Bungling the Region

by Joshua Foust on 9/27/2006 · 14 comments

As attacks continue to grow in ferocity and frequency in Afghanistan, Pervez Musharraf chooses to promote his new book, about his life as President. Ignoring that usually memoirs are written after one retires, there are still some interesting bits, like how Dick Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan “into the stone age” should they not cooperate with the campaign in Afghanistan. Though later shown that Armitage was right—Musharraf would not have cooperated had the threat not been in place—the incident actually has repurcussions today.

Pakistan’s grudging cooperation has been problematic from day one—all along, it’s been an open secret that the best place to find the Taliban has been the western border regions of Pakistan, from Waziristan in the north to Balochistan in the south. When the government decided to grant these areas official autonomy, I was baffled by it—was this the first move in a broader campaign to realign his country with the Taliban (assuming they would eventually win the civil war brewing there), or was it a simple political calculation designed to encourage maximum peace and therefore minimum global attention? It would have precedent, given Pakistan’s support of the Taliban throughout the 90’s, and their adject refusal to do anything about the fundamentalism in the border regions.

But precedent isn’t intention, and Musharraf’s intention is what worries me. Combined with the government’s decision to offer a safe haven for escaping Taliban up to and including Mullah Omar, as well as the recent wave of prisoner releases, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Pakistan actually wants the the Taliban to win. Even Hamid Karzai has expressed doubts, and the comments from Mr. Templer of ICG are indeed illuminating: there is little love between the two countries, and quite a bit of dangerous mistrust. And Pakistan would certainly benefit from a Taliban-run Afghanistan—not only would there be fewer Americans and troops nearby, but it was nice to have such control over such an uncontrollable country, a welcome buffer zone blocking Iran, and one less border to worry about.

So while Pervez shuffles around fake news shows and the morning talk personalities hawking his new book, it’s important to understand that one of our worst enemies in the War on Terror has not been the fedayeen in Iraq, or even the Taliban in Afghanistan: it has been our supposed friend, Pakistan. Our relationship with his country is as toxic as Saudi Arabia’s, and the best we can do is hope it doesn’t become nearly as entrenched or damaging.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Bill Walsh September 27, 2006 at 10:15 pm

There’s an extrememly pessimistic take on the Waziristan Accord in the new Weekly Standard. It’s online here.

Robert Templer September 28, 2006 at 8:48 am

The Weekly Standard article is very good — the most accurate take I have seen on this subject in the US press. This is a huge mistake by Musharraf — a complete capitulation to the Pakistani Taliban and their al Qaeda friends. FATA will become completely ungoverned space run by extremists. Bush’s comments on this are shocking — there is simply no reason to believe Musharraf’s reassurances, particularly not when you look at the history of such agreements.

This is linked into the conflict in Balochistan as well — a conflict the Pakistani military is much more concerned about because of the threat to its economic interests. We’re supporting the Pakistani military while it fights secular forces in Balochistan and signs agreements with the Taliban in Waziristan.

Joshua Foust September 28, 2006 at 9:04 am

Again, I’m not exactly sure what Musharraf is hoping to accomplish. We are clearly unhappy with his behavior, and there will probably be a response of some sort. But what will it be? We’re forced into supporting a tyrant who clearly dislikes us, and who sees little wrong with cedeing vast swaths of territory directly against our interests. Yet the alternative is worse.

The only ideas I can think of amount to throwing more troops are the area to occupy more territory and seal off the Afghani border. Maybe at least containing then to Waziristan would be enough to draw up more international support for a broader coalition. But even that is not in any way guaranteed to directly address the problem, which is that the Taliban is not being diminished in any appreciable way.

Robert Templer September 28, 2006 at 9:40 am

The alternative is not really worse. The alternative is a democratically elected government in Pakistan. At the last rigged election the MMA won 11.3 per cent of the vote, despite all the help they got from the military and ISI. The majority of votes went to the two main secular parties — the PML and the PPP. If there were free and fair elections in Pakistan (surely an aim of the Bush administration given its faith in democracy in the Moslem world) either the PPP or the PML would win. Essentially Nawaz Sharif or Benazir Bhutto. Now both were problematic but both were pro-Western. Under Clinton Sharif signed on to operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan — it was the military led by Musharraf who scuppered the plan. Benazir would be pro-Western — both parties have an interest in minimising the role of Islamists in Pakistan because the Islamist parties are the allies of the military.

