It’s tempting to rerun my column on Pakistan from a month ago. Not because I predicted the assassination of Benazir Bhutto or offered any other great insight, but rather for the opposite reason: “Everyone’s an expert on Pakistan, a faraway country of which we know everything: General Musharraf should do this, he shouldn’t have done that, the State Department should lean on him to do the other… Well, I dunno. It seems to me a certain humility is appropriate when offering advice to Islamabad.”
Oh, well. In the stampede of instant experts unveiling their Pakistani solutions-in-a-box, some contributions are worthy of special attention. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who is apparently running for the Democratic presidential nomination, was in no doubt about what needs to happen in the next, oh, 48 hours:
“President Bush should press Musharraf to step aside, and a broad-based coalition government, consisting of all the democratic parties, should be formed immediately… It is in the interests of the U.S. that there be a democratic Pakistan that relentlessly hunts down terrorists.”
Wow. Who knew it was that easy?
Except maybe it isn’t. A “broad-based coalition” of “all the democratic parties” would be a ramshackle collection of socialists, kleptocrats, tribal gladhanders and Islamists. Whether this is the horse to back if you’re looking for a team that “relentlessly hunts down terrorists” is, to say the least, uncertain.
But, since Governor Bill Richardson brought it up, it’s worth considering what exactly “the interests of the U.S.” are in Pakistan. The most immediate interest is in preventing the country’s tribal lands from becoming this decade’s Afghanistan – a huge Camp Osama graduating jihadist alumni from all over the world. That ship, if it hasn’t already sailed, has certainly cast off and is chugging out the harbor. Something called “the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan” now operates a local franchise of Taliban rule in both north and south Waziristan, and is formally recognized by the Pakistan government in the Islamabad-Waziri treaty of just over a year ago. Officially, the treaty was intended to negotiate a truce, although to those unversed in the machinations of tribal politics it looked a lot more like a capitulation, an interpretation encouraged by the signing ceremony, which took place in a soccer stadium flying the flag of al-Qaeda.
Of course, the “Federally Administered Tribal Areas” have always been somewhat loosely governed Federal Administration-wise. In the new issue of The Claremont Review Of Books, Stanley Kurtz’s fascinating round-up of various tomes by Akbar Ahmed (recently Pakistan’s High Commissioner in London and before that Political Agent in Waziristan) mentions en passant a factoid I vaguely remember from my schooldays – that even at the height of imperial power, the laws of British India, by treaty and tradition, only governed 100 yards either side of Waziristan’s main roads. Once you were off the shoulder, you were subject to the rule of various “maliks” (tribal bigshots). The British prided themselves on an ability to run the joint at arm’s length through discreet subsidy of favored locals. As a young lieutenant with the Malakand Field Force, Winston Churchill found the wiles of Sir Harold Deane, chief commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province, a tad frustrating. “We had with us a very brilliant political officer, a Major Deane, who was most disliked because he always stopped military operations,” recalled Churchill. “Apparently all these savage chiefs were his old friends and almost his blood relations. Nothing disturbed their friendship. In between fights, they talked as man to man and as pal to pal.”
The benign interpretation of Musharraf’s recent moves is that he’s doing a Major Deane. The reality is somewhat bleaker: Today, even that 200-yard corridor of nominal sovereignty has gone and Islamabad’s Political Agent is a much shrunken figure compared to his predecessors from the Raj. That doesn’t mean “foreign” influence is impossible in Waziristan. Osama bin Laden is, after all, a foreigner, and so are many of the other al-Qaeda A-listers holed up in the tribal lands. Jihadists arrested recently in Britain, Germany and Scandinavia all spent time training in Waziristan, as do Chechen rebels. If another big hit on the US mainland is currently in the works, it’s safe to say it’s being plotted somewhere in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
It’s easy to tell Musharraf what he should do. Over one thousand Pakistani soldiers have been killed fighting Islamists in Waziristan and other tribal lands. That would be a lot even for an army solidly behind Musharraf. But in Pakistan every institution charged with “relentlessly hunting down terrorists” has, to one degree or another, been subverted by them: Pakistan’s military – the least corrupt agency in the country – and its intelligence service, the ISI, are both riddled with Islamist sympathizers. As Churchill noted, the British had a fondness for the more bloodcurdling Pushtun warriors: In 1939, for example, Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Sanders accepted an invitation to tikala (lunch) from the tribesman who’d blown him up. The Pushtun apologized for costing the Colonel his right arm, and the Colonel accepted the apology and raised his glass in a presumably left-handed toast, and they got on splendidly and had a whale of a time. But a mutual respect between combatants is very different from the ties that bind Taliban leaders in Waziristan with elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence service: Two groups, nominally at war with each other, nevertheless share indistinguishable views on the joys of hardline sharia and the wickedness of the United States.
One way to look at what’s happened over the last five years is simply that Afghanistan and Pakistan have swapped roles. In the Eighties, Washington used Pakistan to subvert Afghanistan. Since the fall of Mullah Omar, the Taliban, a monster incubated by Pakistan, has swarmed back across the border and begun subverting Pakistan. Today, it’s the tribal lands that have a 200-yard corridor through the rest of the country, exporting Islamist values through the network of madrassahs to the fierce young men in the cities. Just as the Taliban eventually seized control of Afghanistan, so they believe they’ll one day control Pakistan. Stan-wise, the principal difference is that control of the latter will bring them a big bunch of nukes. Meanwhile, life goes on. Just as the tribal lands seem to be swallowing Pakistan, so Pakistan is swallowing much of the world. It exports its manpower and its customs around the globe, and Pakistani communities in the heart of west have provided the London School of Economics student who masterminded the beheading of Daniel Pearl, the Torontonians who plotted to do the same to the Canadian Prime Minister, and the Yorkshiremen who pulled off the London Tube bombing. Saudi men pay lip service to Wahhabist ideology but it rouses very few of them from their customary torpor. In Pakistan, Islamism spurs a lot more action.
No people are immutable. It’s worth noting that Muslims next door in India are antipathetic to jihad. Yet they are ethnically and religiously indistinguishable from the fellows in Islamabad wiring up one-year old babies as unwitting suicide bombers. The only reason one’s an Indian and the other’s a Pakistani is because of where some British cartographer decided to draw the line in 1947. Since then, Indian Muslims have been functioning members of a modern pluralist democracy, while Pakistani Muslims have been mired in incompetence, backwardness and dictatorship, and embraced jihadism as the most viable escape route. Reversing that pathology would have been beyond Benazir Bhutto’s pretty face. Or even the best-laid five-minute plans of Bill Richardson.
Copyright 2007 Mark Steyn