Pakistan: USA's next war zone

September 26, 2008

Washington's next war is already on the go. "Classified orders", according to the September 11 New York Times, were passed by US President George Bush in July. And the target is not "axis of evil"-famed Iran. It is Washington's close ally in the "war on terror", Pakistan.

On September 17, a US attack on the Waziristan (tribal areas) region of Pakistan left another five "Taliban" dead. Only a week earlier, 20 were killed in another US attack. Between August 13 and September 12, at least 79 people were killed in nine US attacks on Pakistan's tribal areas. Since January 29, more than 150 people have been killed.

Besides the rising death toll, a large-scale displacement is taking place. From Bajour district alone, more than 30,000 people have migrated to the relative safety of the neighbouring North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The massive military operation launched against the Taliban by the Pakistani army under US pressure since 2003 has driven many people out of their homes. The Taliban's successful attempt to capture and turn Pakistan's tribal areas into "Talibanistan" has inflicted misery — including beheadings, amputations and harsh dress codes — on the residents, also leading to displacement.

However it was the US invasion of Afghanistan that reduced the tribal areas to a battlefield for multi-pronged war, with Shias fighting Sunnis, the Taliban pitched against the Pakistan military and US missiles and air drones pounding Pakistan.

The Taliban's strategy is to Talibanise at gunpoint — politically and administratively — the tribal areas. Talibanised Sharia (Islamic law) has been instituted and Taliban militias have replaced the state apparatus (the police, civil administration and courts) with their own courts. They have established tolls to levy road taxes on transport, which is a major source of income. Maliks (tribal elders) who might pose a challenge to Taliban authority have been eliminated or silenced.

The Shia tribes are alarmed at the Taliban occupation of the tribal areas, remembering the reported massacre in Afghanistan of some 5000 Shias by the Taliban when in power in the late 1990s. They have decided to resist tooth and nail.

The Taliban have encountered many acts of resistance. A brave woman refused to quit her job as a school teacher and stay home. Villagers formed militias and resisted, though unsuccessfully. The local tribes at first were no match for the Taliban and al Qaeda cadre, trained in the 1980s with CIA-provided manuals.

However, the Shia resistance became an impetus for others. The tribes have now formed their own militia and have begun liberating their villages from the Taliban.

While tribes have been left on their own to defend themselves against the Taliban, the NYT on September 11 quoted a senior US official as saying that the Pakistan government had "privately assented to the general concept of limited ground assaults by [US] Special Operations forces against significant militant targets, but that it did not approve each mission".

Though the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government has denied such assertions, there is a general feeling in Pakistan that this is the case. During the rule of Pervez Musharraf, every time the US attacked inside Pakistan, the regime would claim responsibility. Now every US attack is followed by a protest statement by Pakistan's government and every protest statement is followed by another US attack.

The US has not always considered the Taliban enemies. In the wake of the radical 1978 "Saur [April] revolution" in Afghanistan, the CIA turned the tribal areas and parts of the NWFP bordering Afghanistan into a safe haven for the "Mujahideen", the Taliban's forerunners.

The tribal areas were brutalised, criminalised and militarised as the weapon and drug trades became a major source of funding for the anti-Soviet "jihad".

When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, Afghan leader Mohammed Najibullah was able to hold the Mujahideen out for another three years. The Mujahideen then reduced Afghanistan to rubble as they turned against each other in the battle to capture Kabul.

The chaos ended when the Taliban took power in 1996 with imperial help. Assassinated PPP leader Benazir Bhutto once claimed: "Weapons were supplied to the Taliban by the USA and Britain with money from Saudi Arabia … Pakistan's territory was used to train solely the Afghan refugees — Pushtoons, who made up the backbone of Taliban movement."

The Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's notorious military intelligence service, was the architect of the Taliban victory.

Then in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, Washington launched its invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan GHQ (military headquarters) reluctantly obeyed US orders to give the Taliban up. However a section of the military refused.

US pressure to target the Taliban as they regrouped in Pakistan pitched the sections of the Pakistani military following US dictates against those patronising the Taliban in the tribal areas.

The Taliban, being blocked westward, will most likely spread eastward. Already, districts neighbouring the tribal areas, particularly the scenic valleys of Swat, have become a venue for pitched battles between the Taliban and the Pakistani military.

However, neither successful Talibanisation nor the presence of Taliban hide-outs should serve as an excuse for an imperialist invasion of Pakistan. It will further plunge this region into chaos. The stability of the region cannot be guaranteed until the US occupation of Afghanistan is ended.

Talibanisation can be best fought against by the masses. The US presence in the region will only delay the Taliban's defeat.

[This article is abridged from a September 17 article by Farooq Sulehria, a member of the Labour Party Pakistan residing in Sweden. For an extended version, visit]

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