Asif Zardari and the American Anti-Taliban Raids

On this seventh anniversary-day of the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the top news-story is probably the joint appearance at Ground Zero by the two main US presidential candidates. In addition to whatever they may have to say, the occasion will be worth savoring for the all-too-temporary respite it should provide in the ugly partisanship that has prevailed as of late (e.g. the utterly-contrived “lipstick-on-a-pig” contretemps). I hope to be able to cover foreign observations of and reactions to that Ground Zero ceremony in this space sometime in the coming days.

For today, though, I think that it would be suitable to turn our attention to the supposed ultimate source of that al-Qaeda attack, and also the first target for retribution by US forces in its aftermath. That is of course Afghanistan, or specifically al-Qaeda as embedded within a Taliban host environment. Actually, putting it that way shifts the proper focus a slight bit from Afghani territory per se to the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan lying along the Afghani border. These are hardly “federally administered,” they are in fact a region completely out of the control of the Pakistani government, where various varieties of “neo-Taliban” and Muslim fundamentalist forces are based (including, it is thought, what is left of al-Qaeda), and from which these forces sally forth to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The addressing of this topic now is boosted considerably by Dexter Filkin’s excellent article, “Talibanistan: Right at the Edge” in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. The take-away: The Taliban and al-Qaeda fully control these tribal areas, and the Pakistani government has no problem with that. Any purported actions by the Pakistani army against the region are sheer political theater, designed only to fool the outside world – and in particular Pakistan’s billion-dollar paymaster, the US – that something serious is being done. And then we have today’s report in the New York Times of President George W. Bush authorizing sometime in July “American Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government.” (The NYT reporters Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti note “It is unclear precisely what legal authorities the United States has invoked to conduct even limited ground raids in a friendly country” – but when has mere legality ever been a consideration for the Bush administration?) The same article quotes “Pakistan’s top army officer” (without naming him – so that must be Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kiyani) as declaring “that his forces would not tolerate American excursions,” but one happened anyway on September 3, a Navy SEAL helicopter raid within Pakistan. The Pakistani authorities then closed the supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass for a few hours – first to show “how serious [they] are,” but then allegedly only due to “security reasons.”

Terrorist Breeding-Ground

This view of the extremist danger residing there in the so-called Pakistani Federally Administered Tribal Areas is by no means confined to Washington. As Der Tagesspiegel reports, on his recent visit to Berlin the Afghan foreign minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta termed that area “a breeding-ground for terrorists,” and called for a “geographical” expansion of the struggle against radical Islamists, presumably including in that the recent sort of incursions into Pakistan carried out by US forces. But he also expressed his government’s support for the new Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, and his stated intention to start going seriously after those Islamic militants in the tribal areas.

But where have we heard “start going seriously after them” before? From former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf’s government, that is where, and Der Tagesspiegel’s Christine Möllhoff (Once your reputation is ruined) sees even less hope that Zardari will do what he promises than she had in his predecessor. Her article’s very first sentences read “You wouldn’t even trust Asif Ali Zardari with your car-keys, so bad is the reputation of Pakistan’s new president. The 53-year-old is regarded as a man without morals or principles, who is deeply corrupt and will stop at nothing.” This is, you may recall, the widow of Benazir Bhutto, known throughout the sub-continent as “Mr. 10 Percent” for his regular kick-back demands back when his wife headed the Pakistani government in the late eighties and early nineties, which afterwards landed him for a long stretch of time in jail.

Everyone Wants a Slice of Mr. 10 Percent

Still, Möllhoff can offer up one slight ray of hope that “Mr. 10 Percent” might do the right thing and actually send his forces against the tribal militants. He is now in a position of responsibility, and knows that his country would basically go bankrupt were it not for US financial support, so maybe he will be willing to dance to the Americans’ tune. It’s certainly true that the militants have thrown down their gauntlet to the new Pakistani president, as Le Monde’s special correspondent in Islamabad, Frédéric Bobin, reports (In Pakistan, the Taliban defy the new president Asif Zardari). Bobin notes how they prepared a special welcoming gesture for Zardari: last Saturday (6 September), as he was being elected president, a suicide-bomber killed thirty-three people in Peshawar, the main city in that tribal district. And he goes on to outline the tricky challenge that Zardari faces: suppressing the Islamist militants (if that is really what he desires to do) while maintaining good relations with both the US and the Pakistani military that has to do this dirty work for him (and which has a history of destabilizing civilian governments, particularly when they are headed by the Pakistani People’s Party, which was the power-vehicle of the Bhutto family and which he now heads) – and of course with Pakistani public opinion, in theory at least the ones who have put him into power, and which is becoming more and more angry about the American military incursions into Pakistani territory, which infringe on the country’s notional “sovereignty.”

(Quick side-note: Bobin mentions “ground combat” by Pakistani forces against militants in the valley of Swat. I wonder if they will strike out trying to capture the Sultan in charge there – just a gratuitous baseball reference there, folks.)

Indeed, further such incursions could lead to the collapse of the Pakistani government, at least according to a report in the Flemish newspaper Het Belang van Limburg (“American raids in Pakistan destabilize Pakistani army”). That is the conclusion of a confidential report delivered to the White House last month (together with an oral briefing) from the National Intelligence Council, which is the internal governmental “think tank” for the US intelligence community. The message is that the indignation that both the Pakistani army and public opinion (including the legislature, which voted to condemn last Saturday’s commando raid) show in reaction to the American incursions is 100% real. Such raids will therefore tend to drastically lower the domestic standing of any who seem to support them, in particular the new president, which could lead to Zardari’s early departure from that post even though such further instability would ordinarily be the last thing anyone in the country desires.

Cambodia Incursion Precedent

It’s true that the Bush administration has been willing to put up for years with the aggravation of allowing an untouchable sanctuary across the border in Pakistan for Taliban fighters fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan. No doubt all that time the pressure from the American military has been intense to be allowed to go after these personnel in their sanctuaries, and evidently that patience has now come to an end – despite the great pressure that such measures will put on that neighboring state, which is already marked by chronic instability (but which also is a nuclear power, let it be noted). The situation easily brings to mind that of the Vietnam War: in that conflict over-the-border sanctuaries for guerrilla fighters were also a big problem, mainly located in Cambodia. Starting in 1970, the Nixon-Kissinger team then in charge of US foreign policy finally lost patience, acceded to US military demands to be allowed to go after them, and so gave a green light to both a massive bombing campaign (initially secret) and military incursions into Cambodia which aroused massive domestic opposition (including the notorious Kent State riots). Ultimately, those incursions did nothing to turn the tide of the war, but they did do much to destabilize the Cambodian government, ultimately leading to the mass-killing horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

At least Cambodia never possessed a nuclear arsenal; neither did it have a sixty-year history of tension, marked by disputed territory and punctuated by several wars, with its neighbor in the other direction. George W. Bush of course is still US president and Commander-in-Chief, and it must also be noted that this new move of allowing US military raids into Pakistan seems very close to the sorts of measures advocated on the campaign trail by the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama. Still, the volatility in that part of the world, always unpleasantly high, has been ratcheted up another step.

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