By Waheeduddin Ahmed Ph.D.
For the first time since JFK, young Americans of all kinds, black, white, rich and poor, were excited about Senator Obama’s candidacy. His slogan of “change” captured their imagination. Even the old were looking forward to a messianic period in the history of America. However, much of that enthusiasm is now fading and the slogan of “change” is beginning to sound hollow.
Obama is proposing ending the war in Iraq—the war is already winding down, thanks to the Iraqi Sunnis’ decision to give peace a chance—but is promising to transfer its focus into Afghanistan and Pakistan with very little thought about the repercussions and the geopolitics of the region. A casual look at history will tell you how different Afghanistan is from Iraq. Afghanistan, throughout history, has proved to be a death trap for foreign soldiers, recently for the British and the Russians.
To understand the situation, one needs to know the history and the culture of the people called Pashtun. There are about 42 million Pashtuns in the world. 13 million live in Afghanistan, forming the largest ethnic group in that country; about 28 million live across the border in Pakistan. They were divided by the Durand Line, drawn by the British in 1893, as they forced the then Amir of Afghanistan Abdur Rahman Khan to cede a big chunk of territory to British India. In 1947, when the British Raj ended, those territories joined Pakistan.
The Pashtuns are fiercely independent and aspire unification. Therefore, they have never accepted the Durand Line, at least not those who live in Afghanistan and the tribes who straddle the border between the two countries. The tribes regard subjection to any outside authority as subjugation and have successfully resisted the British and the Pakistani attempts to bring government to their areas. Conscious of the problem, the Pakistani government has always left the tribes alone to run their own affairs.
Three things describe the Pashtun identity: the Pashto language, the tribal law (Pashtunwali), and Islam. They rigidly adhere to their tribal code of ethics. One element of the Pashtunwali culture is Melmastia, which requires that anyone who seeks the protection of a tribe must be granted that and be protected with blood, regardless of whether he is a friend or a foe. The events around 9/11 must be viewed in that perspective. The fact that the U.S. government is seen by the Pashtuns as a sworn enemy of Muslims does also exacerbate the situation.
The rise of the Taliban is not an anomaly but a historical development in the Hegelian sense. Feudalism, decades of foreign manipulation and exploitation, followed by the post-Soviet destruction and anarchy, gave rise to the energetic and explosive Taliban, which swept away the anarchical mess. As is characteristic of such movements, it was led by men of unshakable convictions, austere though simplistic. The fact that the U.S. and Pakistan governments welcomed this development is indicative of how bad the conditions were and how remote the prospects of tranquility had become. The Taliban were remarkably successful in dealing with their country’s social ills. Under their rule most of the country was united, law and order was firmly established and the drug trade eliminated. Compare that with today’s situation. The central government’s jurisdiction is limited to Kabul. Corruption, even in the high government circle is rampant. Drug cultivation is at its highest. Refer to Carlotta Gall’s report in the New York Times of July 24, 2008. True, from our point of view, there were many deficiencies in their rule but perfection could not have been achieved overnight. Providing a safe haven to those who were planning terrorist acts was undoubtedly their biggest blunder. But in the aftermath of 9/11 when everyone was clamoring for revenge and the drawing of blood, we indulged in the biggest overkill in modern history and destroyed many countries.
The Jihad in Afghanistan was a creation of the C.I.A., so was Osama Bin Laden. We must be searching our souls as the present events unfold in that region. America cannot and must not impose her will on a people, who want to run their country according to their own traditions and culture. We must give up trying to force the graft of democracy on cultures that are inhospitable to it. The arrogance of the Bush years must never be repeated.
Senator Obama’s ill-considered proposal to expand the war in Afghanistan is fraught with great danger to world peace. As mentioned, there are 28 million Pashtun in Pakistan; 1.5 million of them in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, which makes Karachi the largest Pashtun city in the world. The present Pakistani government is weak and fragile. Its military has already been discredited and demoralized due to its involvement in killing fellow countrymen. Any attack on Pakistan by the U.S. will play havoc. The government will collapse. It is unimaginable that the Pakistani military will be psychologically prepared to fight the U.S. military, which is its lifelong patron and benefactor. It will, most likely, disintegrate like in Iraq. Pakistan’s nuclear-tipped missiles will be looking for adoption. The people will take up arms, 160 million of them. A jihad will be declared. There are around 200 million Muslims in India and a similar number in Bangladesh. In fact, more than half of the world’s Muslim population inhabits South Asia. With chaos on its western border, India’s response will be unpredictable. In short, the consequences of a U.S. military action against Pakistan will be cataclysmic. Let us hope that Obama’s utterances are just election rhetoric and not war strategy.
At a time, when the main worry of an average American is to put food on the table, avoid losing his home and to get to work without spending most of his earnings, what both the presidential candidates are talking about is wars, a choice between the old one and finding a new one. Senator Obama himself once said that the continuing the Iraq war would bankrupt America and a bankrupt country could not be a superpower. That was his reason to end the war in Iraq. The same reason applies to Afghanistan.
It is true that the American people want to see the culprits of 9/11 punished and the problem of terrorism dealt with, but this cannot be achieved by invading countries and bombing villages. The problem of “Islamic Extremism” is the direct result of frustrations caused by the occupation of the Palestinian territories and America’s unconditional support for this injustice. No matter how many countries we bomb, the problem will remain in one form or another until we address the key issue. Obama knows it; they know it in the White House; they know it on the Capitol Hill and they know it in Tel Aviv but they cannot do anything about it until courage and honesty manifest themselves in someone’s statesmanship. In American politics that seems to be a rarity.
Senator Obama, as president will be unsuited to courageously and impartially deal with this problem as he will be continuously required to prove his dissociation from his paternal heritage. But the alternative is even worse. So, we the people will have to forget about the change for now.