America's next big blunder
By ERIC MARGOLIS
Fears are growing the U.S. may be planning to attack Pakistan's "autonomous" tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
The Bush administration is ready to lash out at old ally Pakistan, which Washington now blames for its humiliating failures to crush al-Qaida or defeat Taliban resistance forces in Afghanistan. Limited "hot pursuit" ground incursions, intensive air attacks, and special forces raids by U.S. forces into Pakistan's tribal are being studied.
The U.S. claims the 27,200- sq.-km region, home to 3.3 million Pashtun tribesmen, is a safe haven for al-Qaida and Taliban, and a hotbed of anti-American activity. Indeed it is, thanks mostly to the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan.
I spent a remarkable time in this wild medieval region during the 1980s and '90s, travelling alone where even Pakistani government officials dared not go, visiting the tribes of Waziristan, Orakzai, Khyber, Chitral, and Kurram, and their chiefs, called "maliks."
These tribal belts are always called "lawless." Pashtun tribesmen could shoot you if they didn't like your looks. Rudyard Kipling warned British Imperial soldiers over a century ago, when fighting cruel, ferocious Pashtun warriors of the Afridi clan, "save your last bullet for yourself."
Law and honour
But there is law: The traditional Pashtun tribal code, Pashtunwali, that strictly governs behaviour and personal honour. Protecting guests was sacred. I was captivated by this majestic mountain region and wrote of it extensively in my book, War at the Top of the World.
The 40 million Pashtun -- called "Pathan' by the British -- are the world's largest tribal group. Imperial Britain divided them by an artificial border, the Durand Line, now the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pakistan's Pashtun number 28 million, plus an additional 2.5 million refugees from Afghanistan. The 15 million Pashtun of Afghanistan form that nation's largest ethnic group.
The tribal agency's Pashtun reluctantly joined Pakistan in 1947 under express constitutional guarantee of total autonomy and a ban on Pakistani troops entering there.
But under intense U.S. pressure, President Pervez Musharraf violated Pakistan's constitution by sending 80,000 federal troops to fight the region's tribes, killing 3,000 of them.
In best British imperial tradition, Washington pays Musharraf $100 million monthly to rent his sepoys (native soldiers) to fight Pashtun tribesmen.
As a result, Pakistan is fast edging towards civil war.
The anti-communist Taliban movement is part of the Pashtun people. Taliban fighters move across the artificial Pakistan-Afghanistan border, to borrow a Maoism, like fish through the sea. Osama bin Laden is a hero in the region.
The U.S. just increased its reward for bin Laden to $50 million and plans to shower $750 million on the tribal region to try to buy loyalty.
Can't be bought
Bush/Cheney & Co. do not understand that while they can rent President Musharraf's government in Islamabad, many Pashtun value personal honour far more than money, and cannot be bought.
Any U.S. attack on Pakistan would be a catastrophic mistake.
First, air and ground assaults will succeed only in widening the anti-U.S. war and merging it with Afghanistan's resistance to western occupation.
Second, Pakistan's army officers who refuse to be bought may resist a U.S. attack on their homeland, and overthrow the man who allowed it, Gen. Musharraf. A U.S. attack would sharply raise the threat of anti-U.S. extremists seizing control of strategic Pakistan and marginalize those seeking return to democratic government.
Third, a U.S. attack on the tribal areas could re-ignite the old movement to reunite Pashtun parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan into independent "Pashtunistan." That could begin unravelling fragile Pakistan, leaving its nuclear arsenal up for grabs.
The U.S. military has grown used to attacking small, weak nations like Grenada and Iraq. Pakistan, with 163 million people, and a poorly equipped, but very tough 550,000-man army, will offer no easy victories.
Those Bush administration and Harper government officials who foolishly advocate attacking Pakistan are playing with fire.