Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Pashtun Wild West

       click image for larger map
The last-minute war of George Bush's regime looks to be against Pakistan rather than Iran.  The US Navy has dispersed the large concentration built up last month in the Persian Gulf area.  They don't seem to be planning an attack on Iran anytime soon.  Instead, Bush's determination to deal with Osama bin Laden before he leaves office and the deteriorating military situation in Afghanistan has led to increased US activity in the Pakistani border area.

The map above shows the main Pashtun border territories in Pakistan.  The orange overlay shows the ethnic Pashtun distribution in the region.  The Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan are not really under Pakistani control.  The Pashtun recognize neither the border nor the government in Islamabad.  They don't recognize the government in Kabul either unless they control it, and not much then.  The swath of mountains running north-east from Quetta to the top of the map is almost entirely under their control.  Only the corridor running from Peshawar through the fabled Khyber Pass to Jalalabad and Kabul is under the firm control of the Pakistani and Afghan governments.  Major NATO deployments in the area are shown by flags.  The Taliban stronghold is Waziristan in the southern section of the Tribal Areas.  Bin Laden has probably been hiding here since the battle of Tora Bora.  There are estimated to be about 60 million Pashtun.  They constitute the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the second largest in Pakistan.  The total population of Afghanistan is probably 32 million (no census in a long time) and of Pakistan 164 million.

The Taliban are a Pashtun faction.  They were created and supported by the Pakistanis during the Soviet occupation.  They continue to enjoy support and funding from elements of the Pakistani government Intelligence and Military.  NATO is thus fighting a proxy war with Pakistan.  Other elements of the Pakistani government are supportive of NATO's operations and want to exert control over the tribal areas.  All the "official" parts of the Pakistani government fall into the latter camp. While Musharraf was in charge, the government was willing to overlook US cross-border actions. Provided there was plausible deniability of Pakistani cooperation in these actions.

Pakistani Army enthusiasm for operations in the tribal areas has always been weak.  A major offensive in 2003 resulted in unacceptable Army casualties.  Musharraf was forced into a cease-fire with tribal leaders and the Pakistani military has alternated operations and cease-fires since.  Musharraf never regained the credibility lost both internally and internationally.

The new government is less tolerant of US cross-border actions.  After a major US special forces operation and at least 4 airstrikes in Waziristan this month, domestic political pressure begun to build.  In reaction, Pakistan has threatened to fire on any NATO soldiers found on the Pakistani side of the border. Realistically, there is nothing the Pakistanis can do to stop NATO encursions, just like there's nothing they can do to prevent Taliban operations on either side of the border.  Pakistani Army presence is mostly limited to border posts.  The tribes are willing, apparently, to tolerate the Pakistani Army patrolling the Afghan border as long as they are patrolling against NATO and ignore the Pashtun.