Worldfocus multimedia producer Ben Piven writes about the U.S. war in Pashtunistan, an often misunderstood place not found on any world map.
The knee-jerk American reaction after September 11th was to strike at the Taliban-ruled nation that was harboring a sizable, international al-Qaeda contingent: Afghanistan.
But these days, it is becoming ever more clear that the U.S. has widened its campaign to the region that some people call Pashtunistan — the area historically inhabited by ethnic Pashtuns.
The vast majority both of al-Qaeda operatives and of Taliban militants who oppose the U.S. are located in Pashtunistan, with little regard for the arbitrary Durand Line drawn by the British that technically separates Pakistan from Afghanistan. The Guardian described the region last year as a “Grand Central Station for Islamic terrorists.”
A number of recent articles highlight that the U.S. is no longer merely involved in counter-insurgency against Afghan terrorists. As drone attacks against targets in Pakistan escalate, allegations arise that the U.S. is actually much more involved in Pakistan than previously known.
A New York Times article from earlier this month suggests that the Obama plan for a troop increase ignores the reality of Pashtunistan:
In his address [December 1], the president mentioned Pakistan and the Pakistanis some 25 times, and called Pakistan and Afghanistan collectively “the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda.”
But he might have had an easier time explaining what he was really proposing had he set the national boundaries aside and told Americans that the additional soldiers and marines were being sent to another land altogether: Pashtunistan.
That land is not on any map, but it’s where leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban both hide. It straddles 1,000 miles of the 1,600-mile Afghan-Pakistani border. It is inhabited by the ethnic Pashtuns, a fiercely independent people that number 12 million on the Afghan side and 27 million on the Pakistani side. They have a language (Pashto), an elaborate traditional code of legal and moral conduct (Pashtunwali), a habit of crossing the largely unmarked border at will, and a centuries-long history of foreign interventions that ended badly for the foreigners.
Whether Mr. Obama will have better luck there than President George W. Bush, the Soviet Politburo and British prime ministers back to the early 19th century remains to be seen. But it is there that the war will be fought, because it is there that the Taliban were spawned and where they now regroup, attack and find shelter, for themselves and their Qaeda guests.
Today, the enemies of the United States are nearly all in Pashtunistan, an aspirational name coined long ago by advocates of an independent Pashtun homeland. From bases in the Pakistani part of it — the Federally Administered Tribal Areas toward the north and Baluchistan province in the south — Afghan Taliban leaders, who are Pashtuns, have plotted attacks against Afghanistan. It is also from the Pakistani side of Pashtunistan that Qaeda militants have plotted terrorism against the West.
And an article by Pepe Escobar in the Asia Times looks at the region’s hopes for self-determination:
Tribal Pashtuns (from eastern Afghanistan to western Pakistan) have never given up on being united again. Everyone familiar with AfPak knows the region is still paying the price for the fateful and - what else - divide-and-rule British imperial decision in 1897 to split tribal Pashtuns through the artificial Durand Line. The line remains the artificial border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Anyone who ever crossed it at, for instance, Torkham, at the foot of the Khyber pass, knows it is meaningless; people swarming on both sides are all cousins who never stopped dreaming of a pre-colonial, Afghan Durrani empire that straddled a great deal of contemporary Pakistan.
Few have noticed that Pashtuns were recently insisting on a very basic demand - that North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in Pakistan have its name changed to Pakhtunkhwa (”Land of the Pashtuns”). The demand was shot down this past September by the dominant Punjabis in Pakistan. Pashtun nationalists protested en masse in fabled Peshawar, the NWFP capital. Pashtun national liberation is at fever pitch. Pashtun Guevaras are already issuing a call to arms.
But as much as Washington, now with a little help from its friend/client government of President Asif Ali Zardari in Islamabad, has been conducting essentially a war on Pashtuns since 2001, this is no monolithic movement. It all goes back to the early 21st-century maxim that virtually every Taliban is a Pashtun, but not every Pashtun is a Taliban. There are significant strands of secular Pashtuns that shun the TTP [Pakistani Taliban] and its brand of Islamic fundamentalist dystopian dogma, even while the Pashtun masses may see in the TTP the ideal vehicle for the advent of Pashtunistan.
If we follow the money, we see that the TTP in Pakistan is now being financed mostly by wealthy, pious Gulf businessmen and not anymore by Islamabad. The financiers are more interested in jihad than in Pashtun nationalism, and that undermines the legitimacy of the Taliban as vehicles for Pashtun nationalism.
An opinion piece titled “Welcome to Pashtunistan” in The National last week described a covert CIA-funded operation in Pakistan by Xe, the company formerly known as Blackwater. The author, retired Pakistani military officer Shaukat Qadir, alleges that the U.S. has plans to destabilize Pakistan’s government in order to stabilize the broader region in the long-term.
Qadir also suggests that even though U.S.-funded operatives are in Karachi and Peshawar, they have failed to hunt down most of the top al-Qaeda figures.
Security analysts often argue that the current Afghan insurgency is at heart a Pashtun movement — organized and directed by Pashtuns in Pakistan.
If true, Qadir’s assertions would prove that the U.S. has long been devoting significant resources to combating terror in the Pakistani half of Pashtunistan:
[Blackwater's] presence in Pakistan has been an open secret for some years. The investigative journalist and writer Jeremy Scahill, an authority on Blackwater and author of the bestselling Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, revealed last month that it has been there since 2006. He says Blackwater is being employed for covert ops, essentially intended to target high-value al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, but it has also assisted in providing information for drone attacks and has kidnapped suspects and transported them covertly to the U.S. for interrogation…
Mr. Scahill does not engage in speculation, and is not to be taken lightly. So when he states that Xe is sitting in Karachi, he is not likely to be wrong. He has added that the operation is so secret that many senior people in the Obama administration were unaware of it.
However, he seems to have erred in one respect: Xe is not only in Karachi. It also has a massive presence in Islamabad and Peshawar, where I understand the organization has rented up to seven adjacent houses. Neighbors who heard muffled explosions soon after the houses were occupied suspect that they are linked by underground tunnels.
Along with massively expanded counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan, the U.S. appears to be quickly but quietly escalating its war in Pakistan.
Over the next few years, we can expect more intensive drone strikes, heightened Pakistani military efforts and a increasingly blurry line that separates the two halves of Pashtunistan.
- Ben Piven
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