Wednesday, 14 November 2007

BIN LADEN MORE POPULAR THAN BUSH OR MUSHARRAF

Anti-American nationalism is behind Pakistan crisis

By Graham E. Fuller

WASHINGTON — Washington is now confronted with an
essentially no-win situation in Pakistan. We are witnessing
the culmination of many years of ad hoc American policies
based on an abiding faith in the power of U.S. military
force coupled with ignorance of the strategic, cultural and
psychological realities of the region. At heart is an
incompatibility of American strategic interests with those
of Pakistan, particularly as perceived by the country's
strategic elite. Powerful popular forces of Pakistani and
Islamic nationalism intensify this divide.

Washington wants what Pakistan will not deliver, or cannot
deliver except to a modest degree. Bush wants to destroy
al-Qaida in the Pak-Afghan region, a goal shared by Gen.
Pervez Musharraf. But while al-Qaida lacks native roots in
Pakistan, Osama bin Laden is still the object of sympathy
by huge numbers in Pakistan and beyond. Humbled Muslim
societies everywhere see bin Laden as one of the few
figures in the Muslim world willing to stand up with honor
and bravery to the American colossus and defy its imperial
ambitions. That makes bin Laden more popular than Bush or
Musharraf, even if most of the population does not share
bin Laden's vision of violent global jihadi struggle.

But Washington's demands cut still closer to the Pakistani
bone. Bush wants Pakistan to cut off cross-border contact
between Pakistan and Afghanistan, to deny Pakistan as a
safe haven for the Afghan Taliban.

Musharraf and his generals will pay lip service to this
goal, but they will not ultimately do it. The reasons are
not complex. As distasteful a symbol of primitive Islamic
practice as the Taliban have been, today they represent
essentially the major vehicle for Pashtun nationalism in
Afghanistan, the single biggest ethnic group and much
under-represented in the U.S.-backed Karzai government.
More important, there are twice as many ethnic Pashtuns in
Pakistan itself as there are in Afghanistan. The
cross-border ties are inextricable: clan, family, history,
culture, language, religion. This ethnic organism will not
be sundered by the arbitrary and unpopular borders between
the two countries. Pashtuns can, do and will casually
ignore this artificial divide. Indeed, the Taliban as a
political and ideological movement is growing more powerful
within Pakistan itself.

Pakistan already has one powerful enemy on its eastern
flank — India. It cannot afford to have a hostile
Afghanistan on its western side. Every Pakistani strategic
thinker knows this. Yet under the Karzai government in
Afghanistan, the enemies of Pakistan — the anti-Pashtun
Northern Alliance, and a strong Indian political and
intelligence presence — have grown strong. Pakistan's
primary voice and influence inside Afghanistan comes mainly
via the Taliban, supported behind the scenes by the
Pakistani military on strategic grounds. Washington may
rail at this, but it cannot change these facts on the
ground.

Pakistan's government is meanwhile still heavily influenced
by powerful feudal rural landholders with regressive social
and economic policies.

The country desperately needs agricultural and social
reform. But reform will undercut the powerful feudalists, a
key pillar of power. Benazir Bhutto, for all her Western
polish, herself represents those very landowning powers in
her native Sindh region. The kind of deep social reform
required is not in the offing, neither with Musharraf nor
with Bhutto. She has been tested — twice — and found
wanting.

Washington wants a compliant Pakistan that will dutifully
play its assigned role in the U.S. regional hegemonic
vision. Washington will take it any way it can get it, with
or without democracy. So U.S. calls for democracy are now
issued in panic and ring hollow after six years of support
for the Musharraf dictatorship. Pakistani liberals condemn
the U.S. for supporting the Pakistani military dictatorship
for so long in the name of an unpopular "war against
terror" and perceive U.S. confrontationalism as only
serving to inflame the militant jihadists.

Nor can the crisis in Pakistan be viewed in isolation. It
is of a piece with the war in Afghanistan, and is
inextricably linked as well to broader convulsions across
the Middle East. Islamic "nationalism" is a growing force
as activists push back against American "boots on the
ground" — a Pentagon term more revealing than the Pentagon
realizes. It is the U.S. military presence and strategy
across the region that is seen to rob Muslims of their
dignity and sovereignty, in what increasingly is understood
as an American war against Islam — bolstered in Washington
by neo-con calls for a "World War IV against
Islamofascism." U.S. policies have helped forge a unity of
vision across a Muslim world that under more normal
circumstances would be far more focused on distinctive
local concerns.

The military remains the single most important force in
Pakistan. It will most likely ensure that the country does
not fall apart. Yet it incorporates many who sympathize
with the Islamist agenda and the need to protect the
country against outside domination. As radical Islamist
power grows across the country, the military will not
likely confront it directly; it will seek to divert it,
placate some of it, accommodate large elements into the
system where possible. We may even witness some bloodshed
as militants clash with the military. But the military
knows these forces cannot basically be destroyed by force.
Meanwhile, the center of gravity is shifting toward the
many Islamists who have joined hands with a few liberals
against Musharraf. Any new political accommodation will
likely be far less congenial to Washington.

Today the U.S. military presence is perhaps the single most
inflammatory element in politics across the region. The
American military response to this regional challenge only
serves to exacerbate it. Sadly, Pakistan is now swift on
the heels of Iraq and Afghanistan in heading toward
increased civil strife and bitter anti-American emotions.

A "made in Washington" settlement in Afghanistan — the
heart of the problem — is not going to work. It only
generates increasing hostility as thousands more
Lilliputians swarm the helpless Gulliver, drawing hostile
Pakistani Islamists more deeply into the equation as well.
In this sense bin Laden is winning. The region will only
calm down following a withdrawal of U.S. forces from its
confrontation with "Islam" and the development of a
regional approach to the Afghan issue — one that
acknowledges the deep interests of the main regional
players who also seek stability in the region: Pakistan,
Iran, Russia, China and India. Yet this reality is anathema
to the hegemonic global strategy of the Bush
administration.

And so the arc of Islamic crisis continues to swell.

Graham E. Fuller, a former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council at
the CIA, is currently an adjunct professor of history at Simon Fraser
University in Vancouver, Canada, and the author of "The Future of Political
Islam."

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