Pashtunistan and the Politics of the Anti-India

Call it the central front of the global "war on terror", the fulcrum of the "arc of crisis", Pashtunistan or simply, in the most recent neologism, "AfPak", no one doubts that this is the biggest foreign policy headache for Obama's new team.

"The situation there grows more perilous every day," Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the American joint chiefs of staff, told journalists earlier this month. Holbrooke reaches for the ultimate comparison: "It's tougher than Iraq."

Forget Barack Obama, suddenly it is Richard Holbrooke who might be the most important person in the world for on his shoulders rests the onus of finding a solution to the problem that is Afghanistan, Pakistan and in particular a subset of each called Pashtunistan. It is, I hope, self-evident to the US foreign policy establishment that in Afghanistan and Pakistan we have a failed state and a failing state. Part of the problem is that both states are artificial states. Afghanistan was the rump that neither the British nor Russians could fully dominate. Pakistan was created as a home for Muslims in the British Raj, it was the anti-India.

In 1893,  Sir Mortimer Durand negotiated with Abdur Rahman Khan - the Amir of Kabul, the frontier between British India and Afghanistan. This frontier is known as the Durand Line, named after him and the line remains the international boundary between Afghanistan and modern-day Pakistan but it runs through the heartland of Pashtunistan, the homeland of the Pashtuns.

The Durand Line exists on maps and in the minds of Western policy makers. But in the harsh terrain that is the Hindu Kush range, it does not exist. Neither the British in their day nor the Pakistanis or the Afghans have ever been in control of this frontier. It is, however, controlled by the Pashtuns and has been for centuries.

This 2002 report below from the Institute for War & Peace Reporting offers a glimpse into the reality we face in Pashtunistan:

In the teeming smugglers' markets on the margins of Peshawar you can find anything from drugs, guns to air conditioners.

If Peshawar is Pakistan's Wild West, then the Karkhano and Barra markets are outlaw country where police know better than to interfere. This is the domain of Pashtun traders who wander back and forth across the border with Afghanistan, just a few kilometers away, at will.

"Police are trying their best to arrest the smugglers and send them to jail - but we haven't got plans to do anything about the local people who run the stalls," said one officer asked about police efforts to stamp out the trade.

The tribal areas of northern Pakistan begin at the edge of Peshawar. The ferocious independence of local Pashtuns that so impressed their former British colonial adversaries has not faded and Islamabad has followed the practice established then of minimal interference. By agreement, the tribesmen follow their own customs and laws outside Pakistani jurisdiction.

Carrying weapons - officially illegal in Pakistan - is part of that tradition, and markets are full of arms shops. Some of the guns are made in the tribal areas - perfect replicas right down to serial numbers and "Made in Italy" engravings on hand-made pump-action shotguns. Others have flowed from Afghanistan, where tradition and a quarter century of conflict have left the country awash with weaponry.

A copy of the Soviet-era AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle, the commonest weapon, costs only 3,000 rupees (50 US dollars). There are doubts about the quality of steel in replicas, whose barrels reputedly have a tendency to warp and explode. But even the real thing is inexpensive. A Russian original costs only 6,000 rupees. There are also shotguns, Smith and Wesson pistols and a range of M-16s, the standard US assault rifle.

Just as illegal - and common - in the markets are drugs. Pakistan banned poppy cultivation in the 1990s, winning international praise. In Afghanistan, the ruling Taleban did the same before they were driven out last year. Now production there is soaring and refining of poppy resin into opium and heroin is underway on both sides of the border.

This report may be from 2002 but it might as well be from yesterday. This region of the world remains stuck in the seventh century practicing a form of Wahibism taught to boys in Saudi-funded madrassas. Breaking the influence of the madrassas is fundamental to breaking the control of the Taliban. But the problem is complex on so many levels. The UK Guardian notes:

First, there is the local situation. Since launching an offensive in 2006 the shifting alliance of insurgents which make up the Taliban in Afghanistan have established control - or at least denied government authority - over a large part of southern and eastern Afghanistan. British foreign secretary David Miliband last week spoke of a "stalemate" - something senior generals and security officials have known for some time.

