The eight-year war in Afghanistan has now set Pakistan on fire. What began in 2001 as a supposedly limited American anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan has now become a spreading regional conflict.
Pakistanís army just launched a major ground and air offensive against rebellious Pashtun tribes in wild South Waziristan which Islamabad claims is the epicenter of the growing insurgency against the US-backed government of Asif Ali Zardari.
Itís likely the rebellious Pashtun tribesmen will simply fade into the mountains, leaving the army stuck garrisoning major towns and trying to protect roads. A similar uprising in Kashmir has tied down 500,000 Indian soldiers and paramilitary police.
Washington, by contrast, is delighted. It has long been a key US goal to press Pakistanís tough army into fighting both Pashtun rebels in Pakistan, and the Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan has long hesitated doing so, loathe to wage war on its own tribal people. The US is paying most of the bills for the Waziristan offensive.
Washington has been urging Pakistanís governments to attack South Waziristan, not the least because these formerly autonomous tribal badlands are believed to be sheltering al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Bombings and shootings have been rocking Pakistan, a complex, unstable nation of 167 million, including a recent brazen attack on army HQ in Rawalpindi and a massive bombing of Peshawarís exotic Khyber Bazaar.
Meanwhile, the feeble, deeply unpopular US-installed government in Islamabad faces an increasingly rancorous confrontation with the military and angry opposition groups who accuse it of betraying Pakistanís national interests.
Like the proverbial bull in the china shop, the Obama administration and US Congress chose this explosive time to try to impose yet another layer of American control over Pakistan. This heavy-handed action comes at a time when Nobel peace prize winner Barack Obama considers sending thousands more US troops to Afghanistan.
Tragically, US policy in the Muslim world continues to be too often driven by arrogance, ignorance, and special interest groups.
The current Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, advanced with President Barack Obamaís blessing, is ham-handed dollar diplomacy at its worst. Pakistan, bankrupted by corruption, feudal landlords, and the previous Musharraf military regime, is being offered US $7.5 billion over five years Ė but with outrageous strings attached.
Washington denies any strings are involved. But few in South Asia believe the cash-strapped US is handing over $7.5 billion for the sake of altruism.
The US wants to build a mammoth new embassy for 1,000 personnel in Islamabad, the second largest after its Baghdad fortress-embassy. New personnel are needed, claims Washington, to monitor the $7.5 billion in aid. So US mercenaries (aka `contractorsí) are being brought in to protect US interests and personnel. New US bases may also be in the cards. Most of this new aid will go right into the pockets of the pro-western ruling establishment, about 1% of the population.
Washington is also reportedly demanding some form of indirect veto power over promotions in Pakistanís armed forces and intelligence agency, ISI. This crude attempt to exert more US influence over Pakistanís 617,000-man military has enraged the armed forces and set off alarm bells.
Itís all part of Washingtonís `Afpakí strategy to clamp tighter control over restive Pakistan and make use of its armed forces and spies in Afghanistan. Seizing control of Pakistanís nuclear arsenal, the key to its national defense against a much more powerful India, is the other key US objective. Many Pakistanis believe the US is bent on tearing apart Pakistan in order to seize its nuclear arsenal.
Ninety percent of Pakistanis oppose the US-led war in Afghanistan, and see Taliban and its allies as national resistance to western occupation. But, at the same time, many non-Pashtun Pakistanis strongly oppose the tribal rebellion in Northwest Frontier Province and want the army to crack down on the wildmen of the Northwest Frontier. Interestingly, the British Raj had similar problems with these warlike tribesmen a century ago.
In an alarming development, violent attacks on Pakistanís government are coming not only from once autonomous Pashtun tribes (wrongly called `Talibaní) in Northwest Frontier Province, but, increasingly, in the biggest province, Punjab. Recently, the intemperate US Ambassador in Islamabad, in a fit of imperial hubris, actually called for air attacks on Pashtun leaders in Quetta, capital of Pakistanís restive Baluchistan province.
Washington does not even bother to ask the impotent Islamabad governmentís permission to launch air attacks inside Pakistan. Pakistanís government is only informed after the attacks, which often cause heavy civilian casualties.
Along comes the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Big Bribe as most irate Pakistanis accuse President Asif Ali Zardariís government of being American hirelings. Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, has been dogged for decades by charges of egregious corruption. His senior aides in Pakistan and Washington are also being denounced as foreign stooges by whatís left of Pakistanís media not yet under government control. We heard similar accusations against the US-backed governments of Iran and Egypt.
Washington seems unaware of the fury its heavy-handed, counter-productive policies have whipped up in Pakistan. Like the Bush administration in Iraq, the Obama administration keeps listening to Washington-based neoconservatives, military hawks, and `expertsí who tell it just what it wants to hear, not the hard facts.
As a result, Pakistanís military, the nationís premier institution, is being pushed to the point of revolt. Against the backdrop of bombings and shootings come rumors the heads of Pakistanís armed forces and intelligence may be replaced by the Zardari government. My Pakistani military and intelligence sources report growing unrest in the middle ranks against the pro-US leadership.
Pakistanis are calling for the removal of the Zardari regimeís strongman, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, a former policeman. He was even refused entry into military HQ in Rawalpindi last week.
There are rising calls for the head of Pakistanís ambassador in Washington, my old friend Hussain Haqqani, who is accused of being too close to the Americans. One suspects the adroit Haqqani might become Washingtonís preferred Pakistani leader if Asif Zardariís government crumbles or is ousted.
The possibility of a military coup against the discredited Zardari regime grows. But Pakistan is dependent on US money, and deeply fears India. Can its generals afford to break with patron Washington?