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The US War on Pakistan

Junaid Ahmad and Fouad Pervez
Date Published: 
December 16, 2008

Pakistan, a country of now close to two hundred million people, is in the midst of major internal and external crises. The external problems are feeding into the internal ones and form the backdrop to understanding growing instability in the country and the region. Specifically, at a time of internal economic and political turmoil, Pakistan has been subject to unilateral military strikes by its supposed ally, the United States.

According to the BBC, the US has launched 18 such strikes since August, and these attacks take place practically on a weekly basis, in spite of the Pakistan Government's pleas for them to stop. While these strikes have supposedly killed some militant leaders, they have also heightened Pakistani perceptions of the US as a threat, leading to increased anti-US sentiments-which was already quite palpable in the public at large. This has seriously complicated the Pakistani Government's job of trying to get villagers in the border regions to support the Government over the Taliban.

The latest US military actions threaten to turn the population completely against the Government, feeding internal discontent which could be fomented via nationalism into domestic acts of terrorism against the Government and civilians. In a country facing severe resource shortages, inflation, a collapsing economy, and political turmoil, continuing this policy seems to be a losing cause.

When the US stepped up its unilateral strikes, Pakistanis were already dealing with a summer of severe electricity and water shortages, on top of a tanking stock market, monthly inflation rates over 20 percent, and major food shortages. These problems were not adequately addressed by the Government largely due to uninspired, corrupt, and incompetent leadership-the three main parties, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N), and the Pakistan Muslim League - Quad (PML-Q), were all dueling for power and unable to address these problems. As a result, the populace, already wary of the Government, became even more so, and domestic resistance has only heightened as a result of the US actions.

This is evident by opinion polls conducted in the country, which routinely show that Pakistanis regard the US as a far bigger threat to the country than terrorism or the Taliban. Now Pakistanis see their government as unable or unwilling to stop the US from firing missiles into the country. This builds on several years of declining national opinion of the entire national state apparatus.

The enormous bomb blast that rocked the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on Sept 20 represented the flashpoint of domestic anger. There is little doubt the attack was in response to increased attacks by the US and Pakistani military in Pakistan's bordering areas with Afghanistan. The bomb blast was clearly meant to send a message to the Pakistani Government-the Marriot is in close proximity to the parliament building, the Prime Minister's residence, presidential offices and foreign embassies. It is also one of Islamabad's symbols of wealth and prestige, and a favorite spot for foreigners. The attack very nearly crippled the state, as many government leaders were supposed to be dining at the Marriot that evening. It is no coincidence that the bombing occurred just hours after the new Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, made his inaugural address to the country.

The unfolding crises in Pakistan certainly put increasing pressure on President Zardari, who assumed power after the resignation of Pervez Musharraf on August 18. Zardari's PPP and the PML-N won a large majority in national elections in February, trouncing Musharraf's PML-Q in the process.

Zardari himself comes from an influential landlord family. His political position derives from his marriage to Benazir Bhutto, the recently-assassinated two-time prime minister of Pakistan. Zardari served more than eleven years in jail on charges of corruption and murder, and was labeled "Mr. Ten Percent" during Bhutto's terms for acquiring kickbacks on government contracts.

Zardari and Bhutto returned to Pakistan last November after being offered immunity from charges on a deal brokered by Washington to maintain Musharraf as president while facilitating Bhutto's bid to become prime minister. After her assassination, Zardari became the party co-chairman along with his son Bilawal. The new president has been playing a fine balancing act since assuming power-allowing the US to employ massive force against Islamist forces in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), while trying to mollify widespread local disgust over a proxy war launched at the behest of the US.

In this sense, Zardari has played a double game. He has defended Pakistani sovereignty in public, while facilitating an intensified US-led war in the FATA region. Leading up to Musharraf being pressured out of the presidency, US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte was in frequent communication with Zardari. There is little doubt he made it clear that there would be continuity in policies if the US-backed Musharraf was forced out of office.

A major ground operation inside Pakistan was launched by US Special Forces on September 3, which left at least twenty local villagers dead. Another strike on November 7 killed 13 people, following two missiles launched a week earlier, on October 31 that left at least 27 dead. The strike on October 31 came just two days after Pakistani officials told the US ambassador that attacks from US drone aircrafts had to end immediately. Just four days earlier, on October 27, another drone strike killed at least twenty people, which followed a strike three days before that killed seven students at a religious school. Both Pakistani military and government leaders have denounced the US raids, but to no avail. A Pakistani army general threatened to repel further incursions with force, and in late-September, Pakistani troops fired at NATO aircraft near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The intensification of US attacks in Pakistan represents a clear shift in US policy in the region. It is a stance that also disregards much of recent history. Twenty years ago, the CIA and Saudi Arabia funneled in vast amounts of money into Pakistan to train guerrilla fighters in a covert operation to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. When the war ended, the US promptly left, doing little to help secure the peace. The US left behind a generation of radicalized guerrilla fighters with no direction, many of whom settled in the northwest region of Pakistan. The area was historically secular and fiercely independent; as a consequence of the United States' lack of interest in long-term strategy, as well as the Pakistani state's policy of depriving the region from any fruits of development, it now has a significant share of religious extremists. At the same time, it is important to note that while the Islamist groups are very politically active, they do not represent the entire region, evidenced by the secular Awami party's easy win in the elections last year. Still, due to the post-Afghan War migration to the northwest region of Pakistan, a significant share of the population in the region clearly has ties to Afghanistan, and specifically, the Pashtun-based Taliban.

