Nightmarish scenes in the valley of Swat in northern Pakistan – a major tourist attraction known for its â€˜indescribable beauty and serenityâ€™ mark the latest stage of that nationâ€™s crisis, brought to a boil by the U.S. escalation of its war in Afghanistan, which is spilling across the border.
But the turmoil is also a sign of the deepening contradictions of Pakistani politics following the downfall of the U.S.-backed strongman, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, last year amid growing unrest.
The rise of extremism, militancy and the Taliban are a reaction to the American-led â€œwar on terrorâ€ and the occupation of Afghanistan. So big has been the displacement of people (1.7 million according to the UN) due to the latest military operations in Swat that UN officials are already comparing the unfortunate situation prevailing in Pakistan with that of Rwanda, the Central African country where genocide in 1994 forced large-scale dislocation of communities.
The resulting disequilibrium of Pakistani society has as its latest consequence an increasing influx of the internally displaced people of Swat.
The refugees from Swat are victims of a Pakistani Army offensive, backed by the U.S., against forces of the Taliban, which operate in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Under pressure from the U.S., the Pakistani military broke a ceasefire arrangement with the Taliban and carried out a scorched-earth assault — with the excuse that this is the only way to flush out Taliban fighters.
But the civilian population is paying a terrible price. The Pakistani military will never be able to win over those people who actually experienced what is happening on the ground. And certainly those people are not Taliban supporters either, since they have experienced their terror.
The U.S. has created the bizarre new moniker â€œAf/Pakâ€ as a way to cover over its expansion of the war from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Building consent for this expansion has been what all the State Department, Pentagon and media propaganda has been about before the onslaught of this military expedition. Leading counterinsurgency theorist John Nagl, an Iraq combat veteran and now the head of the Center for a New American Security, writes that â€œthere is a growing realization that the most likely conflicts of the next fifty years will be irregular warfare in an â€˜Arc of Instabilityâ€™ that encompasses much of the greater Middle East and parts of Africa and Central and South Asia.â€
That goes a long way towards explaining U.S. strategic planning.
The U.S. wants to wind down its occupation in Iraq, which it sees as a distraction, and push ahead with a much larger scenario — â€˜in the arc of instabilityâ€™ from North Africa to the Middle East to South and Central Asia. The U.S. is gearing up for, in the shocking words of Nagl, 50 years of warfare in this area.
Such imperial-style strategic concepts echo the â€œGreat Gameâ€ of rivalries in the region over whoâ€™s going to control the oil and natural gas resources. Beyond that geopolitical battle, the military industrial complex has a material interest in perpetual warfare.
This is the new Great Game involving the U.S., Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran. Itâ€™s all about the resources that we have been observing since the beginning of the war in 2001. The U.S. had planned a pipeline to go from Central Asia through the Pakistani province of Balochistan. Planners saw Afghanistan as strategically important in these designs. The strategic importance was considered high enough to open a new front on its open-ended â€œwar on terror.â€
Despite eight years of war, occupation and counter-insurgency, and seeing that war and occupation arenâ€™t working and are, in fact, backfiring, U.S. thinking doesnâ€™t seem to be shifting at all. The Obama administration is certainly trying to repackage its essential continuity with the Bush administrationâ€™s policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But there isnâ€™t a whole lot of finessing that needs to be done to sell this to the American public, since there is a widespread impression that the Afghan war is a moral war, a necessary response to the 9/ll attackers, and that Pakistan is an untrustworthy and reluctant ally that is crawling with militants. The real alternative for President Obama should be to maintain a deterrent posture while immediately accelerating diplomacy to address legitimate Muslim concerns, from a Palestinian state to genuine progress on Kashmir.
By not recognizing that the unresolved Kashmir issue is a cause for promoting militancy in the region, Washington has opted for selective engagement with the underlying causes of militancy and terrorism in the region.
The anti-war movement should not let Obama continue this imperial policy of aggression into Afghanistan and Pakistan (and potentially many other states).
The heart of the crisis is that this has become a multiple-front war, and the main theater has spawned a second, more diffused arena for potentially disastrous outcomes.
Meanwhile the sufferings of the people of the Northern Pakistan continue, with the rest of country adversely affected due to a war imposed upon its people. Barack Obama has been bombing Pakistan since the third day of his presidency, and on the ground the Pakistani army has been acting as his countryâ€™s mercenaries.
* Javed Akbar is a freelance writer based in Toronto.