More than two years have passed since George W Bush declared his "war on terrorism." What has the result been? In Iraq the USA has shown its impotence to control the situation. It has been unable to build up a stable base. It is bogged down in a bloody impasse. But what about the other field of operations – Afghanistan?
The United States has been involved in the Afghan theatre of operations since it succeeded in overthrowing the Taliban government in late 2001. It has been employing a strategy heavily dependent upon local allies. But these have been anything but reliable. The US air force is bombing what they describe as “pockets of resistance”. However, frequently, the objects of these attacks are ordinary Afghans. It is common knowledge that Afghan warlords tell the US forces to bomb “Taliban” forces in a certain location, when in fact they are bombing rival warlords.
Despite all its efforts, the U.S. has been unable to establish anything resembling stability. It has created the impression of some semblance of order in Kabul – where the "national" government is located – but outside Kabul, they have little or no control. The American forces do not even control the same territory that the Soviet army controlled in the years 1979-1989. In fact, the United States is not really attempting to control the entire territory of Afghanistan. The U.S. is maintaining the fiction of a "united" Afghanistan, without providing any troops to enforce central rule.
Split by the Hindu Kush mountains and divided between a number of ethnic groups, the country was never a unified state in the traditional sense. This creates a very complicated scenario for any foreign invader, as the British found out to their cost. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrols only Kabul and the immediate surrounding area, while various regional warlords and their militias rule their respective territories.
As a result, instead of defeating them, al Qaeda and its sympathizers remain free to roam largely at will and conduct hit-and-run guerrilla attacks. Although al Qaeda can no longer use Afghanistan as a major training base, it is still active there and is using the country as a launching pad to send its fighters into Iraq. This is ironical, given the repeated assertions by Bush and Blair to the effect that the invasion of Iraq was justified by the presence of al Qaeda. In fact, they were not present before the invasion – but they certainly are now!
With Presidential elections only a few months away, the Bush administration is desperate to strike a decisive blow against al Qaeda. It is true that al Qaeda has been unable to mount a major strike on a U.S. target since September 11, 2001. But it has attacked “soft” targets in places like Casablanca, Bali, An Najaf, Riyadh, etc. Above all, they have obviously been participating in the attacks on US forces inside Iraq.
All that the American imperialists have managed to do is to spread instability to other parts of the region – especially, but not only, Pakistan. The mountainous Afghan-Pakistani border region is porous, relatively unguarded and home to the Pushtun ethnic group that lies across national boundaries. Al Qaeda has in all probability moved its main forces into this region, where it is difficult for U.S. forces to operate.
George Bush is getting impatient for results. The imminence of Presidential elections means that the White House must keep an eye on domestic politics. This heavily colours its perception of foreign policy. The war in Iraq is not going well and US public opinion is shifting from supporting the war to a more sceptical attitude. The capture of Saddam Hussein was a welcome relief, but unfortunately it has done nothing to halt the guerrilla war in Iraq.
A blow against al Qaeda would be a good way of diverting American public opinion away from this bloody mess and increase the President’s poll ratings. But there is a problem. Al Qaeda is based in Pakistan, which is a key ally of the USA, and also extremely unstable. Washington has been tightening the screws on Islamabad recently. With its usual bullying arrogance, US imperialism is mercilessly pressurising its “ally” Musharraf. In effect, they are telling him: either you sort out al Qaeda, or we do it for you! This is alarming the ruling circles in Islamabad.
In a February 10 interview with the New York Times, Musharraf placed the burden of responsibility for the nuclear technology leaks on the CIA. He pointed out that the CIA had not provided any proof about the nuclear proliferation until very recently. This was a plea from the Pakistani dictator to Washington not to intervene. As a sop to Washington, Musharraf took belated action against the head of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, who, it emerged, had sold nuclear secrets to North Korea and Iran for large sums of money. But in the end this scoundrel did not go to jail, or even lose a single one of his 22 luxurious houses.
Washington will not be satisfied with such measures. The Americans want decisive action against the Taliban and al Qaeda and their supporters in Pakistan. According to the Daily Times, CIA Director George Tenet made a secret visit to Islamabad on February 11. It is clear that Musharraf was preparing the public for what is about to happen.
Speaking at Pakistan's National Defence College in Rawalpindi on February 12, Musharraf said, "Certainly everything [within Afghanistan] is not happening from Pakistan, but certainly something is happening from Pakistan. Let us not bluff ourselves. Now, whatever is happening from Pakistan must be stopped and that is what we are trying to do." (The Stratfor Weekly, February 13, 2004, Pakistan Braces for the American Storm).
