The Guardian 1 August, 2007

Is the US preparing to attack Pakistan?

Eric Margolis

The Bush Administration may be preparing to lash out at its old ally Pakistan, which Washington now blames for its humiliating failures to crush al-Qaeda, capture its elusive leaders and defeat Taliban resistance forces in Afghanistan. Sources in Washington say the Pentagon is drawing up plans to attack Pakistanís "autonomous" tribal region bordering Afghanistan. Limited "hot pursuit" ground incursions by US forces based in Afghanistan, intensive air attacks, and special forces raids into Pakistanís autonomous tribal region are being evaluated.

This weekend, the US national intelligence chief and other intelligence spokesmen confirmed that strikes against "terrorist targets" in Pakistanís tribal belt are increasingly possible. These warnings were designed to put further pressure on Pakistanís President Pervez Musharraf into sending more troops to the tribal areas to fight his own people, and to prepare US public opinion for a possible widening of the Afghanistan war into Pakistan.

Pakistanís tribal belt, officially known as the Federal Autonomous Tribal Area, is home to 3.3 million Pashtun tribesmen. It has become a safe haven for al-Qaida, Taliban, other Afghan resistance groups, and a hotbed of anti-American activity. This was most in response to the US-led occupation of Afghanistan, which drove many militants across the border into Pakistan.

The tribal belts are always referred to as "lawless" but there is law: the traditional Pashtun tribal code that strictly governs behaviour and personal honour. Protecting guests is sacred.

The 40 million Pashtun are the worldís largest tribal group. Imperial Britain divided them by an artificial border, the Durand Line, which went on to become, like so many other British colonial boundaries, todayís Afghanistan-Pakistan border. When Pakistan was created in 1947, the Pashtun were split between that new nation and Afghanistan.

Pakistanís Pashtun number is at 28Ė30 million, plus an additional 2.5 million refugees from Afghanistan. Pashtuns, one of the British Indian Armyís famed "martial races," occupy many senior positions in Pakistanís military, intelligence service and bureaucracy, and naturally have much sympathy for their embattled tribal cousins in Afghanistan. The 15 million Pashtun of Afghanistan form that nationís largest ethnic group and just under half the population.

The Pashtun reluctantly joined newly-created Pakistan in 1947 under express constitutional guarantees of total autonomy and a ban on Pakistani troops ever entering there.

But under intense US pressure, President Musharraf violated Pakistanís constitution by sending 80,000 federal troops to fight the regionís tribes, killing 3000 of them. In the best British imperial tradition, Washington pays Musharraf $100 million monthly to rent his sepoys (native soldiers) to fight Pashtun tribesmen. As a result, Pakistan is fast edging towards civil war, as the bloody siege of Islamabadís Red Mosque and a current wave of bombings across the nation show.

The Taliban movement is part of the Pashtun people. Taliban fighters move across the artificial Pakistan-Afghanistan border, to borrow a Maoism, "like fish through the sea". Osama bin Laden is a hero in the region, and likely shelters there.

The US just increased its reward for bin Laden to $50 million and plans to shower $750 million on the tribal region in an effort to buy loyalty. Bush/Cheney & Co. do not understand that while they can rent President Musharrafís Government in Islamabad, many Pashtun value personal honour far more than money, and cannot be bought. That is the likely reason why bin Laden has not yet been betrayed.

A catastrophic tactic

Any US attack on Pakistan would be a catastrophic mistake. First, air and ground assaults will succeed only in widening the anti-US war and will merge it with Afghanistanís resistance to western occupation. US forces are already too over-stretched to get involved in yet another war.

Second, Pakistanís army officers who refuse to be bought may resist a US attack on their homeland, and overthrow the man who allowed it ó General Musharraf. A US attack would sharply raise the threat of anti-US extremists seizing control of strategic Pakistan and marginalise those seeking return to democratic government.

Third, a US attack on the tribal areas could re-ignite the old movement to reunite Pashtun parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan into an independent state, "Pashtunistan". That could begin unravelling fragile Pakistan, leaving its nuclear arsenal up for grabs, and with India tempted to intervene.

The US military has grown used to attacking small, weak nations like Grenada, Panama, and Iraq. Pakistan, with 163 million people, and a poorly equipped but very tough 550,000-soldier army, will offer no easy victories.

Those Bush Administration officials who foolishly advocate attacking Pakistan are playing with fire.

Eric Margolis, is contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada, and is the author of War at the Top of the World. Visit his website

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