On Saturday evening, the Marriott hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, one of the city's two most luxurious hotels, located near the presidential office, the parliament building, and a host of foreign embassies, was devastated by a bomb blast that left fifty three dead, including the Czech ambassador and two U.S. Defense Department officials.
The recent background to this latest in a series of increasingly sophisticated and bold insurgent strikes is revealing: since September 3, the U.S. has launched ground incursions and six missile attacks in Pakistan's border regions. The U.S.-NATO aim is to cripple supporters along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border supportive of the anti-occupation resistance in Afghanistan.
The destruction of the Marriott was the latest response to Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari's complicity with Washington in the military assaults on the perceived center of insurgent support in Pakistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), including the North-West Frontier Provinces (NWFP). Just hours before the Marriott blast Zardari told the country's parliament that he is determined to free Pakistan from "the shackles of terrorism."
This pledge confirmed Zardari's determination to continue to order the Pakistani military, an institution harboring more than a few sympathers with the insurgents, to launch assaults on suspected insurgent -"terrorist"- strongholds. It is common knowledge that this policy is a response to pressure from Washington.
Pakistan's ambassador to Germany, Shahid Kamal, expressed not only his own but the majority resentment against Zardari's subservience to Washington's demands on Pakistan when he told The New York Times "This [the Marriott bombing] is a reaction to what is going on in FATA. We have been implementing a reckless and careless policy.... What's happening in FATA is that Pakistanis are killing Pakistanis."
Here we see reflected both the popular indignation at the new Pakistani president's political apeing of his predecessor, the Washington puppet and military dictator Pervez Musharraf, and the deep divisions within Pakistan's state apparatus regarding Pakistan's alliance with the U.S.-NATO, which the majority of Pakistanis see as waging a Western-Christian attack on global Islam.
An overview of the backgound to Washington's stepped-up aggression in Pakistan is in order.
The Bush Doctrine Is Extended to Pakistan
On September 9 George W. Bush announced that Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan were "all theatres in the same overall struggle." This declaration was intended to justify Bush's July approval of ground assaults by U.S. Special Operations forces inside Pakistan, without Islamabad's approval.
Thus, the Iraq-Afghanistan disasters are to be sustained and widened to include the sixth most populous country in the world, with 20 million Muslims, the overwhelming majority of whom are known to be increasingly infuriated with the recent succession of air and ground attacks inside Pakistan, and whose government possesses a nuclear arsenal.
Rising Public Outrage in Afghanistan and Pakistan
In response to the public outcry in Pakistan against Bush's policy statements and the military attacks, on September 17, Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, pledged to the Pakistani leadership that Washington would respect the nation's sovereignty.
But less that one day after Mullen's promise the U.S. launched another missile attack against a compound in Waziristan, killing at least five villagers. This was only the latest in a series of ground and air assaults against tribal areas in Pakistan since early this month.
After the first gound incursion, on September 3, Pakistani officials temporarily closed the most crucial land route for transporting supplies to U.S.-NATO's troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan's parliament unanimously called for the use of force in response to further attacks. Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani declared that the territorial integrity of his country "will be defended at all costs." This rebuke was intended both to chastise Washington and to bolster the enraged Pakistani public's confidence in the army. Anti-Americanism in Pakistan has reached a record high, and the army is threatened with a loss of perceived legitimacy if it is unable to repel U.S. incursions.
Kayani's threat was dismissed as mere bluster in Washington. But Washington was forced to think twice when, on September 15, two U.S. armed helicopters attempting to cross into Pakistan were forced to retreat by firepower from Pakistan-based forces. The following day the head of the military's press liason branch announced the military's policy regarding future U.S.-NATO attempted air or ground crossings into Pakistan: "The orders are clear... open fire."
Bush's September 9 announcement about the inclusion of Pakistan in the "overall struggle" in Iraq and Afghanistan came at the same time as United Nations reports that the number of Afghani civilians killed in the ongoing war there has risen forty percent in the past year. Since the beginning of the year, NATO has dropped almost four hundred tons of bombs on Afghanistan. There were more deaths in August than in any month since the 2001 expulsion of the Taliban at the commencement of the U.S.-NATO invasion.