Pakistan is a predominantly Sufist country with mostly moderate people. Religious parties can never hope to win elections; instead they gain power through the patronage of military government. Remove the military government and their influence is reduced. Remember that the MMA is in power in Balochistan with the PML-Q — Musharraf’s party. The military also rigged elections in NWFP to ensure the MMA won their. (one of the ways they did this was to exclude secular Pashtun nationalists of the ANP by making it a requirement to have a college degree — ANP MPs didn’t have degrees but MMA candidates had their madrasa qualifications accepted as the equivalent)

The idea that Musharraf is facing a threat from radical Islamists is just false — the assassination attempts on him were linked to the Air Force and most probably had something to do with internal military rivalries. You simply cannot accept the myths that he peddles at face value. The issues he cares about are Balochistan and the threat to his power that he would face if he allowed free elections. That is what we should be aiming for.

Nitin September 29, 2006 at 2:20 am

Joshua, Robert,

I think much of America’s (and now India’s) policy towards Pakistan has been determined by the fear of what may come after Musharraf.

Musharraf knows this only too well. That’s why he is doing what he’s doing.

Alexander Morrison September 29, 2006 at 4:52 pm

“When the government decided to grant these areas official autonomy, I was baffled by it”

As I explained before, the tribal autonomus areas have had de-facto autonomy ever since the Durand Line was drawn in the 1890s, and for a long time before that the British were content to leave the tribes on the Frontier to their own devices, only launching punitive expeditions in response to raids on the lowland areas of Punjab. Pakistan inherited this problem in 1947, and has done nothing to grapple with it since. All Islamabad is capable of doing in these regions is sending in the army, rather as the British did, in order temporarily to quell dissent. The soldiers are mostly Punjabis, which also doesn’t help as their presence is resented by the Pathans and Baluchis. I realise that for many in the West all these problems only begin in 2001, but they have a much longer history. In fact, if you want to find the seeds of religious extremism on the Frontier (as opposed to the mainly economically-motivated raiding and violence which has always been commonplace) you don’t have to go back very far, but the story of the CIA and the Mujahideen has been told too many times to be worth repeating here. Suffice to say, Islamabad has yet to find a long-term solution to this problem. Sending the troops in to search for insurgents, then withdrawing them when punishment has been inflicted is something that has been happening in Waziristan and the other tribal agencies for close on 150 years.

Maybe if the Yanks played cricket they might understand Pakistan a little better. I was in Lahore for a Test Match last December, almost entirely surrounded by highly respectable middle-aged Englishmen and women tucking into their sandwiches and discussing the details of England’s dismal performance with Pakistani fans on the benches. The recent furore at the Oval shows just how delicate cricketing relations can be, but nevertheless those elements of shared history and culture, coupled with the fact that there are over a million Britons of Pakistani origin, means that it never seems an entirely remote or alien place to us. Try to imagine 1,000 middle-aged, middle-class Americans watching a baseball game in Riyadh between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.A. and you’ll start to appreciate what I mean. Comparing Pakistan to Saudi is absurd: they have huge problems in Pakistan, but this is a country which has at least tried to maintain democratic government and the rule of law, not a barbarous desert sheikhdom entirely untouched by the Enlightenment.

I agree with Robert Templer that a democratically elected government would be preferable to Musharraf’s dictatorship, but NOT if it saw the return of either Nawaz Sharif or Benazir. Between them those two are largely responsible for the prevailing cynicism about democracy amongst Pakistanis. Nawaz Sharif was just a kleptocrat, and widely hated outside his Punjabi powerbase. Benazir is a socialite airhead (as many of her contemporaries at Oxford can testify) and if she wasn’t personally corrupt she had a husband who more than made up for it. Her saintly father whose name she constantly invokes to legitimise her ambitions was responsible for the deaths of thousands in Bangladesh. Those two are washed up, although that doesn’t necessarily go for their parties. I think, however, Mr Templer underestimates the rise in popularity of Islamic parties, especially in the N.W.F.P. They couldn’t win an election legitimately, but they could make an awful lot of trouble for whoever did.

