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•Mujahedin (Pashtuns, other local factions and foreign fighters) v. Soviets (defunct) •Taliban (Pashtuns) v. other local factions (pre-9-11) •Waziris v. Pakistan (treaty, 2006) •Taliban (Pashtuns), Al-Qaeda (foreign fighters), and some Waziris v. U.S., NATO, and some Waziris, ongoing
To make sense here at all, let’s walk through this one step at a time.
Borders drawn along ethnic or cultural lines don’t necessarily equate with peace—compare the homogenous Korean peninsula to multilingual Canada, for example—but cultural loyalties trump colonial boundaries every time. So here’s how the British drew the 1893 Durand Line through the Pashtuns, the dominant people of the border area: Why all the divide and conquer? The British had a vast empire to the southeast, including modern Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.* Worried about Russia to the north, the British spent the 19th century trying to set up Afghanistan as a buffer zone, yet without empowering the Pashtuns enough to create yet another threat. Thus the Durand Line. However, the Pashtuns had once ruled much of this whole region themselves, and they’ve been here for centuries. Alexander the Great (for whom Kandahar is named), Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Mughals, Brits, and Soviets have each rolled through, but Peshawar and Kandahar have nonetheless remained firmly Pashtun. (Pashtun survival stems in part from Pashtunwali, a complex two-thousand-year-old code of honor. Grossly oversimplified: befriend a Pashtun and he will die for you. Piss off a Pashtun, and his neighbor’s great-grandchildren may hate yours.) Not surprisingly, in 1949, a Pashtun loya jirga (a tribal council, like the end of Survivor with longer beards) denounced the Durand Line, which has been ignored in some areas all along. Point being: in some areas, the border is porous to nonexistent. So you can’t really discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan as separate deals. They aren’t.
THE MUJAHEDIN, AL-QAEDA, AND THE TALIBAN
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” may work on playgrounds, but the enemy of your enemy can be your enemy, too. This will be good to keep in mind. In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan to support their puppet government, which tortured and killed thousands. Seizing a chance to weaken their enemy, the U.S. armed Islamist mujahedin (“holy warriors”; notice the word jihad in the middle), Pakistan provided training, and Saudi Arabia financed religious schools (madrasahs) to use extreme Islamist ideology as a recruiting tool against communism. (Pursuit of Islamic governance—whether by violent or nonviolent means—is described as “Islamist” as opposed to garden-variety “Islamic,” which just refers to the religion in general. Two letters, big difference.) This worked too well, creating a generation of radicals who saw enemies of their freshly brewed puritanical Islam not just among communists, but everywhere—including the U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Whoops. In the 1980s, a Saudi trust-fund kid moved to Peshawar, using family money to bring fighters worldwide into the madrasahs and Afghanistan. This was Osama Bin Laden; Al-Qaeda (“the base”) refers either to a specific camp or a database of foreign fighters (sources disagree). Bin Laden eventually split from his mujahedin allies, focused his hatred on the Saudi government for allowing U.S. bases on Saudi soil, and wound up exiled to Sudan for a while (see “Sudan,” page 000). After the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, various factions (several funded by opium) fought over the pieces. Pakistan still had an unstable neighbor, and the mujahedin still didn’t have their Islamist state. Making common cause, Pakistani intelligence organized a Pashtun faction of madrasah-trained Taliban (“students” in Pashto) to stabilize Afghanistan. (Stabilize here means “invade and oppress.”) Pakistan hoped that by holding the purse strings of extremists like Mullah Mohammad Omar, they could keep a lid on things. However, while not all Pashtun are Taliban, virtually all Taliban are Pashtun. And Pashtunwali means that many non-Taliban Pashtuns—plus Waziris and other related Pashto speakers—will favor the Taliban over non-Pashtuns. So this was a recipe for spreading extremism. In 1996, the Taliban captured Kabul, hunted down the last Soviet ruler, ripped off his testicles, shot him, and hung his body from a streetlamp. Then they got nasty. For obvious reasons, the Taliban were recognized as a government only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi-influenced United Arab Emirates. But soon Osama bin Laden returned from Sudan, settled into Kandahar, married one of his sons to Mullah Omar’s daughter, and started funding and providing personnel to the Taliban. In turn the Taliban let Osama and his motley foreign Islamists hang out.