It is only a matter of time before some dramatic events occur in the region. The Afghan-Pakistani border is rugged mountainous terrain, perfect for guerrilla operations. The frontier itself is porous, permitting constant guerrilla infiltration: The winter weather and the mountains do not permit the deployment of tanks and other equipment needed for conventional modern warfare. Thus, America’s technological advantage is severely reduced. Above all, their enemies can count on the support and sympathy of the local Pushtoon population.
However, the onset of Spring will create more favourable conditions for a new offensive by the United States. This kind of timescale also has a political logic. Assuming a favourable outcome (although this is a lot to assume) it would coincide neatly with the Democratic National Convention in July. Since Bush feels vulnerable to the accusations concerning his military record (or rather, the absence of such), a military success in Afghanistan would be most welcome.
The logic seems impeccable, but it is deeply flawed. US military intervention in Northern Pakistan will stir up a storm. The Pushtoons bitterly resent the activities of US imperialism in their homeland. For a long time, the Northwest Frontier Territories has been a virtual no-go area for the Pakistan army. An attempt to launch a fully-fledged offensive there would be a bloody business and fraught with dangers.
In an attempt to head off a U.S. intervention in Pakistan, Musharraf is talking about a major Pakistani military offensive against al Qaeda and its supporters in the tribal areas. But this will pose serious dangers for the regime. The fundamentalists are already accusing him of a betrayal over his attempt to reach a deal with India over Kashmir. A military intervention in the NWF would further increase the fury of this sector, which has points of support in the tops of the army and that hotbed of reaction, the Pakistan Intelligence Services – the ISI.
The position of the Pakistani president is very weak and unstable. He is trying to balance between U.S. imperialism and the militant Islamism that was built up over decades by the ISI and the Pakistan army with the active connivance of Washington. Now, because this no longer suits US imperialism, they demand Pakistan’s unconditional backing for the so-called war against terrorism. But by so doing they are aggravating all the explosive contradictions in Pakistan.
Musharraf has tried to put a safe distance between his government and the United States, arguing that he has only helped them with minimal assistance in terms of logistical support and intelligence sharing. No Pakistani troops are involved in campaigns outside the country. Interior Minister Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat and Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed continually deny that U.S. intelligence and military forces are engaged in any operations in Pakistan against al Qaeda or Taliban suspects. But everyone knows that this is a lie.
There have been a number of shoot-outs in which suspected militants have been killed or arrested. Despite official denials, it is clear that U.S. counter-insurgency forces are involved. It is clear who is master of the house. But to allow U.S. troops to launch a large-scale operation inside Pakistan would be another matter. It would tear away the veil of Pakistan’s supposed sovereignty and reveal its dependence on US imperialism in all its nakedness. The consequences would be incalculable.
The anti-Americanism of the mullahs has reactionary overtones, but the anti-Americanism of the Pakistani masses is an expression of a deeply-felt anti-imperialism. If the US army enters the NWF it will reach fever pitch. The merciless U.S. pressure on their puppet Musharraf will undermine him completely in the eyes of the population. There will be mass demonstrations against imperialism that can quickly turn into mass protests against the dictatorship. There have already been three attempts against Musharraf’s life and new attempts will be inevitable under these circumstances. The regime is hanging by a thread, and Washington is about to cut it.
The Bush administration is indifferent to the fate of their “ally” in Islamabad. They are hell-bent on the destruction of al Qaeda and the capture or killing of bin Laden, and if this means the fall of the Pakistani president, so be it. From the standpoint of Washington, such “allies” can be purchased at two to the dollar. In the grand order of things, what does it matter if there is a change of regime in Islamabad? There have been plenty of such changes in the past, and there will be plenty in the future!
Musharraf is under no illusions as to the value of American friendship. Therefore he is desperately trying to persuade his countrymen to take action against the “extremists” before it is too late. Under pressure from Washington he has made concessions to India over Kashmir and has even taken steps to close the bases of some of the jihadi groups. But whatever he does will be too little and too late. India and the USA will make new demands all the time. Eventually, he will not be able to comply.
Bush leans on Musharaf, and Musharraf leans on the authorities of the NWF territories. The jirgas (councils) of the Utmanzai and North Waziristani tribes have decided to set up militias to hunt down foreign militants. But no reliance can be placed upon such pledges. The sympathies of the tribesmen will be with the Taliban, not with the government in Islamabad. They will make a lot of noise, and then do nothing. Eventually Washington’s patience will be exhausted and the Americans will take matters into their own hands.
In the coming months, the demand for action will grow and become irresistible. The onset of warmer weather will soon be with us, creating better conditions for the deployment of American troops. The ISAF is taking over policing duties in Afghanistan, freeing up more U.S. forces for a Spring offensive. Time is running out for Musharraf.