A strange feeling of déjà vu arises while listening to the administration sell further U.S. military intervention in Pakistan (our Predator drones are already there).
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen claimed in late March that Pakistan's intelligence service has "close links with al Qaeda and the Taliban network." In fact, Mullen warned, the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, is "offering logistical support to them (the Taliban)."
In early April, veteran foreign policy icon and special advisor to the president on Afghanistan and South Asia, Richard Holbrook, let us know what this meant. There is a fundamental difference between the Pakistan conflict and the Viet Nam war, he argued. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Holbrook went on to say this:
"And the people who are in this area who we are fighting either pose a direct threat, having committed 9/11, having done Mumbai, having killed (Benazir) Bhutto, and they have publicly said they are going to do more of the same. That is: al Qaeda of course and their allies the Taliban." Richard Holbrooke, May 5, 2009 (Repeating April 19, 2009 statement)
On May 9, General David Petraeus supported his superiors as he announced that Pakistan was now "the world headquarters for the al Qaeda senior leadership."
There is even talk in the U.S. media that Pakistan is at risk of becoming a failed state controlled by Muslim extremists. Using Holbrooke's logic, the U.S. would then be faced with a nation of 170 million Hell bent on more 911's, Mumbai massacres, and nuclear blackmail.
This threat accounts for the use of unmanned drone aircraft to bomb Taliban fighters. The Pakistan's government opposes the unauthorized drone attacks as destabilizing and counterproductive. This is a recent example of U.S. policy that results in majorities of Pakistani's opposing al Qaeda's terrorist goals but, at the same time, favoring the goal of "driving U.S. forces out of their country."
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Pakistan has a different take on events.
Fundamentalists in the rural, mountainous regions have sought Muslim law (Sharia) for decades. The largely urban population of Pakistan and its central government oppose this. Armed conflict has ebbed and flowed over time. This issue and conflict is a distant second to Pakistan's overriding focus on its hostile relationship with India. Three major wars with India and an ongoing tension between the nations since Pakistan was formed on August 14, 1947 account for this.
Pakistani fundamentalists in the volatile northwestern provinces gained strength during the 1980's due to their utility in fighting the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained this to Congress on April 25, 2009, "Let’s remember here… the people we are fighting today we funded them twenty years ago… and we did it because we were locked in a struggle with the Soviet Union."
Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, worked with the United States to fund religious extremists from Pakistan and elsewhere that were willing to fight the Soviet Union's forces occupying Afghanistan. Billions of dollars were committed to this effort by the United States.
Respected journalist Ahmed Rashid noted that, "CIA chief William Casey committed CIA support to a long-standing ISI initiative to recruit radical Muslims from around the world to come to Pakistan and fight with the Afghan Mujahideen." A prime recruiting area was the sparsely populated, conservative Muslim population in Pakistan's border provinces.
That cooperative effort became old news after September 1, 2001. U.S. policy toward Afghanistan went from funding the Taliban rulers to destroy poppy crops to evicting them supposedly as a first step in the search for bin Laden.
The turmoil in Afghanistan spread to the border regions of Pakistan. By 2008, new Taliban leadership emerged in Pakistan and the extremists were on the move. Pakistan's western provinces are lightly guarded by the Pakistani Frontier Corp. The Taliban's initial successes allowed them to show their unique style of governance:
"Militants unleashed a reign of terror, killing and beheading politicians, singers, soldiers and opponents. They banned female education and destroyed nearly 200 girls' schools" Reuters May 7, 2009.
The preoccupation of Pakistan's government with the Indian border resulted in the attempts to negotiate a peace which might simply calm the situation in the west. This was deemed unacceptable by the United States.
At the same time, United States ignored warnings from different factions that the ongoing drone attacks, in defiance of Pakistan's objections, were creating major problems for both the U.S. and Pakistan's new government which was seen as powerless to do anything but complain to U.S. officials.
Special advisor Holbrooke and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mullen took a diplomatic road trip to Pakistan to make the case for more aggressive action by Pakistan's regular military in early April
What are the chances Pakistan could fall to the Taliban? If you listen to presidential advisor Richard Holbrooke, we are looking at another 9/11 unless Pakistan gets its act together. Mullen was equally strident in his concerns and criticisms of the Pakistanis.
Both officials had made public statements prior to the trip stating the danger to the United States by failure to act decisively against the Taliban. One of the charges was that Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, was in league with the Taliban and that the government was doing little or nothing to change things.
