By William Pfaff
Killing Osama bin Laden leaves the United States facing two doors that open two ways into the future. The choice made could determine the eventual place the U.S. occupies in contemporary history.
One door—less likely to be chosen, I fear—leads toward greater international and national security, and lessened conflict in the Middle East and Asia. Taking it, the U.S. government would make known that, having settled its account with the terrorist movement that attacked New York and Washington a decade ago, it now will remove American forces from Afghanistan, and from Iraq as well—as promised by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign in 2008.
Its quarrel with the Taliban in Afghanistan originated in the support it gave al-Qaida in 2001. That matter is now settled. The future of Afghanistan is now for the Afghan people themselves to determine, which eventually they will do, whatever the interference of foreigners.
The U.S. should declare that it wishes Afghanistan well, has no designs on its resources and looks forward to reciprocal relations of friendship with any Afghan government that can plausibly claim a national mandate, is at peace with its neighbors and wishes good relations with the U.S.
The U.S. would generously assist in the country’s reconstruction, after its many years of suffering and war. It would willingly participate in an international effort by Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and their Central Asian neighbors to find constructive permanent resolution to existing conflicts of interest and policy, and would in particular seek and support a just settlement of the violence that has been suffered by Kashmir.
The other door—I fear, the one more likely to be entered—leads toward more conflict, by way of such sentiments as those expressed at the White House news conference Monday that dealt with the bin Laden operation. Reporters battered John O. Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism adviser, and other officials, with questions about Pakistan’s knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, an army town near Islamabad harboring three regiments and a military academy. Is Pakistan ally or enemy? Pakistanis are asking the same question about the U.S.
No one who follows Asian affairs can be ignorant of the ambiguity in Pakistan’s position in the American war against the Taliban, al-Qaida’s supposed protectors inside Afghanistan but also clients of the Pakistan intelligence service. It is an inevitable ambiguity because Pakistan is caught between American demands for unconditional cooperation in the war against the Taliban, as well as its Pakistani tribal allies now under drone bombardment by the CIA in the northwest frontier territories, and the Pakistan Army’s long-standing complicity with at least a part of the Taliban. This is also motivated by America’s new ally, India, with its interest in maintaining a base for strategic intervention against Pakistan from Afghanistan, in the event of another conflict.
The Obama administration came to office with a belief that the real danger in the region was Pakistan, a nuclear-weapons nation seen as endangered from within by Islamic fanaticism. In the aftermath of Sunday night’s Osama bin Laden raid, there will be pressure in Washington to punish Pakistan for its links with the Taliban. There will quite possibly be efforts to find the opportunity, and complicit politicians, to stage a governmental coup in Islamabad.
Instead of leaving this central Asian imbroglio, about which Washington knows little and understands nothing, and in which Washington has few direct interests that go beyond the (unhappily growing) militarist and imperialist impulse to impose American control over geopolitically strategic regions—wherever they may be—the Obama administration is under pressure to stay and even deepen its involvement in the Islamic world.
Anatol Lieven, of King’s College London and the New America Foundation, one of the most experienced and intelligent Western experts on Pakistan, recently wrote that current efforts by the U.S. and NATO to make Pakistan conform to Western wishes could produce dire consequences for Pakistan going so far as to “destroy Pakistan as a state and produce a catastrophe that would reduce the problems in Afghanistan to insignificance by comparison. ...”
“To put it at its bluntest, most Pakistanis see our presence in Afghanistan as closely akin to that of the Soviets from 1979 to 1989, and resistance to us as closely akin to the resistance of those days, and equally legitimate. These feelings are held not just by Islamists but by those Pakistanis—the great majority of the population—who have no desire to see a Taliban-style regime in their country. ... It is this ethno-religious solidarity, more than continuing support by the Pakistani state, that is providing the Afghan Taliban with their bases inside Pakistan. This support from large elements of the Pakistani population will continue as long as Western soldiers are present in Afghanistan.”
The choice before Washington is essentially the same one that has to be made in the Arab Middle East, where American support for tyrannical regimes now is discredited policy. Yet already there are American officials and experts working to identify and establish alliances with younger leaders who might provide the U.S. with a new crop of political protegees and clients to replace those leaders being ousted by the Arab Spring. The instincts of the American foreign policy class are intervention and control. These have consistently damaged the nation in the past and will, if indulged, continue to damage it.
The true interest of the U.S. is best served at home. Look around at the state of the nation!
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez
Soldiers sit inside an improvised shelter decorated with an American flag in Badula Qulp, Afghanistan.