Taliban consider themselves pure traditional Muslims, but their ideology is influenced by the relatively recent works of an Egyptian named Sayyid Qutb, whose writings from prison in the 1950s and 1960s are like a bizarro Letters from a Birmingham Jail, replacing Dr. King’s nonviolence and compassion with violent contempt for most of humanity. Qutb’s world was utterly simplistic: to him, Islam was already dead, having wandered far from its pure, narrow path. A few remnants fit into Qutb’s harsh version of Islamic law, but everything else was inherently evil and corrupt. Therefore, for Qutb, the non-Islamic world—including not just the West, but the vast majority of mainstream Muslims and all secular governments, especially in Muslim countries—was the enemy. “You’re either with us or against us,” in other words. Egypt hanged Qutb in 1966, but his works continue to provide deceptively simple, emotionally satisfying answers to complex social questions. Followers, including Osama’s pal Ayman al-Zahawiri, have amplified his ideas, building the case to abolish all democracies and even nationalities. Instead: a worldwide Taliban-plus, forever. But be reassured: Qutb is considered a heretic by most mainstream Muslims. The notion that the Koran can be so radically interpreted is usually seen as a serious insult to 1,300 years of tradition. And despite wide disdain for U.S. policies amplified during the Bush years, only a small bit of the Islamic world identifies with this stuff, and only a teeny percentage of those would engage in any violence. Even the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb’s home team, has moved away from his rhetoric in recent years. In short, most of the world’s hundreds of millions of Muslims are not part of a extremist offshoot that seeks its own destruction. The West can either earnestly pursue relationships with moderate Muslims in difficult countries, or simply slur them all together as enemies, a move as sloppy and hostile as it is self-fulfilling.
THE TERROR AND DRUG WARS AT CROSS-PURPOSES
When not attacking civilization, harboring Bin Laden, and oppressing women, the Taliban also eradicated opium. (Supposedly this was out of Islamist fervor, but they’re dealing in it now, so this looks more like it was a consolidation of power: opium was a possible source of financing for rivals.) As part of the U.S. drug war, the Bush administration rewarded the Taliban with $43 million in May 2001. This looked amazingly bad at the time, but went off the charts four months later. After 9-11, the West aggressively allied with the Taliban’s opposition, the mostly non-Pashtun Northern Alliance, who were in opium to their eyeballs. Whatever, said the Pentagon, and by December 2001, the Taliban were in the hills, where the guerrilla war continues. Meanwhile, Afghanistan now produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium, financing both sides. Some big drug players in NATO-controlled areas are also potential military leaders, so arresting them hurts the alliance. Outside NATO control, the opium money often winds up in Taliban hands, which are currently making AK-47s the most popular fashion accessories in Waziristan.
Don’t expect to thumb through Lonely Planet Waziristan anytime soon. While the region is ostensibly under Pakistan’s rule, Waziris, kin to the Pashtuns, have lived in these mountains, unconquered, for at least six centuries. After 9-11, Pakistan’s military tried to limit Taliban movements in Waziristan. This failed; instead, Pakistan just pissed off the Waziris (remember Pashtunwali), who started killing Pakistani informants and even their own tribal leaders suspected of pro-Pakistan sympathies. Seven hundred dead Pakistanis later, in September 2006, Pakistan backed off, agreeing to let North and South Waziristan run their own affairs. In simple terms: on the Pakistan side of the 1893 Durand Line, the Taliban now have a quiet place to clean their guns and eat soup, returning to the Afghanistan side to fight as they choose. In response to NATO complaints, Pakistan recently began building—what else?—a fence on the border. Almost no one expects this to help (c.f. “Mexico,” p. 000). The West has few choices here. Indiscriminate bombing or suicidal ground operations would create even more enemies, even if they had Pakistan’s permission. So for now the West plays defense, watches from satellites, and lobs in the occasional Hellfire missile, while Al-Qaeda and the Taliban expand their influence, install Sharia law, sing the praises of suicide bombing, and generally illegalize fun. It’s still possible that Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Waziris will fuss with one another; after all, Al-Qaeda and the muj once split, and fanatics do tend to piss one another off. Waziris are reportedly fighting their guests-cum-oppressors already. But this region could dearly use much of the support and focus currently diverted into Iraq, and ongoing civilian casualties have led to growing local resentment of NATO operations. If history is any guide—and it has that rude habit—the Western alliance may not leave soon with democracy in their wake.
OTHER CONFLICTS, FUTURE PROSPECTS
There’s enough here for another book. In resource-rich Baluchistan, nationalists are blowing up gas pipelines, demanding a share of the profits. While relations with India are calm for now, Pakistani intelligence is frequently accused of supporting numerous anti-Indian separatist groups. Kashmir is a frequent stress, which gets its own section, later. In 1999, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, head of Pakistan’s armed forces, seized power in a widely condemned coup. Musharraf initially supported the Taliban, but after 9-11, caught between a regional power and a superpower, Musharraf rolled with the big boys. However, Pakistan’s people range from Westernized technocrats of the 21st century and rural tribesmen still living in the 14th, and Musharraf’s dictatorial tendencies tend to alienate the former. To retain power, he is often forced to appeal to Pashtuns and other conservatives to retain power. After two assassination attempts traced to Waziristan, Musharraf insists there’s a clear split between the Taliban (“good guys” to many Pashtuns) and Al-Qaeda’s assortment of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Arabs, Chechens, and other foreign fighters. As Taliban attacks and influence spread, the stability of Pakistan’s government may depend on that wish becoming true.