This created uproar in Pakistan's capitol. The head of the ISI refused to meet with Mullen and Holbrooke and the normally mild mannered foreign minister sat the two down for a "frank exchange." Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi summarized his meetings with this advice: "'We can only work together if we respect each other and trust each other. There is no other way and nothing else will work,’ he said rather bluntly" Dawn, Apr 9, 2009.
In an interview on National Public Radio on April 21, even Shuja Nawaz from the establishment oriented Atlantic Council was driven to exasperation when describing the Holbrooke - Mullen mission. "This is probably the worst-ever visit by an American team to South Asia in history. It was a complete disaster. And if this is how you want to win friends, I just wonder how you want to create enemies" NPR, Apr 21, 2009.
But lets return to the 9/11 card played by Richard Holbrooke. That's a very serious charge. It hinges on the likelihood of Pakistan falling to the Taliban
Here's how they match up?
Pakistan is a nation of 170 million people. It had an impressive run of economic growth until the recent economic crisis. It is the most urbanized nation in South Asia and has a large educated class. The Pakistani Army is a well armed force of 650,000 with a substantial reserve force. The Army has fought three major wars with India, has a modern command structure, and is held in a positive regard by citizens. It is the largest single contributor to UN peace keeping efforts.
The Pakistani Taliban consists of an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 members. Their funding may be from the opium trade with other sources hard to pin down. They promote a violent brand of Islam rejected by the vast majority of Pakistani citizens and they are not held in any regard other than fear due to their violent version of Islamic law.
If Pakistan fell to the Taliban, it would be the most remarkable victory in the history of warfare based on the measure of forces and experience.
Is this likely to be the case?
The Economist dismissed the chances of a Taliban victory over Pakistan.
"If, unthinkably, the disparate warlords who make up the Pakistan Taliban were to mass together for a frontal attack, Pakistan’s army, which is 620,000-strong and well-drilled for conventional warfare, could crush them. Indeed, many pundits reckon that an Islamist takeover in Pakistan would be possible only with the army’s support." The Economist, Apr 30, 2009
Scholar and commentator Juan Cole said the notion of a Taliban victory simply "makes no sense." He pointed out that the two largest vote getters in the last election for president were not Muslim fundamentalists and that the vast majority of the nation's Muslims are not fundamentalists (Informed Comment, Apr 26, 2009).
The most recent major political controversy in Pakistan has been the broad public support and protest for a return of the Supreme Court justices fired by then President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf. These justices found that the president was not qualified by to run in the 2008 presidential elections. This type of issue hardly indicates a population ripe for radical Islam.
But what about the threat to the United States?
Advisor Holbrooke and Admiral Mullen claim an imminent danger from a Taliban victory. The senior Taliban leader in Pakistan is doing all he can to promote that storyline. Baitullah Mahsud told the Los Angles Times that, "Our mission is to continue jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to avenge drone attacks, even inside America," Apr 1, 2009. This was nothing less than the 9/11 threats that Holbrooke and Mullen see in the mountains of Pakistan.
Five weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times did a comprehensive report on this question citing sources from various government agencies. A "military officer" said Mahsud's statements showed "how dangerous he and his group are." A CIA source discounted Mahsud's importance and a "counterterrorism official" was quoted as saying, "I think it's a lot of boasting on his part." Los Angeles Times, Apr 1, 2009
The Times described a FBI document on Mahsud that said, "The bulletin discounted his U.S. threats describing them as 'aspirational.'" The FBI was willing to go on the record through spokesman Richard Kolko who remarked, "We are not aware of any imminent or specific threats to the U.S."
The Taliban faction attacking civilians and the Pakistani Frontier Corp in the Swat administrative district near Pakistan's capitol, Islamabad, is lead by Maulana Fazlullah. He leads a force estimated at 5,000 fighters (of a Taliban in Pakistan estimated at 50,000).
He came to prominence by being the most strident voice opposing U.S. Predator drone bombings of the region. His solution was strict Islamic law and excessive violence for the people of Swat who are characterized as more interested in commerce and making a living than radical politics. The districts shopkeepers dislike the Taliban for ruining their business and the government and United States for bombing them.
