The March to Folly on the Afghan Border
by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis
The killing of 11 Pakistani soldiers by US air strikes last week showed that the American-led war in Afghanistan is relentlessly spreading into Pakistan, one of America’s oldest, most faithful allies.
Pakistan’s military branded the air attack "unprovoked and cowardly." However, the unstable government in Islamabad, led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which depends on large infusions of US aid, later softened its protests. This is in good part because the PPP leader, Asif Zardari, is being shielded from judicial corruption investigations through a quiet deal with President Pervez Musharraf and Washington to thwart reinstatement of Pakistan’s ousted supreme court justices.
The US, which used a B-1 heavy bomber and F-15 strike aircraft in the attacks, called its action, "self-defense."
What actually happened on the wild Pakistan-Afghanistan border remains murky. But there are reports that US and Pakistani troops engaged in a direct clash and heavy firefight that was ended by the American bombing.
In recent months, US aircraft, Predator hunter-killer drones, US Special Forces and CIA teams have been launching attacks inside Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border. The Pashtun tribes inhabiting this traditionally autonomous mountain region are ardent supporters of their fellow Afghan Pashtuns who form the core of Taliban and reject the current Afghan-Pakistan border, known as the Durand Line, as an artificial creation of British imperialism — which it undeniably was.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been openly advocating major ground and air attacks by US forces into Pakistan. American neoconservatives have been denouncing Pakistan as a "rogue state" and a "sponsor of international terrorism," and are calling for US air and missile strikes against Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and reactors.
But instead of intimidating the pro-Taliban Pakistani Pashtun, limited US air strikes flown from secret US bases inside Pakistan have ignited a firestorm of anti-western fury among FATA’s warlike tribesmen and increased their support for Taliban. Pakistanis are united in their opposition to any US strikes into their nation and enraged at the United States for supporting dictator Pervez Musharraf.
The US is emulating Britain’s colonial divide and rule tactics by offering up to $500,000 to local Pashtun tribal leaders to get them to fight pro-Taliban elements, causing more chaos in the already turbulent region, and stoking old tribal rivalries. The US is using this same tactic in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This week’s deadly US attacks pointedly again illustrate the fact that the 60,000 US and NATO ground troops in Afghanistan are incapable of even holding off Taliban and its allies, even though the Afghan resistance has nothing but small arms to battle the west’s high-tech arsenal. Further evidence was supplied by an audacious Taliban raid on Kandahar prison, which liberated 450—500 Taliban prisoners and humiliated Canadian and NATO forces policing the region.
US air power is almost always called in when there are clashes with Taliban or other anti-western forces. In fact, US and NATO infantry’s main function is to draw Taliban into battle so the Afghan mujahidin can be bombed from the air.
Without the round the clock overhead presence of US airpower, which can respond in minutes, western forces in Afghanistan would risk being isolated, cut off from supplies, and defeated. A sizeable portion of NATO manpower in Afghanistan already goes to defending bases and supply depots. However, NATO’s long supply lines that bring in fuel, food, and ammunition across FATA from US-run bases in Pakistan are increasingly under attack. Forty giant fuel tankers were recently destroyed at the Torkham border crossing.
But these deadly air strikes, as we have seen in recent weeks, are blunt instruments. Guerilla wars are all about controlling civilian populations. The US air attacks often kill as many or even more civilians than Taliban fighters. Dead civilians are routinely described away as "suspected Taliban fighters."
Mighty US B-1 heavy bombers are not going to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. Each bombed village and massacred caravan wins new recruits to Taliban and its allies.
Now, the US and its NATO allies are edging ever closer to open warfare against Pakistan at a time when they are unable to defeat Taliban fighters inside Afghanistan due to lack of combat troops. The outgoing commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, US Gen. Dan McNeill, recently admitted he would need 400,000 soldiers to pacify that nation. The US and NATO have a combined force of around 60,000 troops in Afghanistan.
"We just need to occupy Pakistan’s tribal territory," insists the Pentagon, "to stop its Pashtun tribes from supporting and sheltering Taliban, and shut down Taliban bases there." US commanders in Vietnam used the same faulty reasoning to justify their counterproductive expansion of the Indochina War into Cambodia.
A US-led invasion of FATA, as urged by Secretary Gates, will simply push pro-Taliban Pashtun militants further into Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province, drawing overextended western troops ever deeper into Pakistan and making their supply lines all the more vulnerable. Already overextended western forces will be stretched even thinner and clashes with Pakistan’s tough regular army may become inevitable.
Widening the Afghan War into Pakistan is military stupidity on a grand scale and political madness. It could very well end up a bigger disaster than Iraq. But Washington and its obedient allies seem hell-bent on charging into a wider regional war that no number of heavy bombers will win.