President Bush issued an executive order in July permitting US Special Forces to engage in ground attacks in Pakistan without prior consent of the Pakistani Government. The reason was the US felt the Pakistani Government and military had not been active enough in responding to growing Islamist power in support of the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. This, of course, completely disregards the role the Karzai regime should bear for the rising popular support for the Taliban. That US-backed regime is widely recognized as weak and corrupt; instead of using foreign aid to increase security, they have pocketed much of the money themselves. As a result, a (relatively) "kinder, gentler" Taliban have gained popular support by providing Afghans more security than, and (in some cases) security from, the Government-as well as from a trigger-happy NATO high commands that consistently disregards the heavy civilian casualty toll from its continued bombing raids across the country.

Given the history of the Afghan War and the terrible performance of the Karzai regime, it is clear that eliminating the Taliban-friendly groups in Pakistan is not an easy task. It will require, among other things, effective governance in Afghanistan eliminating popular support for the Taliban. It will also require negotiations between the Pakistani Government and villagers in the northwest region. This will take time, and will require the Pakistani Government to be in a strong national position. The Government's inability to stop unilateral US strikes within its own territory certainly will not help it appear to be in any position to dictate terms to villagers who are being bombed. Yet, the US expects immediate results, and the rising number of US and NATO casualties in Afghanistan has made Pakistan a convenient scapegoat.

With the election of Barack Obama, this policy seems set to continue, indeed even intensify. While Obama has indicated an interest in getting troops out of Iraq relatively quickly, he seems to want to shift these troops to Afghanistan. He also has supported striking within Pakistan if the Government is unable to produce results-although this is a moot point now that US attacks in Pakistan have already begun with regularity. In short, Obama wants to shift the Bush administration's militarization of Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Pakistani military has been a willing participant in this policy, and indeed has been Washington's preferred partner in the region for decades. On behalf of the US, it had engaged in massive operations in the region over the past few years. This policy emphasized colonial-style collective punishments on villages and tribes, heavy civilian casualties, and disappearances, all of which further enflamed the population and destabilized the region.
At the insistence of the US, the Pakistani military sent 120,000 troops to the border areas, where severe fighting has displaced 300,000 people. The military has routinely employed warplanes and helicopter gunships in these forays, and has provided the CIA with torture-friendly interrogation sites, in turn receiving billions of US dollars for supporting the Afghan occupation.

The joint US-Pakistan effort since October 2001 has caused the deaths, injuries, and detention of thousands of civilians. This has engendered greater militant opposition, especially among the Pashtun tribes that span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, the unilateral strikes have belied the military's claim to be the guarantor of the sovereignty of Pakistan-a claim that has historically been necessary for it to appropriate a vast amount of the country's scarce revenues and to legitimize its preponderant role in Pakistani politics. The US strikes have effectively weakened the military and the Government, both of which are confronting record-low support among the population as it stands. This has made it even more difficult for them to attempt negotiations with villagers.

In addition, the unilateral strikes have exacerbated divisions in the Pakistani military, which supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan before Islamabad was compelled to break its ties after September 11. A significant percentage of the officers posted in the FATA region are Pashtun-the same ethnicity as the local tribes and those across the border in Afghanistan. In previous entanglements, Pashtun officers have often refused to fight or have engaged in outright mutiny. Again, this points to the complexity of the situation, precisely why a rapid clampdown of the region is simply not feasible, short of bombing it into the ground, which is more or less the policy that has been pursued in recent years.

With the launch of these unilateral missile strikes, the US is pursuing a peculiar strategy with Pakistan; one that seems certain to fail. It is seemingly now at war with the country, while concomitantly claiming a strong alliance to it. Its actions are only creating a greater sense of threat among Pakistanis, both of the US and of the Pakistani Government. Zardari seems to be the least likely person to maintain any semblance of good governance, which will only make the situation worse; indeed, he is still holding on to some of the illegitimate presidential powers added on by Musharraf, and given his low approval ratings, it seems certain he will utilize some authoritarian measures to quell the opposition which is rapidly emerging to his rule. It is thus reasonable to expect increased Pakistani opposition to both the US and their government in the near future. Indeed, this combination of internal and external threats is a very dangerous mix that could have catastrophic consequences, as seen in the Marriot Hotel bombing.

The level of both anti-US feelings among the Pakistani population and the crisis in the military and political establishment shows no sign of abating. Pakistan continues to be dependent on US financial and military aid, but the cost is worsening political instability, a declining strategic position, and virtual civil war in the FATA region. By continuing to conduct unilateral strikes in Pakistan, despite the Government and military's condemnations, the United States is unleashing a powder keg. Already saddled by quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, unless President-elect Obama decides to significantly alter his Pakistan agenda, the US may be provoking a third.