This is the great threat to the United States that Holbrooke, Mullen and Petraeus warn us about: a group of 5,000 extremely violent religious thugs who frighten the populace with acts of random violence, attacks on girls schools (200 in all), and bans on vaccines. The Fazlullah lead Taliban can barely control the Swat district, a region just larger than Rhode Island. Yet we are being told that they could actually defeat the Pakistan Army, take over nuclear facilities, and attack the United States.
What's this all about?
In the presidential campaign, President Obama caused a stir when he said, "There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will" Times Online, Aug 2, 2008. The issue wasn't discussed much until Obama came into office when he made official the already underway Predator drone attacks on targets in Pakistan on January 23, 2009.
This was the origin of the new 9/11 threat as storyline shoved in the face of Pakistani officials by Holbrooke and Mullen on their visit to Islamabad in early April, 2009.
On one level, the histrionic claims by the administration, denied by named and unnamed officials within their own government, are aimed at creating public fear that will justify whatever military action might be planned or viewed as necessary at any moment. Who opposes preventing another 9/11? No one. Therefore, just about anything we do to prevent that is justified. Does this sound familiar?
On another level, the conflict on both sides is about cutting a deal. Pakistan's government seems largely indifferent to the senseless violence against citizens of a backwards, under populated western region. Why else would they fail to act on the atrocities already committed?
But Pakistan's real concern has to be the threat of another war with its very hostile neighbor India or even a proxy war in the disputed area of Kashmir. India has 900,000 troops, and 11 million paramilitary forces, an array of modern weapons systems for its army, navy and air force plus nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration managed to allow the escape of bin Laden from Afghanistan and turn the positive of routing the Taliban into the negative of a prolonged conflict and the role of occupier. The current administration is stuck with this mess. Whether the intention is to leave entirely or maintain a residual force for U.S. "interests," any success in Afghanistan requires an end to the Pakistan refuge allowed the government's preoccupation with the very real threat of a conflict with India.
This chapter of the drama may be coming to a close. The Prime Minister of Pakistan went on national television on May 7 to announce the deployment of a major contingent of Pakistan's armed forces to the western provinces victimized by the Taliban.
At about that time, the Asia Times reported a deal between Pakistan and the administration. The United States would guarantee a peaceful interlude with India on its eastern border while Pakistan voluntarily weakened it's position there to send troops against the Taliban in the West The Asia Times went on to report:
"According to reports, the US has told Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, currently in Washington that if this plan goes ahead, US Predator drone strikes inside Pakistan against militants will immediately be stopped. The scores of attacks over the past year or so have created bitter resentment in Pakistan as they have killed numerous civilians as well as militants." Asia Times, May 8, 2009
We'll know the deal was done if the Predator attacks stop.
We're experiencing an example of the enduring power 9/11 as a justification for just about anything. Military adventures that kill foreigners have the potential to create what Chalmers Johnson so eloquently described as "blowback" in his trilogy on the perils of aggressive foreign policy. We're expected to believe that our violent actions in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including robot killer aircraft, will somehow produce a different result this time. We will be "safer."
There are now over a million dead Iraqi civilians due to the civil strife cause by the Bush invasion. There may be a much lower body count for Pakistan's civilians due to the current administrations lethal military action in Pakistan. But the legacy will be one of fear, disrespect, and hatred of the United States due to deaths and injuries that were entirely unnecessary.
Ironically, Pakistan Daily, an online, user generated news service, published this -- 70 Reasons To Question Official 9/11 Story. It is a listing of nearly every alternative theory to the official U.S. government version of that tragic event.
The handling of this affair has made even more enemies for the citizens of the United States, those who may ultimately pay the price. It has resulted in ridicule regarding the very justification for U.S. intervention in Pakistan, the still unexplained and uninvestigated story of 9/11.
But there is still a sliver of hope. Fourteen members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent this letter this letter to the president urging withdrawal and restraint rather than more troops and action in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ron Paul (R-TX), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Walter Jones Jr. (R-NC), John Conyers (D-OH) plus 10 other representatives urged a major shift in policy:
"We are also concerned that any perceived military success in Afghanistan might create pressure to increase military activity in Pakistan. This could very well lead to dangerous destabilization in the region and would increase hostility toward the United States."
The citizens of the United States have every right to expect that their government will provide protection against domestic terror attacks, as well as, infectious diseases, floods, hurricanes, and other large scale disasters. We also have a right to the truth. When the so-called experts tell us that 50,000 religious fanatics are an imminent threat to the country, it's time to say: Surely you're not serious? How could you have weakened us so that this is the case?
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