Most people I spoke to in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Peshawar thought Musharraf was OK. He’s not particularly brutal or corrupt, and he doesn’t censor the press (read what they write about him in “Dawn”, most interesting). Obviously they have pretty low expectations, but he is not a Saddam or a Karimov. He is under threat – not so much from Islamist terrorism as from an internal coup by factions in the army opposed to him or by the ISI, which is a law unto itself, and which strongly resents Musharraf’s 2001 volte-face on the Taliban, which was partly a Pakistani intelligence creation. I had tea with a Major in the Peshawar garrison on my visit last year, and was calmly informed that the Taliban were the best thing that had ever happened to Afghanistan because they were upholding “traditional Pathan values”. This guy was in his forties I think, and got up to pray in the middle of our chat. Musharraf likes his whisky, and belongs to an older, more anglicised generation of army officers. He is not working hand in glove with these people, they really are a threat to him. Pakistan has had a religious nutter as military dictator before in the late and most decidedly unlamented General Zia ul-Haq. If we don’t want a return to his Islamising policies (far more deadly in today’s environment) then we should support Musharraf, appreciate the difficulties he faces, but push him firmly towards democratic elections. The fact that this is recognisably a feasible policy helps to underline the gulf that lies between Pakistan, with all its faults, and some of the West’s dodgier allies in the War on terror, most obviously Saudi and (until recently) Uzbekistan. Never underestimate the importance of cricket.

Peter September 30, 2006 at 1:22 pm

Yes yes, this is all no doubt very interesting, but between all your going on about “Pathans”, sandwiches on the lawn, cricket and sodding Oxford, your worthy points do run the danger of coming across all fusty and donnish. I think though that the exasperation displayed by all those of us who have to have the Durand Line explained to us more than once is accounted for by the fact that Musharraf lunches out on his alliance to the crusaders on terror, in spite of his now serially documented lapses in that regard, while seeing fit to snip at his Afghan neighbours. This is not about the historical sweep, as I see it, but a cheap instance of diplomatic politicking. Which is not, as you will know, cricket.

Alexander Morrison September 30, 2006 at 5:20 pm

I thought a longer historical perspective might of some interest (or perhaps even use) to those whose memories stretch back no further than 2001, but seemingly not. Understanding just why Musharraf cannot get the Taliban out of the tribal agencies is all about the “historical sweep”. Mr Foust was suggesting that “granting Waziristan autonomy” was part of some new covert re-alignment with the Taliban by Musharraf. Waziristan already had autonomy, and withdrawing troops from the region signifies little other than Islamabad’s perennial inability to govern the Frontier regions. There is a problem with perspectives here: the Americans just see a military dictator with a questionable past dragging his heels over imposing a military solution in the tribal agencies (bombing the area flat, as the British used to do, would appear to be the favoured American “solution”). From Musharraf’s perspective they’re asking him to solve a problem which no Pakistani Government has ever been able to solve. What’s more, he reckons they show insufficient appreciation for the risks he’s taken in overruling the ISI and the Islamist faction in the army in 2001 and doing a volte-face on supporting the Taliban. Musharraf’s remarks about Karzai’s Government are pretty cheap, given that Karzai suffers from similar problems on a far greater scale: on the Frontier Musharraf’s writ doesn’t run beyond Peshawar and Quetta, but Karzai’s ends in the suburbs of Kabul. No doubt all this is donnish and pedantic, and if there is anyone else on this board who has actually been to Pakistan recently and can provide a fresh perspective, then please post.

Peter October 1, 2006 at 7:26 am

Oh don’t be so touchy. Of course it is interesting to have a historical perspective; an illuminating one that. What the hell have things come to if a man can’t take some light-hearted ragging?
Regarding the matter at hand though, at the risk of sounding redundant and repetitive, it is precisely the kind of observations you have made that evoke this sense of cognitive dissonance among those who read in the paper that Musharraf is getting defensive about the actual substance of what he is doing to combat terrorism in his own country. If recent reports are to be believed, Musharraf cannot even account for the actions of his own military elite, never mind gaining control over Waziristan. Then he goes and says on Radio Four that the “West’s strategy in Afghanistan towards the end of the Cold War helped to create the conditions which led to al-Qaeda’s rise” and that we should count ourselves lucky we have such a reliable partner.
Sure, I understand your case for saying that all things considered it’s fair enough, but I can’t imagine that will anyone feel any better. Is there a not a chance that Musharraf simply lacks the stature or the ability to undo, even if only slightly more than he does already, what his own country’s secret services themselves abetted back in the day?

Alexander October 1, 2006 at 10:41 am

Sorry, sorry – one of the disadvantages of this medium. It makes you realise just how much we rely on facial expression and tone of voice to communicate. I don’t think Musharraf does fully control the ISI, but of course he can’t admit to this and thus disclaim responsibility for their actions. This leaves him denying what is patently obvious to everyone: namely that they were instrumental in the original rise of the Taliban, and they’ve never accepted Musharraf’s decision to abandon the latter in the face of American pressure. His line about the West bearing some responsibility for the rise of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is not entirely unjustified, but he carefully negelected to mention that throughout the period when the Mujahideen were being armed and encouraged to attack the Soviets the CIA was working hand-in-glove with the ISI, and as soon as the Americans lost interest in Afghanistan (worse than their original meddling in my view) Pakistani intelligence took over altogether, seeking Pathan clients in the South who would help give them the “strength in depth” against Indian attack which they’ve always craved. Eventually they came up with the Taliban. Nobody comes out of that story looking terribly good.

