America’s next war is already on the go. It is yet undeclared. However, it is not un-approved. ‘Classified orders’, according to New York Times (September 11), were passed by President Bush last July. And surprise of surprises! The target is not ‘axis of evil’-fame Iran. It is most allied ally in ‘war on terror’: Pakistan.
At the time of writing these lines (September 17), news are pouring in from Waziristan where yet another US attack has left another five ‘Taliban’ dead. Only a week ago, 20 ‘Taliban’ were killed in US attack.
In a months time, August 13-September 12, at lest 79 ‘Taliban’ have been killed in nine US attacks on Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. Since January 29, this year’s first attack claiming 12 lives, over 150 people have been killed.
Besides rising death toll, a large scale displacement is taking place across Tribal Areas. From Bajour district only, over 30000 people have migrated to the relative safety of neighbouring districts of NWFP (North Western Frontier Province). True, the large scale displacement also owes to the Shia-Sunni conflict that has flared up in Tribal Areas claiming over 1500 lives only in Kurrum Agency in last one year. The massive military operation launched against Taliban by Pakistan army under the US pressure, continuing since 2003, has drove people out of their homes. Taliban’s successful attempt to capture and turn Tribal Areas into Talibanistan has, no doubt, also inflicted miseries (beheadings, amputations, displacements, dress code) on the residents of Tribal Areas which led to displacement. However, it was the US invasion of Afghanistan that has reduced Tribal Areas to a battle field for multi-pronged war where Shias are fighting Sunnis, Taliban are
pitched against Pakistan military while the US missiles/drones pounding Pakistan.
The Shia-Sunni conflict began plaguing Pakistan in 1980s. The recent Shia-Sunni clashes in Tribal Areas partly reflect the wider problem afflicting Pakistan. However, the immediate cause is Talibanisation-at-gunpoint of Tribal Areas. Staunchly anti-Shia, Taliban at the helm of Kabul brought Afghanistan to the brink of war, back in late 90s, with Iran owing to their anti-Shia crusades. Reportedly, 5000 Shias were massacred by Taliban when they were in power. But attributing Taliban’s’ campaigns against Kurrum Agency Shias to mere confessional fanaticism would be a half-truth. This well-planned campaign is part of the wider Taliban strategy.
The strategy is to Talibanise, politically and administratively, the Tribal Areas. The writ of Pakistani state over Tribal Areas has effectively been replaced by Talibanised Sharia. Having defeated and expelled state apparatus (police, civil administration, courts), Taliban militias have established their own courts to dispense speedy justice. They have established toll-posts to levy road tax on transport. This is a major source of income. Maliks (tribal elders) might posed a challenge to Taliban authority. Hence, public beheadings of ‘US spies’ eliminated some, silenced others. Largely to subdue the local population and partly to win support of the conservative elements, men were told to grow beards (standard size= 5 cm onwards). Women were told to either stay home or hide themselves in blue burkas. Adulterers were duly stoned to death. Lashes for not fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Thieves had their hands amputated. Learning from Afghan experience, they do not shut down girls schools any more lest one day ‘infidels’ defeat them and re-open these schools. They now simply burn them. The tally so far is 500.
A digression: the neo-cons in the USA and their liberal cousins in Pakistan may invoke this information as a rationale to justify a future US invasion of Tribal Areas( only hope for Pakistani liberals to deal with Taliban is Uncle Sam). The information, in fact, is meant for Left consumption. A Left that hails Taliban’s mindless violence as ‘anti-imperialism, resistance, and liberation’ is sorely mistaken.
The Shia tribes on sensing Taliban occupation of the Tribal Areas got alarmed. The Shia massacre in Afghanistan is fresh in their minds. They decided to resist tooth and nail. Iranian backing also proved decisive. Hence, despite losses, Shia tribes have stood their ground. The Shia resistance to Taliban was not the only impediment Taliban faced. They have encountered acts of resistance non-stop. A brave woman, refused to quit her job as school teacher and stay home. Villagers formed militias and resisted, though unsuccessfully. The local tribes at first were no match for Taliban and al-Qaida cadre trained in line with manuals CIA provided them back in 1980s. However, the Shia resistance proved decisively inspiring. It became an impetus for others. The tribes have now formed their own militia and have begun liberating their villages from Taliban.
While Tribes have been left on their own to defend themselves against Taliban, The New York Times (11 September) quoted a senior American official as saying that the Pakistani government had "privately assented to the general concept of limited ground assaults by Special Operations forces against significant militant targets, but that it did not approve each mission". The official did not say which members of the government gave the approval.
Though the present PPP government has denied such assertions but there is a general feeling in Pakistan that such an ‘assent to the general concept of limited ground assaults’ exists. During Musharraf days, every time US would attack, the regime would claim the responsibility instead. Now after every US attack is followed by a protest statement by Pakistan and every protest statement if followed by a US attack.
This whole mess might confuse many outside Pakistan as Pakistan has committed up to 90,000 troops to Tribal Areas and has lost over 1,000 men fighting Taliban since 2003 while Bush Administration keeps lashing out at Islamabad for not doing enough to flush al-Qaida out of Tribal Areas.