Major General Zaher Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, reflected large scale public sentiment when he declared last week that "It is difficult for the Afghan people to tolerate any more. Civilian casualties are now so much on the rise." Recent intelligence estimates indicate that at least sixty percent of Afghanis want total U.S.-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Response of the Insurgent Leadership: The Taliban, the Tribal Chiefs, and al-Qaeda
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In response to these attacks, and to Bush's stated disregard for Pakistan's national soveriegnty, Waziristan's tribal chiefs held an emergency meeting on September 13th. The meeting concluded with this announcement from tribal chief Malik Nasrullah: "If America doesn't stop attacks in tribal areas, we will prepare an army to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan. We will also seek support from the tribal elders in Afghanistan to fight jointly against America."
The representatives of 500,000 tribesmen made it clear that they would officially join forces with the Taliban if the U.S. does not cease its cross-border attacks. We shall see below that de facto incorporation of Pashtun tribesmen into the Taliban is already well under way.
The animus in response to U.S. policy is shared by all the major players in the Pakistani and Afghani resistance. The result has been a coalescence of hitherto independent forces increasingly intolerant of escalating U.S.-NATO aggression. Let us begin with the Taliban.
A large portion of the Afghani Taliban retreated into Pakistan at the start of the U.S.-led invasion of 2001. They continued to train and recruit in the original camps where they were once nurtured by both the Pentagon, the CIA, and the latter's Pakistani counterpart the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI).
The failure of the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan, evident shortly after the war began, led to the gradual return of the Taliban to their home country. They have regained a significant measure of popular support as an effective resistance to foreign occupiers/aggressors. The extensive bombing and its overwhelmingly civilian casualties, and the lack of social and political reform that might have improved the material conditions of life in that already very poor war-ravaged country, are the main reasons for the Taliban's resurgence.
President Hamid Karzai is widely viewed as a corrupt American puppet. His authority does not extend much beyond Kabul, and the resulting power vacuum across Afghanistan has been swiftly filled by the Taliban, who have built an effective and increasingly popular parallel administrative infrastructure in key areas across the south and east of Afghanistan.
NATO spokesmen have expressed concern at the improved communication networks, better intelligence gathering and more sophisticated attacks of the Taliban this year. Taliban battlefield successes have risen ; the three summer months have been the worst for the coalition since 2001. Record numbers of U.S., French and Canadian troops were killed. 50,000 U.S.-led coalition troops have been unable to stem these developments.
Pakistan's frontier provinces are in fact, as Washington has charged, a major training ground for the Taliban. The provinces have also spawned the so-called neo-Taliban, new and younger recruits to the movement. These growing ranks have become an effective part of the burgeoning parallel administration of resistance in Afghanistan. And they are the dominant power in the NWFP of Pakistan, whose capital city Peshawar is increasingly surrounded by Taliban cadres, a growing number of whom now organize in the city.
The Afghani parallel administration makes and enforces laws designed to address the most pressing insecurities of local populations. From legitimate property disputes to theft, the Taliban have imposed a consistent system of laws, often based on traditional Islamic principles, that settle disputes without the years of delay and ubiquitous bribes that are typically required within the Karzai government's system.
This combination of more streamlined organization, the sustained attempt to address widespread grievances in local villages, quicker replacement of wounded and killed cadres, and more effective armed resistance to "Christian invaders" has enabled the Taliban to regain control of more than half of Afghanistan.
Most of the Taliban are drawn from Sunni Pashtun tribes. The Pashtun are a decisive force in the Pakistani resistance, and a significant element in Afghanistan as well. Who are the Pashtun?
The Pashtun constitute Afghanistan's largest ethnic and linguistic community, comprising just over half the population, concentrated in the eastern and southern areas of the country. In Pakistan, they are the country's second largest ethnic group, the dominant tribe in the NWFP, the FATA, and are a significant presence in the western Balochistan provinces. Thus, many Pashtun straddle the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
It is the Pashtun's overriding sense of tribal, rather than national, identity that makes them effective allies of the Taliban and a major source of resistance to U.S.-NATO designs in the region. They consider themselves Pashtun first and Afghani or Pakistani second. Thus, Washington's insistence that cross-border arms transfers and troop movement from Pakistan to Afghanistan cease fall on deaf Pashtun ears.
