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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2009, pages 21, 25

Special Report

Destroying Pakistan to Make It Safe

By Eric S. Margolis

  • Internally displaced women and children walk in the Chota Lahore camp in Pakistan’s Swabi district 75 miles northwest of Islamabad, May 20, 2009. Some 1.5 million Pakistanis fled the military onslaught on the country’s Northwest Frontier Province (AFP photo/Pedro Ugarte).

THE U.S. keeps kicking hornets’ nests around the globe and wondering why it continues getting stung.

The latest example: Pakistan’s once beautiful Swat Valley has been turned into a battlefield. In May, Pakistan finally bowed to Washington’s angry demands to unleash its military against rebellious Pashtun tribesmen of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP)—who are collectively mislabeled “Taliban” in the West. They are not the Afghan Taliban, but it’s convenient for the Western media and Pentagon to slap that label on them.

The Obama administration had threatened to stop $1.2 billion annual cash payments to bankrupt Pakistan’s political and military leadership, and block $5.5 billion future aid, unless Islamabad sent its soldiers into Pakistan’s turbulent NWFP along the Afghan frontier and crushed attempts to re-establish Islamic Law and autonomy. Many people in the region want Islamic law because in utterly corrupt Pakistan it represents the only honest and swift judicial system. The only other “law” available has to be bought.

Pakistan’s army and air force claimed to have killed 1,000 “terrorists” (read: mostly civilians) and almost emptied the valley of its inhabitants. U.N. sources now say the operation has created close to 2 million refugees.

Pakistan’s armed forces, who are being paid by the U.S. to fight Pashtun tribes, have scored a brilliant victory against their own people. Too bad Pakistan’s military does not manage to do as well in wars against India. Blasting civilians at home, however, is much safer and more profitable.

Unable to pacify Afghanistan’s Pashtun tribes (again, lumped together as “Taliban”), a deeply frustrated Washington has begun tearing Pakistan apart in an effort to end Pashtun resistance in both nations. CIA drone aircraft have so far killed over 700 Pakistani Pashtun. Only 6 percent were militants, according to Pakistan’s media, the rest civilians.

Pashtun, also improperly called Pathan, are the world’s largest tribal people. Fifteen million live in Afghanistan, forming half its population. Twenty-six million live right across the border in Pakistan. Up to three million Afghan Pashtun are refugees in Pakistan.

True to their strategy of divide and rule, Britain’s imperialists split the Pashtun by an artificial border, the Durand Line (which became today’s Afghan-Pak border). Pashtun reject this artificial border.

Many Pashtun tribes agreed to join Pakistan in 1947 provided much of their homeland remain autonomous and free of government troops. Pashtun Swat, where Islamic shariah law was in force, only joined Pakistan in 1969 after assurances of autonomy and religious freedom.

As Pakistan’s Pashtun increasingly aided Pashtun resistance in Afghanistan, U.S. “Predator” drones began attacking them. Washington forced Islamabad to violate its own constitution by sending troops into Pashtun lands. The result was the current explosion of Pashtun anger.

I have been to war with Pashtun and have seen their legendary courage, strong sense of honor, and determination. They are also hugely quarrelsome, feuding, prickly, and notorious for seeking revenge.

One learns never to threaten a Pashtun or give him ultimatums. These mountain warriors defied the U.S. by refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden because he was a hero of the anti-Soviet war and their guest. Doing so would have violated their ancient code of “Pashtunwali” that still guides them.

Now, Washington’s ham-handed policies and May’s Swat atrocity threaten to ignite Pakistan’s second worst nightmare after invasion by India: that its 26 million Pashtun will secede and join Afghanistan’s Pashtun to form an independent Pashtun state, Pashtunistan.

This would rend Pakistan asunder, probably provoke its restive Baluchi tribes to secede, and might tempt mighty India to intervene militarily, risking nuclear war with beleaguered Pakistan.

The Pashtun of Northwest Frontier have no intention or capability of moving into Pakistan’s other provinces, Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan. They just want to be left alone. Alarms of a “Taliban takeover of Pakistan” are driven by ignorance or propaganda.

Lowland Pakistanis have repeatedly rejected militant Islamic parties. Many have little love for Pashtun, whom they regard as mountain rustics best avoided. Pakistan’s Islamist parties have traditionally won less than 10 percent of the national vote.

Nor are Pakistan’s well-guarded nuclear weapons a danger—at least not yet. Alarms about Pakistan’s nukes come from neoconservative fabricators worried about Israel.

The real danger is in the U.S. acting like an enraged mastodon, trampling Pakistan under foot, and forcing Islamabad’s military to make war on its own people. Pakistan could end up like U.S.-occupied Iraq, split into three parts and helpless.

If this continues, at some point nationalistic Pakistani soldiers may rebel against the corrupt generals and politicians on Washington’s payroll.

Equally ominous, a poor people’s uprising spreading across Pakistan—also mislabeled “Taliban”—threatens a radical national rebellion similar to India’s spreading Maoist Naxalite rebellion.

As in Iraq, ignorance and military arrogance continue to drive U.S. Afghan policy. Obama’s people have no more understanding of what they are getting into in “Af-pak” than did the Bush administration. They will learn the hard way.

Eric S. Margolis, an award-winning, internationally syndicated columnist, is the author of American Raj: Liberation or Domination and War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet. Copyright © Eric S. Margolis 2009.