The US accuse-and-attack policy in fact is nothing but a farcical re-make of history: unable to defeat North Vietnamese army, Nixon dispatched troops to Combodia. Tariq Ali accurately points out: ‘When in doubt, escalate the war is an old imperial motto’.
Islamabad’s role, however, in Tribal Areas is complicated. Almost 27,200 sq km tribal belt, officially known as the Federal Autonomous Tribal Area, or FATA, is home to 3.3 million Pashtun tribes. The Pashtuns constitute world’s largest tribal group. Imperial Britain divided them by an artificial border, the Durand Line, which went on to become Afghanistan-Pakistan border. When Pakistan was created in 1947, the Pashtun were split between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In the wake of ‘Saur revolution’ in Afghanistan, when the USA decided to give USSR its Vietnam, Tribal Areas and parts of NWFP, bordering Afghanistan, was turned by the CIA into a safe heaven for ‘Mujahideen’, Taliban’s forerunners. The society in Tribal Areas, consequently, immensely suffered. It was brutalised, criminalised and militarised as weapon-and-drug trade remain a major source of funding bearded ‘Jihad’. When USSR withdrew, Dr Najuibullah was able to hold Mujahideen out for another three years. But in 1993, he gave in. The Mujahideen reduced Afghanistan to rubble in their attempt to capture Kabul. The unending chaos was finally put to an end with imperial help. Says Benazir Bhutto: ‘Weapons were supplied to the Taliban by the USA and Britain with money from Saudi Arabia ….Pakistan’s territory was used to train solely the Afghan refugees – Pushtoons, who made up the backbone of Taliban movement’. Even if Benazir’s statement is treated cautiously, tacit US approval for Talibanised take over has been documented in detail by a number of writers. Talibanised control of Kabul was Pakistan military’s first ever success on any external front. The ISI, notorious military intelligence, was architect of this victory.
The Taliban-ISI duo was not merely tactical brothers. Both also had an ideological affinity. During the ‘Jihad’ against Soviets, the Pakistan military too got radicalised. When after 9/11, Washington told the GHQ (military headquarters) to give Taliban up, it reluctantly but obediently followed the instructions. A section of the military, however, refused to give up. The than ISI chief told Taliban to resist US invasion. He was duly removed by General Musharraf. But support for Taliban was not limited to ISI-chief. It was/is pretty wide-spread among army ranks in general. Both serious attempts on General Musharraf’s life were connived, if not planned, by military personnel. Some of them were executed after summary trials by military courts.
Taliban could not hold out long as they had no social base left in Afghanistan. Not a single person came to their defence. The pro-Taliban elements in Pakistan military establishment, however, were able to mobilise and dispatch thousands of Lashkaris (mercenaries) from Pakistan to aid Taliban in their defence of Kabul. Ironically, most of the Lashkaris ended up in Guantanamo while Taliban escaped to the safety of Tribal Areas. Here, assisted by Khaki masters, they re-grouped. The plan was to launch a proxy war as was the case in 1980s with the only difference that, the USA was on the other side of fence this time. The region was skilfully Talibanised over a period of time. The GHQ under General Musharraf’s leadership was indecisive. It most likely gave assent to this proxy war initially. However, a siege of Tribal Areas began when Washington exerted pressure. Hence, the situation has pitched sections of Pakistan military (following US dictates) against
sections of Pakistan military (patronising Taliban) in Tribal Areas. This divide in army was reflected most nakedly in the wake of Red Mosque operation in June 2007 when a series of suicide attacks on military targets, beyond civilian range, shook Pakistan.
Thus, the situation is indeed complex. There are military hawks having ‘faith’ in driving ‘infidel’ out of Kabul and re-Talibanise it. They are miscalculating. Capturing Kabul through proxy war in 1997 while a ragtag freemasonry of Mujahideen was defending Kabul was one thing. Snatching it through proxy war from NATO is a recipe for disaster. Most likely, Taliban on not being able to march westward, they would spread eastward. Already, districts neighbouring Tribal Areas, particularly scenic valleys of Swat have become a battleground for pitched battles between Taliban and Pakistan military. Kohat, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan have received warning shots. However, neither Talibanisation nor Taliban hide-outs should serve an excuse for an imperialist invasion of Pakistan. It will further plunge this region to chaos. The stability in the region can not be guaranteed until US occupation of Afghanistan (moth of all instabilities) is ended.
Talibanisation can be best fought back by masses. The US presence in the region will only delay the Taliban defeat. Unfortunately, all the signs suggest otherwise.
On Fox News Sunday (July 6), Bill Kristol recounted that in a 90-minute, mostly off-the-record meeting with a small group of journalists , President Bush "conveyed the following impression, that he thought the next president’s biggest challenge would not be Iraq, which he thinks he’ll leave in pretty good shape, and would not be Afghanistan, which is manageable by itself. … It’s Pakistan." We have "a sort of friendly government that sort of cooperates and sort of doesn’t. It’s really a complicated and difficult situation." (ends)