Local Afghan forces are still far from able to take on the insurgents without assistance from the 73,000 Nato troops now in country. The government is corrupt and ineffective. Opium production has exploded. Across the border in Pakistan, despite continuing military operations, authorities seem unable to push the Islamic militants on to the defensive. And somewhere in the mess is al-Qaida, though few can say exactly where.

Then, there is the regional situation. There is little love lost between Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. The two former countries have been at loggerheads since splitting in the aftermath of independence from Britain. Kabul's relationships with New Delhi are warm, a cause and consequence of their mutual animosity towards Islamabad.

"Both India and Pakistan would justify their involvement [in Afghanistan] as a deterrent against the other," said Chietigj Bajpaee, South Asia analyst for the Control Risks group.

Finally, there is the global situation. "AfPak", or more specifically the area dominated by the Pashtun tribes around the border mountains, has become the "grand central station" of global Islamic militancy, intelligence sources told the Observer. Young westerners head up to the tribal areas, the semi-autonomous zones which line the Pakistani side of the porous frontier, to visit makeshift al-Qaida training camps to learn how to blow up trains or planes back home. British intelligence track about 30 individuals of high risk through Pakistan each year. Others are known to be fighting with the Taliban against NATO troops.

Understanding Pakistan is likely a exercise in futility but one thing does stand clear. From the moment of its birth, its politics has been that of the anti-India. A large part of the Punjabi-controlled Pakistani armed forces and especially the Directorate for Inter-Service Intelligence (IS)) views the world through the lens of India. Last August, American intelligence agencies concluded that members of Pakistan's powerful ISI helped plan the deadly July 7 bombing of India's embassy in Kabul. It should be evident that that Pakistani intelligence officers are actively undermining American efforts to combat militants in the region. In the view of many Pakistanis, India's presence in Afghanistan is an attempt by New Delhi to encircle Pakistan. Thus the Taliban have become a weapon in Pakistan's arsenal in their sixty-two year war against all things Indian.

Now the new Sindhi President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Kardari, is sounding the alarm that various Taliban groups are threatening the stability of the nuclear-armed Pakistani state. He might start by cleaning out his ISI and his armed forces. Problem is that might just lead to his unseating. Same as it ever was in Islamabad.

Ambassador Holbrooke's task is daunting to say the least. For the progressive movement I think it important to start asking pertinent questions. What are our choices? What does success in Afghanistan look like? What does failure look like? Can we live with failed states in both Afghanistan and in Pakistan? How does failure in the region impact our domestic politics?

Tags: Afghanistan, pakistan, Pashtunistan, President Asif Ali Zardari, Taliban, US Foreign Policy (all tags)

Comments

4 Comments

Excellent diary

And I agree with the point you were highlighting...

the biggest underlying reason for Pakistan's problems is that it has defined itself as "anti-India" and not "pro" anything

by Ravi Verma 2009-02-17 11:19AM | 0 recs
Great diary

As I said before in my diary which was on the rec list the specter of a failed nuclear armed state ruled by Islamic fundamentalists esp Taleban is very real and very scary. Active action is needed now. The first step was substantially increasing US troops in Afghanistan, the second should be a "hot pursuit" strategy wherein the Taleban forces are pursued and confronted on Pakistan soil if necessary and finally diplomatic and economic pressure on the state of Pakistan. The government of Pakistan is ineffectual and everyone knows the ultimate power lies with the army and ISI and they are kept afloat on US aid.

by tarheel74 2009-02-17 11:33AM | 0 recs
No one has ever conquered or pacified

the region - - NO ONE - - no matter how brutal or gentle, sophisticated or medieval.  At best, you can hold onto the big cities but at a huge cost.  Sometimes, there's no good answer and no good solution other then to cordon off the area and try to contain the crazy until the culture further develops.  Let's be thankful that the region is almost as far away from us as you can get on this planet.

by kosnomore 2009-02-17 11:43AM | 0 recs
Re: No one has ever conquered or pacified

And yet from that region, attacks on London, Madrid and New York have been planned. So it has affected our lives. Not mention that Afghanistan is now a $4 billion opium poppy enterprise. Our failure to deal with drugs in our societies is responsible for this.

There are no easy answers. Hard questions galore though.

by Charles Lemos 2009-02-17 11:54AM | 0 recs

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