Sunday, November 9, 2008

Trouble on the Northwest Frontier

By Douglas Kohn

Terror, militant Islam, tribalism, violence, backwardness and corruption are the running themes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, where the NATO fight against the Taliban has taken on a new front. There are many problems with taking the fight there, though further measure will be necessary to end it.

The area has not had a significant governmental presence since the time of Alexander the Great. When Alexander and his men fought a deadly battle against the Indian army of the time, his men became so demoralized that they forced him to turn back. He then died in Babylon.

The area is full of many cultures, but no civilization. As civilization is defined as a culture that has some form of written record, this area has a literacy of less than 10%, and most literate people are in the capital of the region at Peshawar. America is not going to bring civilization to this part of the world that has never been reached by it. We made grave errors in our war aims and it will take a master warrior and politician to not make this battle look like a loss for America.

At the height of its Empire, Britain had many problems in this area that was ostensibly under its rule. Pashtun (the main ethnic group) warlords were carrying out raids into British India and harming Imperial interests and security in the region. Britain then took military action, but it was a much more measured response. They raided all over the area and set their aims at killing and capturing the warlords and radical Muslims that were causing them so much trouble. This region was also the buffer zone of the Great Game of imperial domination between the British and Russian Empires. America would do well to look at their records in the region.

At the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom, America did not just set its goals as the removal of the Taliban and the neutralization of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, we set out to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan, a country of little civilization to speak of in its long history on the map. Not realizing that this is a near impossible country to govern, we set up a weak parliamentary system led by an impotent technocrat, Hamid Karzai. We now need to eventually withdraw from Afghanistan and Pakistan while saving face and accomplishing at least some of our goals. The fight is not over.

President elect Obama, as part of his campaign pledge, promised to step up efforts to finish the war in Afghanistan and kill or capture bin Laden. What he does not realize is that we are going to have to lower our expectations and aims for the rest of the country, because it is not fit for any government, much less a weak democratic one.

Afghanistan has seen the passage of many invaders through its borders, especially through the Khyber pass on their way to the vast riches of India. Aryans, Greeks/Macedonians, Arabs, Turks, British, Russians then Soviets, and now the Americans have all been pinned down in this region of fierce warriors. If Alexander could not conquer it, does America really believe it can?

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