LONDON – US Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit last week to South Asia was not what one could call a rousing success.
Cheney, the real power behind the Bush Administration, arrived at Bagram air base, formerly the nerve center for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Today, it plays the same role for the US occupation. A suicide bomber attacked the base’s main gate, killing a score of soldiers and civilians and hugely embarrassing Cheney. Worse, the 60 km `secure’ highway between Bagram and Kabul has become so dangerous that Cheney could not travel by road through this region which is deemed highly secure by US and NATO forces to meet with the American-installed figurehead leader, Hamid Karzai, who is constantly surrounded by up to 200 US bodyguards.
Anti-western forces are quickly gaining ground in Afghanistan. What Washington and its NATO allies keep claiming is an `anti-terrorist operation’ against a handful of al-Qaida fighters and Taliban has, in fact, turned into fast-growing Afghan national resistance to foreign occupation. Were it not for the US Air Force’s might and ubiquitous presence, US, Canadian, and British troops would soon be driven from southern Afghanistan. The respected Senlis Council, which closely monitors Afghanistan, reports half that nation is now under Taliban control or influence.
The fast-deteriorating situation there is provoking furious finger-pointing. Washington and NATO are angrily blaming Pakistan for sheltering and abetting Taliban and its allies. Pakistan blames the feeble Karzai regime which can’t control its own territory. Now, US intelligence reports that al-Qaida has reconstituted itself in spite of President George Bush’s so-called $690 billion `war on terror.’
Cheney went on to Pakistan to threaten President Pervez Musharraf, with a cutoff of US aid – and perhaps much worse – if he didn’t crack down further on Pashtun tribesmen in the frontier provinces who are aiding Taliban and other Pashtun and nationalist resistance groups. The western powers are following India’s lead over Kashmir by accusing Pakistan of `cross-border terrorism.’
This is untrue. The 40 million Pashtun, the world’s largest tribe, have never recognized the British-drawn 1893 border between Pakistan and Afghanistan that cuts their traditional territory in two. They cross it at will and maintain close links with relatives and clansmen on the other side of the border who strongly support Taliban and its allies.
In the 1980’s and 90’s, I explored and became fascinated by the wild, lawless, then little-known frontier tribal agencies of north and south Waziristan, Khyber, Mohmand, Orakzai and Malakand. Their warlike, fiercely independent tribes joined Pakistan in 1947 under constitutional guarantee of total autonomy that excluded government soldiers from the tribal agencies.
Intense US pressure forced Musharraf to violate Pakistan’s constitution by sending troops into the tribal territories. The army shamefully launched heavy attacks, killing over 3,000 civilians. Outrage across Pakistan forced Musharraf to back down and withdraw some troops. `Fight India, not your own people,’ cried the press. It was one of the darkest days for Pakistan’s Army.
Many Pakistanis oppose the US occupation of Afghanistan, support their old anti-communist ally, Taliban, and think better of Osama bin Laden than George Bush. Many senior and junior officers in Pakistan’s military and powerful intelligence service, ISI, feel similarly and are bitter at Musharraf for abandoning Taliban and resistance groups fighting to oust Indian rule in divided Kashmir.
Musharraf is thus caught between Washington’s growing demands and his own people who increasingly accuse him of being an American tool. Washington simply does not understand it has pushed the isolated, unpopular Musharraf too far already. If he is blown up or overthrown, Pakistan and its 40-60 nuclear weapons, could turn into an even bigger and more dangerous hotbed of anti-western activity. The next army corps commander who takes over may not be as amenable to Washington’s demands as Pervez Musharraf.
Meanwhile, Washington is increasingly blaming its Afghanistan fiasco on whipping boy Pakistan, just as the Vietnam defeat was blamed on infiltration from Cambodia and Laos. Recently, a remarkably ill-informed Canadian defense minister foolishly proposed sending Canadian troops into Pakistan’s tribal agencies to `fight terrorists.’
Picking a fight with old, loyal ally Pakistan is both morally wrong and fraught with untold dangers. The US has forgotten how it forced another compliant military ruler, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, into policies his people hated. He was assassinated, to national joy.
Negotiating a deal with Taliban and other Afghan resistance forces is the only way out of the current morass, not undermining Pakistan or expanding a war that is already lost.