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A Mutiny Grows in Punjab

A Mutiny Grows in Punjab

Mini Teaser: Securing Pakistan is far more important than “victory” in Afghanistan. And the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign is only stoking extremist flames in the Hindu Kush. Washington must pull back.

by Author(s): Anatol Lieven

U.S. STRATEGY toward Pakistan is focused on trying to get Islamabad to give serious help to Washington’s campaign against the Afghan Taliban. There are two rather large problems with this approach. The first is that it is never going to happen. As U.S. diplomats in Pakistan themselves recognize (and as was made ever so clear by the WikiLeaks dispatches), both Pakistani strategic calculations and the feelings of the country’s population make it impossible for Islamabad to take such a step, except in return for U.S. help against India—which Washington also cannot deliver.

The second problem is that it gets America’s real priorities in the region back to front. The war in Afghanistan is a temporary U.S. interest, in which the chief concern is not the reality of victory or defeat as such (if only because neither can be clearly defined) but preserving some appearance of success in order to avoid the damage to American military prestige that would result from obvious failure. By contrast, preserving the Pakistani state and containing the terrorist threat to the West from Pakistan is a permanent vital interest not only of the U.S. military and political establishments but of every American citizen.

And while the prospects for any sort of real success in Afghanistan look gloomy indeed, if saving Pakistan is the real priority, then things do not look so desperate, despite all the bad news from that country. This is because while getting large numbers of Pakistanis to help America is virtually impossible, getting enough Pakistanis to preserve their existing state is much easier. To a great extent, this is for negative reasons: the elites, and indeed many of the masses, have an acute sense of the horrors that would result from the country’s collapse. However, a degree of positive loyalty is also present in one key institution and in one key province: namely the military and the Punjab.

If Pakistan is to be broken as a state, it will be on the streets of Lahore and other great Punjabi cities, not in the Pashtun mountains. By the same token, the greatest potential terrorist threat to the United States and its Western allies from the region stems not from the illiterate and isolated Pashtuns but from Islamist groups based in urban Punjab, with their far-higher levels of sophistication and their international links, above all to the Pakistani diaspora in the West.

OF COURSE, the United States and some of its allies are embroiled in a war in Afghanistan, from which they have to try to extract themselves without humiliation. Inevitably, this conflict creates priorities of its own. Indeed, if the war in Afghanistan is to be America’s priority, then present U.S. concentration on the Pashtun areas of Pakistan is logical, since they are adjacent to Afghanistan, and it is there that the Taliban have their bases and from there that they draw much of their support (it is worth remembering that a majority of Pashtuns live in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and that cross-border ties have always been very close).

Nonetheless, it is essential that the makers of U.S. strategy also keep in mind the vital long-term interests of the United States and the safety of its citizens, interests which will remain long after the last American soldier has left Afghanistan. I have been struck, both in the United States and in Britain, by the tendency of officers and officials to speak and write as if protecting the lives of troops from Taliban attack is the first duty of the U.S. and British states. In fact, it is the duty of soldiers to risk their lives to protect the civilian populations of their countries, and the only valid reason why the U.S. and British militaries are in Afghanistan at all is to protect their fellow citizens from terrorism. If that equation is reversed, and the needs of the war in Afghanistan are actually worsening the terrorist threat to the U.S. and British homelands, then our campaign there becomes not just strategically but morally ludicrous.

This statement is not intended as a standard attack either on the overweening power of the American armed forces or on the country’s “militarism.” Paradoxically, the U.S. military is not in general a militarist force in the shaping of U.S. policy, if one gives “militarist” its old connotations of aggression and warmongering. Under the last Bush administration, the military was far more cautious than many of the president’s political appointees, and military opposition reportedly played an important part in blocking a U.S. attack on Iran in the last year of Bush’s second term. Military caution is rooted in a strong and realistic sense of the limits on America’s resources and of the potentially catastrophic risks of further open-ended military commitments. The role of the armed forces in shaping and limiting a U.S. administration’s options may be questionable under the Constitution, but it is something for which we may have good reason to be grateful under a future Republican president after 2012 or 2016.

On the other hand, if the U.S. military is already in a war, it does not like to be seen to lose it. This is as it should be. No country should want its armed forces to be made up of quitters. And, of course, apart from military pride, it is of great importance to U.S. power in the world, and to the struggle against Islamist extremism, that America not be seen to leave Afghanistan in defeat. But there comes a time in many wars when victory itself becomes so elusive, and the costs of pursuing it so great, that a broader and more detached view of national interests sees that these are best served by some form of compromise. This seems to me to be becoming the case in Afghanistan; not because of the costs of the Afghan war itself, which are bearable, but because of the way in which that conflict is destabilizing and radicalizing Pakistan, risking a geopolitical catastrophe for the United States—and the world—which would dwarf anything that could possibly occur in Afghanistan.

THAT PAKISTAN is quite simply far more important to the region, the West and the international community than Afghanistan is a matter not of sentiment but of mathematics. With around 184 million people, Pakistan has nearly six times the population of Afghanistan—or Iraq—over twice the population of Iran and almost two-thirds the population of the entire Arab world put together.

A central fact tends to be missed, in part because it is a deeply uncomfortable one for Americans, with their instinctive faith in democracy and their inborn desire to be liked and respected by other nations: that (and with deep regret I can attest to this from my own numerous interviews in Pakistan) the Afghan Taliban enjoy the sympathy of the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis at every level of society. And so the U.S. war there—and America’s demands of Pakistani assistance—are weakening the state. The support for the Taliban is not based in their religious ideology, which is alien to most Pakistanis. It is so prevalent because, as with the anti-Soviet mujahideen of the 1980s (who were also not admired for their extremist ideals), the Taliban are seen as a legitimate force of resistance against an alien occupation of the country.

Underlying this is a hatred of U.S. strategy—and to some extent, hatred of the United States as a whole—which, as repeated opinion surveys have indicated, is among the highest in the world. This feeling is reflected in the fact (which I can also attest to from my own experience) that the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis believe that 9/11 was a CIA and/or Mossad plot intended to justify a U.S. invasion and conquest of parts of the Muslim world. That this is poisonously evil rubbish which no one with two brain cells should be able to believe isn’t the point. The point is that Pakistanis do believe it, and this belief both reflects and reinforces their hatred of America and of Pakistan’s alliance with the United States. In the West, politicians and the media have attacked the Pakistani government and military for not doing enough to help us against the Afghan Taliban. The great majority of Pakistanis by contrast think that Islamabad is doing far too much.

These beliefs and sentiments are dangerous in a wider context as well, since they are wholly shared among people of Pakistani origin in the cities of Great Britain. And it is members of this minority in the UK who pose the greatest potential terrorist threat to the West from within the West. In their weakest incarnation, these anti-U.S. feelings create a willingness to make excuses for anti-Western terrorism; in their strongest, they may lead to active support and even participation in violence.

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