Although both candidates tie the resurgence of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan to US domestic security, I personally have difficulty understanding exactly how that works. The September 11, 2001, attacks on the US were planned by Arab expatriates in Hamburg, Germany, and Pushtun tribespeople had almost nothing to do with them (did the Taliban even know what Bin Laden was planning?)
Both McCain and Obama have adopted Bushspeak on this issue, allowing W. and Cheney to frame the national debate into the next four years. Bushspeak works by contiguity, by things being next to one another, rather than by causality. Al-Qaeda was in Khost, which was controlled by the Taliban, so ipso facto the Taliban are related to 9/11, and since the Taliban were largely Pushtuns, the Pushtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan are, whenever they rebel against their local government, a dire threat to the US mainland. There are roughly 28 million Pushtuns in northwest Pakistan, and 12 million in Afghanistan. The ones in Pakistan recently rejected the fundamentalist parties for the most part in favor of a secular-leaning Pushtun nationalist party. Many of the ones in Afghanistan are part of, or back, the Karzai government. In my view, tying US national security to Pushtun local politics is magical thinking. The stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan are important, but framing that stability in the terms of a “war on terror[ism]” ignores the dynamics of secular and religious forms of Pushtun national self-assertion.
Although the US media gives us glib references to the resurgence of the Taliban, I see little or nothing on US television news explaining the fighting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, which is presumably what the US politicians are talking about.
The Pakistani military has asserted control of some important towns in the northern tribal agency of Bajaur, a stronghold of the Tehrik-i Taliban or “Pakistani Taliban” led in that area by Maulvi Faqir Muhammad. Some reports suggested that another local leader, Maulvi Omar, may have been killed. The Tehrik-i Taliban of Bajaur had offered refuge to Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri if they wanted it, last spring, and had attempted to coopt local tribal leaders. The Pushtun Mamund tribe of Bajaur has been backing the Taliban.
In recent weeks, tribal levies from the Pushtun Salarzai sept of the Tarkani tribe have been fighting the Tehrik-i Taliban guerrillas. Some of the Pakistani forces battling the Taliban in this region are said to have been given secret training by the United States.
The Pakistani military has adopted a scorched earth policy toward the Taliban in Bajaur, tearing down houses and using them as bunkers, and displacing an estimated 200,000 civilians from the region (some have become refugees in nearby Afghanistan).
Pakistan says it has killed about 1500 Taliban and captured 500 “foreigners” ( from Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan–not, apparently, from the Arab world), and that 500 local militants are still holding out. Over 70 Pakistani troops have been killed in the fighting since August.
Maulvi Faqir Muhammad and his Tehrik-i Taliban frontally attacked Pakistani military checkpoints and started a feud with the Pakistani army. The Tehrik-i Taliban has been blamed for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last December, and it is said that as her widower, Asaf Ali Zardari, rose to the presidency, he pressured the military to destroy the movement, with which he now has a family feud.
This is what a Pakistani general said about the Tehrik-i Taliban creeping coup in Bajaur Agency since January of 2008:
‘The ISPR spokesperson Major General Athar Abbas, who also accompanied the media team, said before the start of the operation by security forces, Bajaur Agency was in a state of lawlessness. Militants were constantly attacking security forces’ checkposts and had closed all roads for movement of Government/FC convoys.
“All Levies pickets in the Agency had been demolished by the militants and a parallel system of administration in Tehsil Mamund, Charmang and Salarzai had been established. Militants had taken control of schools in the Agency and had converted them into their centers. They had also established courts in which they use to award severe and capital punishments of beheading and killing of personnel in public,” he said.
The spokesperson said the militants in these areas were granting licenses for business and imposing taxes on people and transport.
He said during first eight months in 2008, they had killed as many as twelve Maliks, dozens of security personnel and also kidnapped many for ransom.
In this backdrop, he said, the security forces started operation codenamed “Sherdil” [Lion-Heart] in Bajaur Agency to clear the area of the miscreants.
He said during last one and a half month, the security forces faced heavy resistance primarily as militants had support from across the border and due to involvement of foreign elements.
“The area was being used as a safe haven by foreign fighters, the militants had developed a strong trench and tunnel system of defence in populated areas like Loesam which also became a stronghold of resistance,” said the spokesman. ‘
It is confusing that, while the Pakistani military is engaged in hard fighting against the Bajaur branch of the Pakistani Taliban, it has been accused of using the organization, and tribes allied with it, to hit Afghanistan and to assert Pakistani influence in southern Afghanistan.
The Bush administration has therefore begun launching unilateral air strikes on Pakistani territory, as with the attack on Monday that left 20 dead in South Waziristan. The attack targeted members of the Jalaluddin Haqqani group within the Pakistani Taliban.
Farther north and west, the Afghan Taliban who have become so influential in Ghazni, 2 hours south of the Afghan capital of Kabul that they have ordered a cut-off of cell phone service there, are suspected of receiving help from the Pakistani side of the border.
The US attempt to deal with the Afghan Taliban in Ghazni with air strikes may have gone awry on Sunday, as local Afghan officials claimed that 20 government security guards were killed along with Taliban insurgents who had attacked a NATO convoy.
Poland is in charge of Ghazni now.
I come back to my original question. How is the fighting in Bajaur Tribal Agency a threat to domestic US security?
It is a question the next president will have to answer in a practical way. I wish the candidates were at least sometimes pressed on it now.