You may have noticed a rash of articles in the press recently, suggesting that Pakistan is in imminent danger of falling to the Taliban extremists that once ruled Afghanistan and now control some regions of Pakistan in the Northwest Tribal areas. Their recent capture of Buner, a city just sixty miles from the Pakistani capitol of Islamabad, has prompted a new alarm about the dangers of Pakistan becoming a radical Islamic state. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appearing before a House subcommittee this past week, expressed mild panic about the advancement of the Taliban and the possible collapse of the country by Islamic radicals. And, anytime you think about Pakistan falling to radical forces, the next image that pops up relates to the fact that whoever rules Pakistan, has a finger on the nuclear option, and one can quickly go from there to an image of an apocalyptic Armageddon, as World War III gets underway, with the U.S. at the epicenter of the conflict over Afghanistan. Apocalyptic visionaries flourish in Washington and are given sway in the mainstream media. I saw a report recently where one of the comments was “Pakistan is gone.” But, even the more cautious in Washington are trying to connect the dots as follows: since the Taliban now rule regions of Pakistan within sixty miles of Islamabad, the situation is nearing crisis proportions, if not already defining a state of imminent collapse of the present government. So look for another Washington-sponsored military coup sometime soon (but hopefully not). Horrors! There are many in Pakistan who refer to this conflict as “the American’s war.” Who knows?
So, how imminent is the Taliban threat to Pakistan? Not too long ago, we were only talking about the Taliban as a threat to Afghanistan, but suddenly a new worry is on the horizon. Are they on steroids or something? But, about the time that new war drums start to beat, or a national panic sets in, or Washingtonian hysteria creeps over the horizon, then we should try to search for knowledgeable and objective sources that don’t make a living by rattling swords and removing them from their scabbards. But to whom should we direct our request for objectivity? My perennial favorite for objective information on Islamic threats and regional history is Juan Cole, who is one of our best informed historians on Islam and a professor of history at the University of Michigan. His most recent posting on Pakistan is reassuring about the makeup of the country that guards against an imminent Taliban sweep and the possibility of a extremist nuclear holocaust. As he points out, the Taliban come from the Pushtun tribal areas that are close to Islamabad and stretch along the border with Pakistan. Indeed many Afghans belong to the large Pushtun tribes, so it is sometimes difficult even to put a strict “Pakistan” identity to the Taliban. But the Pushtuns represent only a small regional part of the Pakistani population: 85% of Pakistanis live in Punjab or Sindh and are largely represented by religious traditionalists, including Sufis, Shiites, Sufi-Shiites, or urban modernists. While these regions also have some Islamic fundamentalist groups, the Pakistani population as a whole has marched towards a more modern society, though serious problems persist. The middle class of Pakistan has doubled since 2000. Furthermore, the military of Pakistan is a large, effective fighting force of 550,000 men who are well trained and well equipped (as they have to be since they have faced off against India for many confrontations). In contrast, the Pakistani Taliban force amounts to a few thousand fighters who don’t have tanks, armored vehicles, or an air force. Last fall the Pakistan military had a major military engagement with the Taliban in Bajaur Pakistan, where 1000 extremists were killed in a fierce battle in the area. Some identified groups in the area were non-military tribal leaders who were fighting the extremists and also declared that they would fight Americans with the same ferocity if they came across the border into Pakistan. Drug money in the Pushtun tribal areas helps maintain the extremists in arms and ammunition. But even in the Pushtun region of Buner, there was substantial opposition to the Taliban and their recent imposition of Shariah law.According to Cole, the popularity of the Taliban and al-Qaeda plummeted after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Cole’s best guess is that the alarm for the imminent collapse of Pakistan to the Taliban is being fed by those in Pakistan that want our help in restoring a military dictatorship or want to milk the U.S. for more money. The idea that Pakistan could fall to the Taliban is ranked by Cole as about as likely as Mexico retaking Texas (my interpretation).
But the pessimism about Pakistan’s future won’t go away. A recent article in the Times paints a grim picture of the methods and determination of the Taliban and how their strategy, in the absence of reliable government support for the opposition, can lead to demoralization among local citizens who don’t want the Taliban in the region, but don’t have the means to resist, and don’t receive sufficient outside support from the government. In contrast, one of the largest recent public demonstrations in Pakistan was the turnout in favor of returning the Supreme Court justices to their positions, after they had been dismissed by the military dictatorship–hardly the act of pro-Taliban populists. At the Federal level last year, Pakistanis voted largely for the Pakistan People’s Party or the Muslim League, neither of which are fundamentalists. So, the country as a whole does not seem to be enchanted by extremists. One must also remember that any military coup that might take place, like the last one, was done with prior approval from Washington. Where would the international support come from if a military coup in Pakistan was initiated by the Taliban? China? Not likely. Iran? No, they are the sworn enemies of the Taliban (in fact Iran let the U.S. use Iranian air bases for our attacks against the Taliban after 9/11).
