Showing off his foreign policy trivia during a campaign stop in Iowa on Dec. 26, 2007, John McCain said that he had “been to Waziristan,” the semi-autonomous tribal region of Pakistan along the Afghan border where Osama bin Laden is hiding, and that he knew well Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani military dictator who has since been forced to resign. McCain repeated the line about Waziristan during his first debate with Barack Obama on Friday. McCain wisely steered clear of reminding viewers either of bin Laden's been-forgotten status or of his fondness for the undearly departed Musharraf.
He not so wisely got the name of Musharraf's successor wrong. It's not Kardari. It's Asif Ali Zardari, the barely widowed husband of Benazir Bhutto who nevertheless, in a frisky encounter with Sarah Palin at the United Nations, tried his damndest to score a hug from McCain's running mate. Huggy diplomacy aside, McCain's morphing of Zardari's name with that of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who's none too friendly with Pakistan these days for reasons we'll get to in a second, will not endear McCain to either Zardari or Karzai.
Did McCain Really Go to Waziristan?
That's not the worst of it. This is: There is no record of John McCain having been to Waziristan. No newspaper reports about it since 1982, when McCain got to Congress. I'm not talking about just the national papers, but through Newsbank, the world and national newspaper archive of a few thousand newspapers, newswires, magazines and other sources. Checked it all. No record of McCain in Waziristan before 2001, certainly no record of him there since. How could there be? North and South Waziristan are controlled by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The last time Americans wandered in there, in a couple of helicopters that dropped special forces in South Waziristan, they were repulsed after a firefight. The last time an unmanned American Predator drone went in there, in September 2008 near Angoor Adda in South Waziristan, the same day that Bush was flattering Zardari face to face about "Pakistan's sovereign right and sovereign duty to protect your country," the Pakistani military shot it down. The next day, Pakistani troops fired at two U.S. helicopters violating Pakistani air space.
Name-Dropping the Wrong Names
All of which raises questions for McCain. He may very well have been to Waziristan. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he's well traveled. But it's relevant, now that he brought it up. When was he in Waziristan? Where, exactly? With whose protection? Representing whom?
For all of McCain's very Bush-like flattery of Musharraf, it's been known for several years that Musharraf has been playing the United States, to keep the billions in aid pouring into his military ($11 billion since 2001) rather than aiding the United States in the battle against al-Qaeda or the Taliban. As New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins wrote, "whatever President Musharraf said in public, the military and intelligence services over which he presided demonstrated every intention of strengthening the Taliban, who fled en masse to the borderlands after their expulsion from Kabul in November 2001. Over the years, the evidence has been too obvious to ignore."
Then there's the matter of Musharraf's enmity toward Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, whose regime India supports--therefore Pakistan, covertly, opposes. It's now virtually beyond doubt that Pakistan's ISI orchestrated the terrorist bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul in July, killing 41. It's equally beyond doubt that some of the money the United States has been giving Pakistan is ending up in Taliban hands, especially in Afghanistan, where Pakistan doesn't want to lose influence.
Where's McCain, as a leading member of the Foreign Relations Committee, as a friend of Musharraf, as an ardent supporter of Bush's Pakistan policy, assuming any responsibility for being so consistently duped? (The same question applies to Joe Biden.) And why was he (falsely) claiming that Obama "said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan" when Bush <em>is</em> and has been launching military strikes into Pakistan without eliciting a peep of protest from McCain (or Obama)?
What To Do With Waziristan?
Finally, what did McCain really mean by that statement-- "I've been to Waziristan"? So what? If he has, in fact, been there, what did he learn, what did he apply from that lesson, how are we better off for it, who did he represent, and not least, who was giving him the guided tour, given that tribal warlords, Taliban warlords, al-Qaeda, Pakistan's double-dealing Inter Services Intelligence and Pakistani paramilitaries all compete for control of the region? To be clear: I'm not suggesting that McCain somehow got himself a friendly Taliban tour bus for the occasion, but that even with the Pakistani government's protection, going into Waziristan is never a cakewalk and assassinations are part of the year-round weather.
The answers, besides their absence from McCain, are that simply name-dropping "Waziristan" doesn't cut it. It's the equivalent of claiming, like Sarah Palin, that she has foreign policy experience because Alaska neighbors Canada and Russia. Waziristan is an extremely complex region (though it's barely half the size of New Jersey), symbolic, so far as American policy is concerned, mostly of the <em>failures</em> of the Bush-McCain hard-power approach in the so-called war on terror, and of the catastrophic consequences of focusing on Iraq until last month at the expense of the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2003.
Why Osama bin Laden Is Smiling
Iraq was never the central front in the "war on terror," unless Bush and McCain wanted to take their cues on defining where that central front was from bin Laden. Which they did. "Osama bin Laden and General Petraeus have one thing in common that I know of," McCain said during Friday's debate. "they both said that Iraq is the central battleground." Of course bin Laden did. He knew the likes of Bush, McCain and Petraeus would fall for it.
Meanwhile, where has bin Laden been? Waziristan.