We're in charge here: A Taliban militant sporting the beard required by Taliban edict contributes money at a table for 'mujahideen' in the village of Koza Bandi in the Swat Valley, Pakistan, a tribal area controlled, with impunity, by the Taliban. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Beneath the lipstick rhetoric smearing too many newspapers' front pages lately, discerning readers might have noticed the most significant development in the Bush administration's "global war on terror" since the invasion of Afghanistan: The United States is now effectively at war with Pakistan. Or, at least, with Pakistan's Tribal Areas, with which Pakistan itself has been at war, more or less, since 2001.
Unmanned American Predator drones operated by the CIA have been firing missiles inside the Tribal Areas for at least two years, but never with the frequency of the last two months. The attacks are becoming daily fare for the Tribal Areas, as missiles today reportedly killed 12 in a village of North Waziristan.
On Sept. 3, and for the first time on record, American ground forces went on the attack in Pakistan: "According to two American officials briefed on the raid," The Times reported, "it involved more than two dozen members of the Navy Seals who spent several hours on the ground and killed about two dozen suspected Qaeda fighters in what now appeared to have been a planned attack against militants who had been conducting attacks against an American forward operating base across the border in Afghanistan. Supported by an AC-130 gunship, the Special Operations forces were whisked away by helicopters after completing the mission."
The attacks aren't affecting the Taliban in the Tribal Areas, a region about half the size of New Jersey snaked between Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province and the Afghan border, and where Pakistani law does not apply. Local tribal law does. It's an arrangement dating back to the British Empire. Except that local Tribal law, this decade, has meant Taliban law.
Between 2001 and 2008, Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, claimed he was fighting the Taliban in the Tribal Areas. He wasn't, really. Pakistan's war on the breakaway Tribal Areas has been for show, as this remarkable exchange between The Times' Dexter Filkins and a Taliban leader, published in a disturbing report on the Tribal Areas in last Sunday's Magazine, reveals:
So here was Namdar — Taliban chieftain, enforcer of Islamic law, usurper of the Pakistani government and trainer and facilitator of suicide bombers in Afghanistan — sitting at home, not three miles from Peshawar, untouched by the Pakistani military operation that was supposedly unfolding around us.The Americans caught on. Musharraf, discredited in his own people's eyes for having become an American toady, resigned the presidency. The Americans summoned Pakistan's Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to a meeting aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, soon to head of the United States military’s Central Command (which controls U.S. military strategy in the greater Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan). The Americans let Kayani know that the gig was up: They would start attacking the Tribal Areas often, and without permission from Pakistan. President Bush had approved orders in July to that effect.
What’s going on? I asked the warlord. Why aren’t they coming for you?
“I cannot lie to you,” Namdar said, smiling at last. “The army comes in, and they fire at empty buildings. It is a drama — it is just to entertain.”
Entertain whom? I asked.
“America,” he said.
The problem with these attacks is that they're not part of a larger strategy anymore than American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan has followed a strategy--as opposed to improvised reactive tactics--since 2001. The United States can't win alone in Afghanistan, it can't win alone in Pakistan, and it can't "kill our way to victory," as Mullens himself told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. But it's fighting virtually alone. The Pakistan military, as Filkins notes again and as evidence proves going back to the mid-1990s, is more often in cahoots with the Taliban than against it. The ISI, Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA, created the Taliban, with the CIA's aid, in the early 1990s, and has only grown closer to it since. To add insanity to perversion, some of the $10 to $12 billion in aid the United States has shipped to Pakistan since 2001, most of it military, ends up in Taliban arms.
That's what the United States is up against in Pakistan: Tribal Areas that have become a Taliban state within a state, an ineffective Pakistani civilian government led by the eminently corrupt Ali Assif Zardari, a military whose allegiances are reflecting Pakistan's intense and growing anti-Americanism, and a country of 175 million Muslims who just forced their president to resign because he was too close to the Americans. The Taliban isn't beloved by any means. But they know that anti-Americanism is stronger than anti-Talibanism. They know that their resources are cheap and limitless while American resources and patience isn't. And they see that the Americans have no strategy beyond the reactive.
This is no way to fight a war. And what John McCain, Barack Obama and the American electorate seem not to realize is that there could hardly be a larger crisis developing than the one in Pakistan, as the Taliban's power is only increasing. The ranks of the Taliban's sympathizers in the Pakistani military are growing. And the Taliban's proximity to Pakistan's government, through a military coup, is becoming the kind of possibility that parallels Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini's take-over of the Iranian government in 1979. The West had thought that "revolution" unimaginable until it happened. A Taliban take-over of Pakistan is a longer shot: the mass of Pakistanis don't support the Taliban the way the mass of Iranians supported Khomeini. But the mass of Pakistanis don;t necessarily support military take-overs, either, and the military has ruled Pakistan for more than half its 60 years. A Military take-over of Pakistan, backed by the Taliban, is no longer so unimaginable.
The difference with Iran in 1979 would be this: Iran did not and still does not have nuclear weapons. Pakistan does.
Learn more about Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.