Barack of Kabul

Beware Those Treacherous Afpakis

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis

President Barack Obama has now taken full ownership of the Afghanistan War. Gone are Washington’s pretenses that a western "coalition" was waging this conflict. Gone, too, is the comic book term, "war on terrorism," replaced by the Orwellian sobriquet, "overseas contingency operations."

Obama’s announcement last week of deeper US involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan — now officially known in Washington as "Afpak" — was accompanied by a preliminary media bombardment of Pakistan for failing to be sufficiently responsive in advancing US strategic plans.

The New York Times in a front-page story last week that was clearly orchestrated by the Obama administration charged that Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), has been secretly aiding Taliban and its allies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In 2003, the NY Times severely damaged its once stellar reputation by serving as a primary conduit for fake war propaganda put out by the Bush administration over Iraq. The Times has been beating the war drums for more US military operations against Pakistan.

Even so, these latest angry charges being hurled by Washington at Pakistan’s spy agency ring true. Having covered ISI for almost 25 years, and been briefed by many of its director generals, I would be very surprised if ISI was not quietly working with Taliban and other Afghan resistance movements.

Protecting Pakistan’s interests, not those of the United States, is ISI’s main job.

According to Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Washington threatened war against Pakistan after 9/11 if it did not fully cooperate in the US invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s bases and ports were and remain essential for the US occupation of Afghanistan.

Pakistan was forced at gunpoint to accept US demands though most of its people supported Taliban as nationalist, anti-Communist freedom fighters and opposed the US invasion. Taliban, mostly composed of Pashtun tribesmen, had been nurtured and armed by Pakistan.

Many of Pakistan’s generals and senior ISI officers are Pashtun, who make up 15—18% of that nation’s population and form its second largest ethnic group after Punjabis. ISI routinely used Taliban and militant Kashmiri groups Lashkar-i-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Pakistan was enraged to see its traditional Afghan foes, the Communist-dominated Northern Alliance of Tajiks and Uzbeks, put into power by the Americans. The Northern Alliance was strongly backed by India, Iran, Russia, and the Central Asian post-Communist states.

Pakistan has always considered Afghanistan it "strategic hinterland" and natural sphere of influence. The 30-million strong Pashtun people straddle the artificial Pak-Afghan border, known as the Durand Line, drawn by Imperial Britain as part of its divide and rule strategy.

Pakistan supports the Afghan Pashtun, who have been excluded from power in US-occupied Afghanistan. But Pakistan also fears secessionist tendencies among its own Pashtun. The specter of an independent Pashtun state — "Pashtunistan" — uniting the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistanhas long been one of Islamabad’s worst nightmares.

Pakistanis are outraged by US bombing attacks against their own rebellious Pashtun tribes in the frontier agencies. Most also strongly oppose Washington’s "renting" 130,000 Pakistani troops and aircraft to attack pro-Taliban Pashtun tribesmen. A majority believe the increasingly unpopular and isolated government of President Asif Zardari serves the interests of the US rather than Pakistan.

Pakistan is bankrupt and now lives on American handouts.

Its last two governments have been forced to do Washington’s bidding though most Pakistanis are opposed to such policies.

The US has ignored intensifying efforts by India, Iran, and Russia to expand their influence in Afghanistan. India, in particular, is arming and supplying Afghan foes of Pakistan.

Washington sees Pakistan only as a way of advancing its own interests in Afghanistan, not as a loyal old ally. Obedience, not cooperation, is being demanded of Islamabad.

President Barack Obama announced that more US troops and civilian officials will go to Afghanistan, and more billions will be spent sustaining a war against the largely Pashtun national resistance in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

None of this will benefit Pakistan. In fact America’s deepening involvement in "Afpak" brings the threat of growing instability and violence, even the de facto breakup of Pakistan as the US tried to splinter fragile Pakistan just as it did Iraq.

It is ISI’s job to deal with these dangers, to keep in close touch with Pashtun on both sides of the border, and to counteract the machinations of other foreign powers in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal belt.

Many Pakistanis also know that one day the US and its allies will quit Afghanistan, leaving a bloody mess behind them. Pakistan’s ISI will have to pick up the pieces and deal with the ensuing chaos. Pakistan’s strategic and political interests are quite different from those of Washington. But few in Washington seem to care in the least.

ISI is not playing a double game, as Washington charges, but simply assuring Pakistan’s strategic and political interests in the region. The Obama administration is making an historic mistake by treating Pakistan with imperial arrogance and ignoring the concerns and desires of its people. We seem to have learned nothing from the Iranian revolution.

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