It was 2003 and the conversation was an intense one between a high ranking Pakistani military officer and a politician from PATA - the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas which include the Swat valley. The politician was arguing that the government needed to move quickly to fully incorporate the PATA region into the political structure of Pakistan - give it all the rights that any other region had. And the officer was mostly in agreement. At least that was what I took away given my less than perfect language skills. Neither the politician nor the officer was at a high enough level to make an agreement. But they were high enough to have an influence. I have often thought of that conversation since then. I knew then that it was not in our short term interest for there to be any change in the political status of the frontier region as that would mean uncertainty. We were engaged in Afghanistan - successfully it seemed at the time - and we really did not need uncertainty on the Pakistan side of the Durand line. I don't know if US influence scuppered the deal. Or even if the Pakistanis had progressed to the point of having a deal to scupper. What I do know is if there was any US involvement it was probably to the detriment of any change in the political status of the PATA. We would have acted for our short term interest and against the long term interest of Pakistan. Looking at the situation in Swat and other PATA regions today it turns out our actions would have also been against the long term interest of the US.
If one, for the most part, accepts the articulation of the reasons behind US foreign policy, it seems our long term interests are mostly hurt when we work against the long term interests of other states. Overthrowing Mosaddegh in 1953 gave us a client state in Iran for a quarter century but planted the seeds for the 1979 revolution. Mosaddegh was not someone hostile to the US and one can envision an alternate history in which we had worked with Mosaddegh and Iran would have become and remained a strong and reliable ally. Giving Zia the green light in Pakistan to overthrow Bhutto probably looked like a good move at the time. Removing a nationalizing politician who had sworn to acquire nuclear weapons must have seemed a no-brainer. But the retardation of the democratic process and the Islamization of the country under Zia has, in the long term, been to the detriment of our interests. Stephen Kinzer noted, I think in his book Overthrow, that we want the governments we put in place in the various countries we intervene in to be democratic and to look after our interests. Unfortunately, these are contradictory aims. Rulers who look after our interests before they look after the interests of their own people can by definition not be democratic.
Looking at our entry into the disastrous adventure called the AfPak strategy it is too much to hope that the US has learned any lessons. The problem in Pakistan is not of an increase in religious fanaticism, it is that of a populace increasingly disillusioned with the various power centers that rule the country. In this situation the Taliban gain strength not because people support them but because they do not support the government. The two power centers in Pakistan are the feudals, represented by the political parties, and the military. For brief periods of time the populace ties their hopes to one or the other, only to seem them dashed in short order. What is needed in Pakistan is the development of reasonably competent governance which at least appears to be responsive to the needs of the people. To ask the US to provide this would be ridiculous. However, in a sane world, it would be reasonable to ask the US not to embark upon policies that aggravate the situation. Unfortunately, it seems we are not living in a sane world.
The Swat agreement was disturbing, to say the least, and the Taliban's move into Buner convinced even those who thought they could buy some time (and the people of Swat some peace) that the Taliban had no intention of halting their advance. But the Pakistan army's heavy handed response in Buner, spurred on it seems by US demands that the Pakistanis take harsh action against the Taleban, is only going to sharpen the contradictions that already exist in society. The abruptness of the Pakistani action at a time of increasing criticism from US government representative, and the lack of any planning all suggest a response to external pressure. Pakistan is in a brittle state and the sharp increase in the number of internally displaced people is going to severely strain the social fabric with the beneficiaries being any group that rises up against the established order. The Taleban are not going to take over the country, or the nukes, regardless of what the fearmongers in Washington say. But the process can put sufficient strain on the country to cause it to fracture among other lines. And there are so many of them
The situation in Baluchistan keeps getting worse and worse. A separation movement which has existed in some form of another since the birth of Pakistan is gaining strength. The death of Akbar Bugti, a cunning old feudal lord who was leading the separatists, has introduced a qualitative change. Akbar Bugti had been through enough twists and turns of Pakistan's history, being at one time the Governor and at another the Chief minister of Balochistan, that he knew when to push and when not to. His death leaves the movement in much more radical hands.
Karachi, the commercial heart of Pakistan, is always simmering with barely contained conflict between ethnic groups that have lived side-by-side for generations without integrating. The dominant ethnic group are the descendants of migrants from India whose ancestors came to Pakistan after the 1947 partition of British India into Pakistan and India. The thuggish MQM which is based in this group is in violent conflict with the ANP which represents one of the other major ethnic group in Karachi, the Pashtuns. Most of this group is descendant of economic migrants from the North West Frontier Province. The activities of the Pakistan army in Buner and Swat is sure to swell this population increasing the .
Pakistan is home to a large Shia minority which is anathema to the more fanatical sunni groups. Under normal conditions they are not a major problem. Increasing instability in the country is sure to provide opportunities for murder and mayhem from this group.
And while the Taleban are not going to be taking over Pakistan any time soon they will be a major problem in the North West. The role of the Taleban as the resistance fighting the foreign occupier also makes them appear more sympathetic than they would otherwise be. The habit of the US army of calling in airstrikes on civilian groups is not helping matters any. Or the brutality and immorality of Bagram. Killing the Taleban will not resolve the problem of the Taleban, however strange that sounds. The Taleban are a symptom. They are a short term problem. By focusing on the short term we are making sure we have a long term problem.
The US has the most powerful military the world has ever known and maybe that is the problem. As Robin Williams said "“See, the problem is that God gives men a brain and a penis, and only enough blood to run one at a time.” Maybe that powerful military is draining the US of the sanity needed to think of the long term.