Monday, September 29, 2008

Creating Disaster for Ourselves in Pakistan

Dexter Filkins wrote a solid summary of how Pakistan nurtured the rise of the Taliban over the last decade (New York Times, Sept. 28) but timidly sidestepped clearly spelling out the lessons, delicately noting that “some American analysts worry that the fledgling civilian government in Pakistan won’t be able to survive the cross-currents of American pressure and the anti-American anger it stimulates.”

Let’s be clear: helicopter gunships shooting up the neighborhood, missile strikes on civilian housing, and army attacks that drive the whole population of poor areas out of their homes are not the way to construct the moderate, secure civil society that could be a bulwark of democracy in Pakistan and a comfortable partner for the U.S. The Pakistani military offensive in Bajaur that began in August drove some 400,000 refugees out of the region on foot. That level of chaos represents a huge victory for extremists: one can only imagine the amount of anti-Americanism and pro-al Qua’ida feeling such Pakistani military blundering (following the appalling tactics of the butcher of Beirut [1982] Sharon adopted by Bush in Iraq) will generate. Direct American attacks on Pakistani soil simply serve to drive home the point that the opponents of the Taliban are folks who seem quite willing to brutalize marginalized third world populations and kill innocents.

In truth, the situation is even worse: these tactics by Washington and its allies also reinforce the Taliban-al Qua’ida alliance. Is it still necessary to point out that these are two distinct groups? Given the evident ignorance of Washington power-holders…yes, I guess it is.

  • Al Qua’ida – global enemy of the West determined to dethrone the world’s last superpower and establish a global or at least regional Islamic state;
  • Taliban – also a radical Islamic group but focused on reforming society and politics through force in the region.

The differences are fundamental (no pun intended), but the longer Washington treats them the same, the more these two groups are likely to be transformed into a single, unified enemy that will view defeating the U.S. as the necessary first step toward reforming their own society.

This still is not the whole story: the longer this process continues, the greater the opportunity for radical Islamists (provided that they play their cards skillfully) to take on the mantle of patriotism and become seen as defenders of the people against foreign aggression. If radicals achieve that goal of being generally seen as the only real patriots, they will become all but invincible…and the cause will have been our own leaders’ incompetence.

Iraq, at peace under Saddam's admittedly vicious rule, was transformed into a catastrophe by the U.S. invasion. Bungling the issue of nuclear Pakistan would be a far more serious mistake.

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