Tuesday, February 27, 2007

How not to win

Amid rising fears — as it does every year around this time — of a new Taliban “spring offensive” against NATO troops in Afghanistan and rising concerns that al-Qaeda, to quote Condoleezza Rice’s odd wording, “has tried to regenerate some of its leadership” and may, as some so-called security experts would have us think, be planning future attacks, here comes US Vice President Dick Cheney, originally bound for meetings with the Afghan proconsul Hamid Karzai but barred from reaching Afghanistan — not by the Taliban, or terrorists, but rather by snow. Cheney therefore makes a secret stop in Pakistan and holds a lunch meeting with President Pervez Musharraf.

The symptoms of incoming defeat often lie in the things that are said by politicians and their spokespersons. For a few years now, the lies and contradictions coming out of the US military leadership in Iraq and in Washington when it talks about Iraq, have served as signal posts indicating the way ahead, and we all know what the road looks like. Because of the sheer amplitude of the Iraq fiasco, which now threatens to inflame an entire region, Afghanistan and even al-Qaeda have been taken off the front page. In fact, as Bruce Hoffman, professor at Georgetown University, puts it: “it appears that Iraq blinded us to the possibility of an al-Qaeda renaissance. The United States’ entanglement there has consumed the attention and resources of our country’s military and intelligence communities — at precisely the time that Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda commanders were in their most desperate straits and stood to benefit most from this distraction.”

So five years on, not only has the world’s most powerful military, with the support of some NATO countries, failed to destroy al-Qaeda, but it has in fact allowed it to regroup. Rather than take the blame for its incapacity to focus on the task at hand — i.e., “defeating” al-Qaeda following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — and to admit that its adventure in Iraq was misguided at best, Washington is resorting to the age-old dirty trick of shifting the blame. Every now and then, it lambastes its servants at NATO and tells them to do more in Afghanistan, to deploy more troops, to be more aggressive in their pursuit of the Taliban.

More recently, however, the Bush administration has turned the screw on the Pakistani government, which it wants to be more aggressive in its hunt for al-Qaeda. Reports of varying credibility claim that many insurgents attacking Coalition forces in Afghanistan use Pakistan — more specifically the Waziristan area — as a base. Musharraf’s statement that Pakistan “has done the maximum in the fight against terrorism,” was insufficient to prevent finger-pointing in Washington. “The Pakistanis remain committed to doing everything possible to fight al-Qaeda, but having said that, we also know that there's a lot more that needs to be done,” said the ever-Orwellian presidential spokesman Tony Snow. US administration officials now say that if Pakistan, despite the fact that it has done the “maximum” it can, fails to combat al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the so-called “tribal areas” (note the use of language to describe the area where the insurgents allegedly find haven, giving its people an aura of savageness not unlike that which has been used throughout history to characterize groups that needed to be civilized, or altogether eradicated) more aggressively, Washington’s military aid to Pakistan could be cut. In other words, Pakistan would need to receive certification, from no less a figure than George W. Bush, that it is doing all it can to fight al-Qaeda. Since what this imposes on Pakistan is hardly achievable (after all, it’s not like the US has itself been successful at combating insurgencies), we can easily predict that Islamabad would get a failing grade.

One wonders, however, what could be accomplished by this. This is a perfect example of the signals mentioned above, the signs that matters are spiraling out of Washington’s control. The language piles into contradictions. If it were to follow upon its threat to Pakistan, Washington would weaken it military at a time when it asks it to do more. Run faster or else I’ll stop giving you water. Stop giving the marathoner water and he is sure not to complete the race.

What the planners in Washington fail to understand is that its Manichean view of the war on terrorism — the “us against them” or “good versus evil” attitude it has adopted since 9/11 — is the wrong template for a country like Pakistan that is being compelled to wage war against its own people. Things on the ground are not black and white, and not all inhabitants in the “tribal” area are pro-Taliban or al-Qaeda supporters. But Bush, Cheney and their advisers fail to see that, or simply don’t care. The only sure way Musharraf could accomplish what Washington demands of him would be by razing northern Waziristan to the ground, something even Musharraf cannot bring himself to do. Effectively, what Washington is asking the Pakistani president to do is the very same type of action it exploited to demonize a recently hanged dictator — localized ethnocide. But even if Musharraf didn't go to that extent, he must always gauge the reaction of Pakistanis to what he does. In other words, he muct make domestic political calculations.

So Pakistan is stuck in a corner, and the fault is Washington’s. The Taliban spring offensive will come, as it does every year, and al-Qaeda will continue to regroup. Unable to focus on one thing, Washington will continue to do what it does best: call upon its proxies in the region and within NATO to do more, criticize them for not doing enough, and turn its attention elsewhere.

In Iran, perhaps?

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