of the Vietnam War when the Pentagon, unable to defeat North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces, urged invasion of Cambodia.
Sources in Washington say the Pentagon is drawing up plans to attack Pakistan’s "autonomous" tribal region bordering Afghanistan. Limited "hot pursuit" ground incursions by US forces based in Afghanistan, intensive air attacks, and special forces raids into Pakistan’s autonomous tribal region are being evaluated.
This weekend, the US national intelligence chief and other intelligence spokesmen confirmed that strikes against "terrorist targets" in Pakistan’s tribal belt are increasingly possible. These warnings were designed to both further pressure Pakistan’s beleaguered strongman, President Pervez Musharraf into sending more troops to the tribal areas to fight his own people, and to prepare US public opinion for a possible widening of the Afghanistan war into Pakistan.
Pakistan’s 27,200 sq km tribal belt, officially known as the Federal Autonomous Tribal Area, or FATA, is home to 3.3 million Pashtun tribesmen. It has become a safe haven for al-Qaida, Taliban, other Afghan resistance groups, and a hotbed of anti-American activity, thanks mostly to the US-led occupation of Afghanistan which drove many militants across the border into Pakistan. Osama bin Laden is very likely sheltered in this region, as US intelligence claims.
I spent a remarkable time in this wild, medieval region during the 1980’s and 90’s, traveling alone where even Pakistani government officials dared not go, visiting the tribes of Waziristan, Orakzai, Khyber, Chitral, and Kurram, and meeting their chiefs, called "maliks."
These tribal belts are always referred to as "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, if they fell wounded, "save your last bullet for yourself."
But there is law: the traditional Pashtun tribal code, Pashtunwali, that strictly governs behavior and personal honor. 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, which went on to become, like so many other British colonial boundaries, today’s Afghanistan-Pakistan border. When Pakistan was created in 1947, the Pashtun were split between that new nation and Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s Pashtun number 28–30 million, plus an additional 2.5 million refugees from Afghanistan. Pashtuns, one of the British Indian Army’s famed "martial races," occupy many senior positions in Pakistan’s military, intelligence service and bureaucracy, and naturally have much sympathy for their embattled tribal cousins in Afghanistan. The 15 million Pashtun of Afghanistan form that nation’s largest ethnic group and just under half the population.
The tribal agency’s Pashtun reluctantly joined newly-created Pakistan in 1947 under express constitutional guarantee of total autonomy and a ban on Pakistani troops ever entering there.
But under intense US pressure, President Pervez Musharraf violated Pakistan’s constitution by sending 80,000 federal troops to fight the region’s tribes, killing 3,000 of them. In best British imperial tradition, Washington pays Musharraf $100 million monthly to rent his sepoys (native soldiers) to fight Pashtun tribesmen. As a result, Pakistan is fast edging towards civil war, as the bloody siege of Islamabad’s Red Mosque and a current wave of bombings across the nation show.
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 honor far more than money, and cannot be bought. That is likely 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. US forces are already too over-stretched to get involved in yet another little war.
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, Gen. Musharraf. A US attack would sharply raise the threat of anti-US extremists seizing control of strategic Pakistan and marginalize those seeking return to democratic government.
Third, a US attack on the tribal areas could re-ignite the old irredentist movement to reunite Pashtun parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan into an 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.
July 24, 2007
Copyright © 2007 Eric Margolis