What's up with Pakistan?
We ought to stay out and let the Pakistanis fight the Taliban
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
By Dan Simpson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The effort to stampede America into a major military effort to "save" Pakistan from the Taliban is ill-considered, irresponsible and a road to almost certain disaster for Pakistan and for the United States.
Whether the authors of this piece of folly are the media, some in the administration of President Barack Obama, the American military, the defense contractors and their congressional dependents or some of the same people who wanted the United States bogged down in the Iraq war so we could not concentrate our efforts on seeking a wider Middle East settlement -- or all of them -- this sheep-like drive for the cliff must be headed off, now.
We are told that the Taliban are moving up on Islamabad, the Pakistan capital, and that the Pakistani armed forces are unwilling to fight them, in spite of the some $11 billion the United States has given to Pakistan since 2001. In the meantime, American remote-controlled, pilotless aircraft drop bombs on Pakistani villages, targeting in principle Taliban and al-Qaida targets, but largely killing Pakistani civilians. This activity is virtually guaranteed to sow widespread hatred of the United States and the Pakistani government, if not love of the Taliban, in the hearts and minds of the villagers in question.
This is a policy that is so far out of synch with reality that it is hard to imagine that it has sufficient support or tolerance within the actually-sometimes-sensible Obama administration to survive.
First of all, with 140,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq and a total of some 53,000 now pledged to fight in Afghanistan, in pursuit of what fantasy would the United States want to involve itself more deeply militarily in Pakistan? Pakistan has a population of 175 million, its area is twice the size of California and it is composed of terrain that is nightmare-like as a venue for a war. Its government continues to state vehemently that it does not want U.S. military forces in Pakistan, with the implicit suggestion that one day its armed forces might actively resist further U.S. military intervention.
And why wouldn't they? If drone aircraft based and controlled outside the United States were bombing some upstate New York or Sonoma Valley California villages, what would be the reaction of Americans? "We would go berserk," is probably the mildest description.
And what kind of American thinks it is OK to bomb Pakistani villages? Have any of them ever met a Pakistani? Try the graduate schools of America's finest universities.
Try reading Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea." It is a little precious but makes it crystal clear that even Pakistanis living in very isolated, devoutly Muslim villages in the mountains are human beings who simply want education and a better life for their children, much as Americans do for theirs.
Then there's the part that says that the Taliban might take over Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, because Pakistan's armed forces are set up to fight only the neighboring Indians.
To believe that is to completely misunderstand modern Pakistan. It has scary poverty, some Pakistanis are devoutly Muslim, the literacy rate is uneven but low in some areas, there are parts of Pakistan that are as far outside the modern world as parts of Afghanistan.
At the same time, though, many, many Pakistanis are sophisticated, urban and modern. The vast majority are not bearded fundamentalist Pashtun tribesman like most of the Taliban.
In my view, there is no more possibility that the Taliban will take over Pakistan than there is that bearded mountain men will march out of the Blue Ridge mountains into Washington and take over the American government. (The subway system is too complicated.)
Seriously, it is safe to say that most Pakistanis, particularly urban Pakistanis in such large cities as Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar, would simply laugh at the Taliban behind their backs and quietly have them exterminated if the Pakistani armed forces don't do the job.
So why are we even thinking about trying to "save" Pakistan from the Taliban?
Part of the reason is the same phenomenon that Americans saw during the Vietnam War when we were unsuccessful in keeping the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong from drubbing us and our passive South Vietnamese allies and decided to try to save the day by taking the war into Cambodia. At that point, according to us, it was North Vietnam's ability to resupply itself through Cambodia that was preventing us from "winning the war."
It didn't work. Our military incursion into Cambodia simply expanded the war in the region, severely damaged Cambodia itself and widened our theater of battle without improving our situation in Vietnam.
The parallel with Vietnam and Cambodia is Afghanistan and our new focus on Pakistan.
Whatever is happening in Pakistan is the affair of the Pakistanis. If they were to be shortsighted and let the Taliban move closer to "taking over," it wouldn't be long before they realized what was happening and responded sharply and decisively. (That, by the way, probably means another military government, but so what? That would not be new.)
It is simply unimaginable that the Taliban could even survive among the Pakistanis of the Punjab and Sindh regions. The Pakistani military would find it out of the question, inconceivable, that the country's nuclear weapons fall into the hands of the Taliban, not to mention the foreign al-Qaida.
So the right move for the United States is to stay out of Pakistan. Whatever military action we are taking there now we should stop. Whatever is going to happen there is the affair of the Pakistanis, none of our business.
The administration of George W. Bush invading and occupying a country like Iraq was crazy enough. We must not repeat that error, further overextending ourselves militarily and financially to the point of self-destruction. What are we doing?
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (email@example.com, 412 263-1976).