Is the US headed for a third war?
By John Robertson, War in Context, September 13, 2008
Don’t look now, but the US is perhaps heading for a third war – this one, with an ally (or so Mr. Bush has told us, and them, for the last eight years): Pakistan. The head of Pakistan’s army has reiterated his earlier warning to the US, that Pakistan cannot tolerate US ground and air forces (which killed another 12 people yesterday – some of them “bad guys,” but some of them reportedly women and children) repeatedly encroaching on Pakistan’s national sovereignty with such impunity.
Are al-Qaida and Taliban elements (including, most probably, Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri) sheltering in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier states and launching operations from there? Yes. Do most Pakistanis therefore believe that the US has the right to send in Navy Seal teams (that happened just a few days ago) and dispatch unmanned Predator planes to bomb people in Pakistani territory to smithereens? No.
Across Pakistan (to borrow the memorable line exclaimed by the actor Peter Finch in the movie Network more than 30 years ago), people are getting mad as hell, and are not going to take it anymore. The vast majority of Pakistanis never bought into Bush’s “war on Terror” as being their own fight (they see it as America’s war, not Pakistan’s), they resented how Bush continued to support Pakistan’s president Pervez Musharraf as his “guy” even while Musharraf undermined Pakistan’s democratic institutions (wasn’t the US committed to promoting democracy?) – and now they see the US killing people, fellow Muslims all, wantonly inside their country, after oh-so-many years of watching the US kill fellow Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, support Israel’s killing of them in the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon (and, for that matter, support its old ally Saddam Hussein’s killing of them in Iran between 1980 and 1988), and threaten the killing of them in Iran and Syria.
And at the same time, the US has been burnishing its relationship with the country that Pakistanis have seen as their most mortal enemy and most serious existential threat for 60 years. I mean India, of course – the same India that developed and tested a nuclear weapon completely under the radar of the US intelligence community, to be followed down that road by Pakistan, which felt compelled to develop its own nuclear deterrent against its larger, wealthier, more powerful neighbor. After a several-years-long fit of pique against India, the US in recent years has rushed to embrace India as an economic and strategic partner, even to the extent of pursuing an agreement that (in direct violation of internationally recognized nuclear-proliferation agreements) will provide India with advanced nuclear technology, and that more or less signals the nuclear-weapon wannabes of the world that (as Newsweek‘s Michael Hirsch has put it) “You too can rejoin the international community if you wait long enough! So keep at it.”
On the eve of his 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, most observers with any depth of awareness of that country’s historical and ethnic complexities warned Mr. Bush that he would be opening a Pandora’s box, and that US forces (like so many other invaders, from the phalanxes of Alexander the Great to the troopers sent there to maintain the British Raj in India) might be sucked into a black hole. We’ll never know if the US forces that were sent to Afghanistan might have broken that string. Mr. Bush’s poorly conceived and ill-fated digression, the hubristically and tragically misnamed “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” torched any momentum that the US had built up along any projected pathway to stability in Afghanistan.
The Bush administration may have once believed that by 2003 it had more or less closed Pandora’s box in Afghanistan. According to the ancient Greek myth, when Pandora opened her box (which was, actually, a large jar), she loosed all manner of evils into the world. But we tend to forget that she was able to clamp the lid back on quickly enough to keep one thing inside: hope. The chaos now brewing in Pakistan is surely one of the box’s escapees of 2001, nurtured to deadly maturity by its fellow escapees, the evils that have befallen the region over the past seven years. Mr. Bush (or more likely, his successor) must now find a way to get the lid back on – finally, firmly, and quickly – if he is to prevent full-blown civil war (or worse – remember, Pakistan is a state with nuclear capability). Otherwise, hope – for a stable Afghanistan, or even South Asia – may already have escaped that box as well.
John Robertson is a professor of Middle East history at Central Michigan University and has his own blog, Chippshots.