The Pakistani Taliban's roots in local Pashtun who identify with their tribal brethren in Afghanistan make the Pashtun a powerful obstacle to Washington-NATO's aims. The Taliban and the Pashtun are driven by different values. The former are motivated by their interpretation of Islam, and the latter by non-Islamic tribal loyalties and traditional abhorrence to foreign intrusion, especially Western aggression by powers associated with colonialism. But these differences are trumped by their common aim, which is to repel attempts by the Christian West to render them subservient to U.S.-NATO global designs.
And the Pashtun are not unschooled in the arts of armed resistance. They fought against the British in the nineteenth century, contributing in some measure to the weakening of the British empire. And they formed a highly effective force within the anti-Soviet muhajedeen in the war of the late 1980s-early 1990s.
Finally, al-Qaeda too has reorganized after 9/11 and established a presence in the tribal areas of north Waziristan, which was the site of their original training by the CIA and the ISI in preparation for the defeat of the Soviet-allied government of the 1970s. More recently they have, like the Taliban, made inroads into territory adjacent to Peshawar, the capital of the NWFP.
Al-Qaeda's plan is the one they learned from their CIA-ISI trainers twenty years ago. Just as they had sucked Soviet troops into Afghanistan, they now hope to suck the U.S. military into Pakistan. They are making two bets: that the U.S. attacks will outrage public opinion in Pakistan, and that Pakistan's army will be unable effectively to follow U.S. orders to eliminate al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
One has the feeling that Washington has barely an inkling of the strength and determination of the resistance, and of the corresponding defeats, it faces in its intensification of what Bush, McCain and Obama agree is the "good" war.
Deep Ambivalence Within the Pakistani Military and the ISI
Pakistan's military finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. It is a powerful institution some of whose leaders have risen to the top of the country's political totem pole. It commands a huge budget. It justifies this ascendant position by its claim to be the only institution that can uphold and sustain the independent integrity of the country.
But the credibility and legitimacy of the military is put under tremendous strain by Zardari's continuation of Musharraf's subservience to Washington's demands. If the army cannot stop U.S. military aggression in Pakistan against the local citizenry, it loses face and legitimacy. If it follows Washington's orders and launches a comprehensive assault on Pakistani tribespeopole and villagers, it suffers mass opprobrium.
Both the military and the ISI are sites of mixed and ambiguous loyalties. Many in the military are Pashtun, and are loathe to slay their tribal cousins. And sympathizers with the Taliban are also not hard to find in both the military and the ISI. Indeed, U.S. intelligence is convinced that a number of operations against insurgent positions in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have been foiled by military and ISI tips to the resistance.
Washington-NATO cannot count on the Pakistani army or the ISI.
Washington's Current Strategy and Obama's Stated Policy
In response to the crisis, Washington has agreed to cease, at least for the time being, further Special Operations into Pakistan. But there is a catch. Pakistan must "cooperate" by taking up the slack. The Pakistani military must execute increased military operations in FATA. Washington has already set the stage for this strategy.
The New York Times reported early this year that the CIA has a drone base inside Pakistan. And Musharraf had given the CIA permission to launch drone missile strikes against the border regions. This is what U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte meant last week when he said that "Unilateral solutions are not a viable solution over a prolonged period of time. The best way forward is to try to deal with the situation in that border area on a cooperative basis."
It should be clear from the overall picture drawn above that this plan will outrage Pakistanis and bolster the resistance no less than unilateral U.S. action. And no one can be sure that the Pakistani army will commit itself effectively to this plan.
Barack Obama is currently commited to unilateralism. In August 2007, a year before Bush's July approval of unilateral U.S. military assaults, Obama called for direct U.S. military action in Pakistan, irrespective of Pakistani approval. Obama staed that "If we have actionable intelligence about terrorist targets and president Musharraf won't act, we will."
And more than a few key members of Obama's recently announced Senior Working Group on National Security share this view. Among president Obama's top advisors would be James Steinberg, Bill Clinton's Deputy National Security Advisor. Here is Steinberg's position on unilateralism, as expressed in a recent co-authored article titled "The Future of Preemption": "Unilateralism is not the only alternative to the UN Security Council. Regional organizations and a new coalition of democratic states offer ways to legitimize the use of force when the Council fails to meet its responsibility." In other words, the U.S. will do as it pleases with the approval of selected clients. Iraq is the model.