Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Af-Pak War

It'd be a tough call to say what I expect to be the most tricky foreign-policy challenge of the next few years, but I can think of three that must be on anyone's list: confronting Russia's regression to imperialism, containing Iran's nuclear ambitions, and preventing a complete collapse of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The third is the most troublesome in that it is a situation where we really have very little control over the outcomes. And I refer to both Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single situation (following Michael Yon, who has named it the Af-Pak War) because it is impossible to deny any longer that the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is still receiving safe haven and quite probably material support from elements of the Pakistani government. In the current New York Times Magazine, Dexter Filkins interviews Pakistani government officers, tribal leaders, and Taliban militants on the Pakistani side of the border about their perspectives toward Pakistan's supposed role as an American ally in the war against the Taliban. A few excerpts:
“I cannot lie to you,” [Taliban commander] Namdar said, smiling at last. “The army comes in, and they fire at empty buildings. It is a drama — it is just to entertain.”

Entertain whom? I asked.

“America,” he said.

When it comes to the militants in their midst, it’s easier for Pakistan to do as little as possible. “There is a growing Islamist feeling in the military, and it’s inseparable from anti-Americanism,” I was told by a Western military officer with several years’ experience in the region. “The vast majority of Pakistani officers feel they are fighting our war. There is a lot of sympathy for the Taliban. The result is that the Pakistanis do as little as they possibly can to combat the militants.”

... [a] retired Pakistani official offered another explanation — one that he said could never be discussed in public. The reason the Pakistani security services support the Taliban, he said, is for money: after the 9/11 attacks, the Pakistani military concluded that keeping the Taliban alive was the surest way to win billions of dollars in aid that Pakistan needed to survive... “Pakistan is dependent on the American money that these games with the Taliban generate,” the official told me. "The Pakistani economy would collapse without it. This is how the game works. [...] The U.S. is being taken for a ride."

So how should America respond? Well, that's the hard part. Frankly, despite its long position in the public mind as "the right war", the chances of seeing something resembling victory in Afghanistan are to me far slimmer than they ever were in Iraq. Quite simply, and very much unlike Iraq, the plot of land currently labeled "Afghanistan" has simply never been a functioning country. From the time of Alexander the Great forward it has been the redoubt of bandit warlords, the mountain waste between the empires that have ever fought each other to hold this or that slice of it. The reason Pakistan is inseparably tied to it is that a good-sized chunk of that ungovernable mountain waste lies on Pakistan's side of the border, and the sizable population of that region's ungovernable mountain people have no interest in having anything to do with Pakistan or Afghanistan. And we pay Pakistan ludicrous amounts of money to fight the Taliban; is it any surprise they aren't particularly interested in winning?

I know it's just old colonialist instincts, but I just can't help wondering if the rest of the world might be better off if we drew a new line around the Pashtu homeland instead of through it, and just left them alone in their medieval xenophobia. Talibanistan. It's got a nice ring to it.


Rita Loca said...

Your last paragraph is what I have been thinking as well. The problems now are that we drew imaginary borders and they don't work!

Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake said...

Unfortunately, there are similar situations in much of the world, where post-imperial borders were drawn up by colonial bureaucrats with no regard for facts on the ground. A handful of these places have managed to split amicably (actually, the former Czechoslovakia is the only one coming to mind), but unfortunately in this regard (and very fortunately in most others) we don't have any global institution with the power and influence to act as a world government and settle these disputes.

And in this day and age, isolating the Taliban homelands wouldn't end their threat. The locals might be content to live in a world out of time, but there's every reason to believe they'd also continue to be a safe haven for terrorist radicals with global ambitions.