I just think we need to realise how much worse things could be in Pakistan in Musharraf’s opponents in the army and ISI took over. There is strong anti-American sentiment there, and Musharraf cannot afford to be seen killing his own people at what will appear to be American behest, whether on the NW Frontier or anyone else. He can’t control what the ISI get up to, he has factions working against him in the army. I must admit that, for all his faults, I feel a little sorry for him.

Peter October 1, 2006 at 1:06 pm

If Pakistan is indeed as ripped an ethnic quiltwork as you have explained, who would see an increasingly agressive incursion into the Northwest as Musharraf killing his own people? Is it not possible that politics and the manipulation of religious identity forge alliances and sympathies where there should be none? If Baluchis and Pathans resent Punjab soldiers, should it not also follow that the Punjab population resents their neighbours’ wilfull contempt for their state’s integrity? It also interesting to speculate on what the real consequences would have been for public perception of Musharraf’s regime had his government turned a blind eye to the possibility of the U.S. Army conducting cross-border incursions. I agree that Musharraf has a lot that is pitiful (or should that be piteous?) about him, but some clearer understanding of these matters might make easier to think about ways out of this pickle of a predicament.

Alexander October 1, 2006 at 1:34 pm

You have a point there – not just the Punjabis, but the Sindhis and most of the Mohajirs as well (Musharraf is a Mohajir), resent the problems which extremism in the tribal agencies causes them. It is most unlikely that they would accept a Government dominated by Pathans (or Pakhtuns, or Pashtuns, whatever one wants to call them – apologies for using the Anglicised version). However, despite these ethnic divisions there is some meaning to being “Pakistani”, as there is in most states which have managed to hang together for a few generations. There is also a common identity in Islam, although practice varies widely. You can understand though why Musharraf might be reluctant to widen these divisions still further by using Punjabi troops to suppress Pathan dissidence (and many soldiers – like the Major I met in Peshawar – are Pathans themselves, and their loyalty would be doubtful). Given the brutality with which the Pakistan army has been behaving in Baluchistan it’s unlikely to be moral scruples which are holding him back, but the Pathans are a much more numerous and influential group than the Baluchis. From a neutral perspective, do we really want to see Pakistan fall apart? Press too hard on the population of the tribal agencies and the whole country west of the Indus might rise up in insurrection.

Peter October 1, 2006 at 3:34 pm

Very interesting.
Incidentally, I am fond of the appellation of Pathans, as this is how my tea-planter grandfather would have referred to them. The word does, however, remind me of a section in a Ripping Yarns episode, Roger of the Raj, in which Michael Palin’s father goes on about how peculiar the Pathans are. A very cruel race, he says, but if you’re kind to them, they won’t stop following you about. Ever since then, I’ve never been able to keep a straight face whenever I see the word. In spite of a cursory look around on the net I have been able to find the exact bit of dialogue, but the extract below lends an idea of what the program is like, for all those that have not had the fortune of watching it already:

LORD BARTLESHAM: Set her free, Mrs Angel.
LADY BARTLESHAM (exchanging a brief glance with Mrs Angel): She is free, dear.
LORD BARTLESHAM: Judy… free? Surely not.
LADY BARTLESHAM: They’re all free, dear… all the servants. There’s been no slavery in this country for donkey’s years.
LORD BARTLESHAM: But Judy — little slip of a girl, washes floors all day long…
LADY BARTLESHAM (a hint of impatience): She’s still free, dear.
LORD BARTLESHAM: Well, I think it’s a great shame…
LADY BARTLESHAM: What is a shame, dear?
LORD BARTLESHAM: Not being able to free people. (He lays his paper down and his eyes begin to glisten.) It must have been a wonderful thing to do… just sort of free a chap… some poor miserable wretch in chains… and along you come and say… “You’re free! You’re a free man… Off you go! Run around wherever you want!” Imagine the new life that’s about to open up for him.

Alexander October 1, 2006 at 3:47 pm

“It’s the Pathans”!

“What? Derek and Edna”?

“I must be kind to them. They respond to kindness”

“Here Pathans, I’ve brought some hot soup”!

I fear it may take a little more than that to sort out the mess in Waziristan, alas.

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