Stirring the hornet’s nest in northwest Pakistan

June 15, 2009

It was Lord Curzon, Britain’s turn of the century Viceroy of India, who said it would need a brave man to subjugate Pakistan’s rebellious Waziristan region and he was not up to it.

“No patchwork scheme—and all our present recent schemes…are mere patchwork—will settle the Waziristan problem. Not until the military steamroller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start that machine,” he said in remarks that have oft been repeated each time anyone has attempted to bring the region under control.

Is Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari up to it?  Pakistan’s military has been ordered to carry out an offensive against Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and his fighters believed to be in the South Waziristan region, according to the provincial governor.

Pakistani wants to build on the momentum of its operation in the Swat Valley, but is it taking on more than it can by going into Waziristan? Nicholas Schmidle, writing in the Washington Post, says it is completely unrealistic to believe that the Pakistan army could continue fighting Taliban remnants in Swat, be heavily deployed on the eastern frontier with India ,and dedicate enough troops to resemble the steam-roller that Lord Curzon spoke of.

Eric Margolis, in a piece written a while ago, was more blunt, warning of the risk to Pakistan from such a course of action, which he said was clearly under U.S. pressure. “The real danger is in the U.S. acting like an enraged mastodon, trampling Pakistan under foot, and forcing Islamabad’s military to make war on its own people. Pakistan could end up like U.S.- occupied Iraq, split into three parts and helpless.”

The Waziristans are the poorest of Pakistan’s seven semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and home to its most recalcitrant tribes as this piece notes.

They don’t like the Pakistan army being in their lands. An offensive 18 months ago resulted in around 200,000 people being lodged in camps for several months, before the army realized it was pointless holding empty territory and allowed them back.

Pakistan is already paying a price and there could be worse to come, cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan is quoted as having said. He thought his country was on a suicidal course and that the offensive against the Taliban will backfire and fuel more extremism and bomb attacks.

I’m not pro-Taliban,” he said. “But my point is: shouldn’t we have looked at other options? How do you justify using heavy artillery, helicopter gunships and F-16 fighter-jets in civilian areas? Who in the world does this?.”

And it is a war that pits Pakistanis against Pakistanis, Muslims against Muslims, – unlike in the past when all all its wars have been against India. For the soldiers who are fighting and for the families forced to bury their sons, the struggle seems to go against their very DNA, as this piece in the Washington Post argues.

{File photo of Taliban fighters  waiting for Mehsud during a media visit last year]

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