A different question than one directed towards the internal threats serving to destabilize the government of Pakistan, is whether our presence in Pakistan, with our drones making missile strikes against suspected terrorist groups in the Northwest tribal areas, represents a source of destabilization to the region and the country. Every time a missile fired from a drone hits a wedding party rather than a terrorist camp, our actions contribute to a new recruiting opportunity for the Taliban. To me, it is hard to argue that our campaign in Afghanistan, which has spilled over into Pakistan, has been anything other than a successful recruiting tool for new Taliban fighters. It seems equally clear to me that the war in Pakistan is indeed America’s war. With support from drug money and new fighters recruited by our own bombings and increased visibility in Pakistan, we continue to dig a much deeper hole for ourselves than the one we had just a few years ago. Polls in Pakistan show that the majority want the United States out of the country completely and they want the U.S. to honor the sovereignty of the Pakistani state. Our presence there further destabilizes the unpopular leadership of Asif Ali Zardari, following the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto in 2007. If our presence in Pakistan serves to re-introduce a military dictatorship, then that too will not serve the best interests of the developing civilian government or the U.S. The question we must ask ourselves is this: in order to stabilize Afghanistan, a country of 30 million people, are we willing to risk destabilizing Pakistan, a country of 165 million people and a country with a nuclear arsenal? Isn’t this continued war the creation and propagation of American Hubris on steroids? Haven’t we recited the wrong narrative to ourselves for far too long? Didn’t we learn anything from Korea, Vietnam or Iraq? We have continuously propagated a fictional version of our results in those conflicts in order to preserve a mythical vision of America as an undefeated superpower, a vision that cannot withstand simple tests of reality. But this tiresome, redundant version of our history can only be bought and sold in America. People outside of America now mostly know the truth.
If there is a silver lining to this false version of our own history, least it is one thing we will never outsource and it does provide a significant element to our economy. That way it seems easy for us to continue to purchase military hardware that was designed to confront the Russians during the Cold War (we will see if the F-22 fighter jet will truly be cancelled–it was designed to confront Russian MIGs). We continue with our metaphor of inventive deceit when we hide from our own citizens the reality that, for most of the conflicts we have been engaged in since WW II, we have been big losers; yet the image we portray of ourselves is one of standing up to the evils of communism and finally defeating the multi-headed monster through the triumph of the Cold War. And, then we defeated terrorism in Iraq even if that country had nothing to do with 9/11. Any other version of our history is perverse and must be one promoted by a bunch of losers who only want to destroy America, not those who want to promote its best interests. The truth is, if we had been honest about Korea, we would never have fought Vietnam or Iraq.
Today, al-Qaeda in Pakistan is apparently reduced to a few hundred fighters who help the Taliban but do not have an operational force that we need to worry about. Unfortunately, Obama has turned the Afghanistan conflict into his own brand of warfare, and while he has smoothed some of the rough edges off of the conflict in Afghanistan, it’s still a brand based on America’s delusional history of itself, with the added expense and long-term commitment towards nation-building. We persist in applying an American model of what we think the region should look like. Yet, our experience in Iraq, if we were honest about what and how we accomplished what exists today, has been that we didn’t really bring democracy to the country, we simply exchanged a Sunni dictatorship for a Shiite government whose closest ally is Iran. If you tell Americans that we fought hard and drained our treasury so that Iran could become a more powerful player in the Middle East, they might have a very different attitude towards what we are doing today in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But in a nutshell, that’s what we accomplished.
We do indeed get to pick our wars when we invade other countries, but we don’t get to pick the outcome and we never have. Not knowing our own history is a feature that most Americans share with the citizens of ancient Rome. If you have followed the recent events in Iraq, you realize that the country, destroyed beyond any possibility of short-term repair, with dispersion of millions of Iraqis that are not coming back to the country, remains as a tinder box, ready to explode if the displaced Sunni minority isn’t brought back into some form of power sharing in the al-Maliki government.
As a country, we have allowed ourselves to be driven to the brink of an economic collapse, with our unwavering insistence on global military hegemony as an non-debatable part of the equation we apply to the world. In somewhat more knowledgeable parts of the country, the argument goes that we have created so many enemies, due to countless blowbacks that are waiting to hatch in the nursery of our future, and possibly carry with them the use nuclear weapons, that, at all costs to our own economy, we must persist in maintaining our military posture. And we need examples like Afghanistan and Pakistan to prove it!
When discussions about Pakistan take place in government today, these apocalyptic story threads we hear about probably seem very plausible to those who ponder the next step in our official response to these “threats.” At the very least these decisions seem to be done to avoid the least resistive among the political options. You can’t make a U-trun when you’re driving on a freeway. But, in the light of day, when we engage in major wars against a few hundred people, destroying millions of lives in the process, if we don’t recognize that the road we are building to our future is the same one that the Romans built to theirs two thousand years ago, then we will surely continue to go down the road we are on that can only lead to more economic hardship and military commitments that we can’t afford. The current trolley car ride of emulating ancient Rome, is void of any vision about who the new Goths or the Visigoths in our future will be–those that sacked Rome after its capitulation. But, let’s face it, we already know the answer to that question as well. The threats of war and external instability that are always over-hyped and over-cooked prevent us from marshaling the resources and focus on the issues we will need to address in order to save the planet and the environment. We know who the Goths are–they are the Republicans!
Note added: recent reports have suggested that reinforcements into the Buner area forced the Taliban to move their forces back into the Swat area, reversing their recent achievements in Buner.
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