Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Peshawar is such an important city for Pakistan that it can be hard to write about it without sounding shrill. It is significant strategically since it lies near the entrance to the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. But it is also important emotionally – not only is it a Moghul city and an ancient Silk Route trading hub, but it is also a Pashtun town on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line , the ill-demarcated border between Pakistan and Afghanistan imposed by British colonial rulers that splits the Pashtun people of the region in two. For Pakistan, fighting for control of Peshawar is probably comparable to what France and Germany felt about Alsace Lorraine before World War Two.
So when the New York Times publishes an article about Peshawar being at risk of falling into Taliban hands we must pay attention. “In the last two months, Taliban militants have suddenly tightened the noose on this city of three million people, one of Pakistan’s biggest, establishing bases in surrounding towns and, in daylight, abducting residents for high ransoms,” it says. “The threat to Peshawar is a sign of the Taliban’s deepening penetration of Pakistan and of the expanding danger that the militants present to the entire region, including nearby supply lines for NATO and American forces in Afghanistan.”
The Daily Times says it more dramatically, with a Kiplingesque notion of what the fall of Peshawar to Taliban control would mean for Pakistan: “The Taliban are no longer at the gates of Peshawar, they’re inside, making their presence felt in the largest city in the NWFP (North West Frontier Province),” it says.
Pakistan has just launched an offensive against Taliban fighters near Peshawar in an attempt to re-impose government control. As I said at the beginning, it’s hard not to sound shrill about a place that few outsiders understand. But history is in the making here, and the battle for Peshawar is one we all should watch.
“War does not determine who is right — only who is left.” (Or so said the British philosopher and anti-war activist Bertrand Russell.) So who is going to be left standing once U.S. and NATO forces have finished battling it out with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan?
(Luke Baker is with the U.S. army in eastern Afghanistan)
The snows have largely melted in the Hindu Kush and the high trails over the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan are once again passable. What’s more, Tehrik-e-Taliban’s leader, Baitullah Mehsud, looks like he may secure a peace deal with Pakistan’s new leadership, including the possibility of Pakistan’s security forces backing off from attacking his hideouts in South Waziristan.
To many observers, those two developments lead to a conclusion: any spring offensive by the Taliban against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan could be that much more powerful this year, with Mehsud throwing his tactical weight behind the offensive without fear of being squeezed by Pakistan’s forces from behind.
The argument has a fair amount of logic on its side, but how likely is the whole scenario really?
In a new book launched this week about the ill-fated attempt by British imperialists in the mid 19th century to occupy Afghanistan, I came across an interesting detail: the Afghans refused to play cricket. During the occupation of Kabul by British troops from India, “the Afghans looked on with astonishment at the bowling, batting and fagging out of the English players”, writes former Reuters journalist Jules Stewart in ”Crimson Snow: Britain’s First Disaster in Afghanistan“.
With NATO reaffirming its commitment to Afghanistan in a “strategic vision” statement issued at a summit in Bucharest this week, I wondered if there was a bigger lesson in this refusal to engage in cricket, just as the Afghans have never submitted to foreign occupation — seeing off the British Raj in the 19th century and defeating Soviet occupiers in the 20th century. ”The Afghans will always win,” writes Stewart in the conclusion to his book.
With NATO saying it is nearing a deal to use Russian land and airspace to supply its security forces in Afghanistan, I’ve been trying to work out what this could mean for Pakistan.
In the Asia Times Online, former Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar quotes U.S. military spokesmen as saying that about three quarters of all supplies are currently sent to Afghanistan via Pakistan. ”On the face of it, Washington should jump at the Russian offer of support to the NATO mission in Afghanistan,” he writes. “Pakistan has proved to be an unreliable partner in the ‘war on terror’. The growing political uncertainties in Pakistan put question marks on the wisdom of the US continuing to depend so heavily on Pakistan for ferrying supplies for its troops in Afghanistan.”