Barack Obama is in office. Guantanamo is closing (though not immediately), America’s interest in Iraq seems to finally be fizzling and the new President gave a distinctive address to the people of the Middle East via al-Arabiya, al-Jazeera’s quietist rival. However one particularly disastrous bit of foreign policy President Obama has neither rebuffed nor assuaged the “Muslim world” are the missile strikes launched by UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) that have been unleashed on ungoverned spaces in Pakistan’s hinterlands. These pilotless planes buzz high in the sky above their targets waiting to launch Hellfire missiles on the inaccessible, mud brick compound of the CIA’s choice.
Although the aerial attacks have taken out several “high value targets” (a term used to create dissonance between the alleged terrorists and their humanity), they have also killed scores of Pashtun peasants in the Tribal Belt. The strikes create more problems than they solve for several reasons. The militant leaders and their acolytes know that the Pakistani government has let its sovereignty be eroded by both the Bush White House and the new administration in its infancy. As the death toll mounts, Islamabad is further emasculated in the eyes of furious tribesman who feel their own government does not have the bravado to directly confront them. While Pakistani ground forces have failed miserably to dislodge Taliban elements and the notorious Haqqani family from their ideological trenches, the fact that American forces cannot enter Pakistan (though it is understood they have occasionally done so) through an announced legal framework makes the air strikes a viable option. Almost…
Through the lens of Pashtunwali, the regional code of rigid masculinity and hospitality, the drones circling overhead are birds of cowardice. Obama is immediately stuck in a policy vice grip. He campaigned for renewed diplomacy and outreach yet must still smash his progressive fist somewhere on some godforsaken poor people in order not be ridiculed as a throwback to an exaggerated moment of appeasement that has never been relevant. It is a scenario that requires a studied rethink. American forces cannot effectively enter northwestern Pakistan en masse. Pakistani forces have sustained immense casualties when they have attempted to enter the region from the east meeting heavy resistance. Meanwhile, the current policy of war by video game is inflaming Pakistani public opinion and national pride. The Americans have had, with limited success, obliterated some of their long sought enemies. The overwhelming outcome of these attacks is more of the “smoking ‘em out” sort with negligible intelligence benefits.
Obama made waves in his campaign by stating he would be (possibly) willing to negotiate with contrarian states like Iran and Syria in order to achieve U.S. goals in Iraq and Palestine. What he did not say, however, is whether he would be willing to talk to non-state actors like the Taliban in order to achieve a modicum of regional stability in the Afghanistan-Pakistan cross border region known colloquially as Pushtunistan. In a term formerly reserved for the Kurds of the northern Middle East, Peter Bergen has said that the Pashtuns are in fact the world’s largest group of people without a state. Dealing solely with states is so twentieth century as we have painfully come to learn at the outset of the twenty-first. Ugly as it may be, the Taliban do represent some genuine Pashtun interest which has only more recently grafted with ideas of globalist holy war. The Taliban rose to power as a militant Pashtun nationalist movement with rather narrow domestic objectives under a democratically elected Bhutto administration in the mid-1990s in next door Pakistan. The UAVs will never accomplish a long term strategic reordering of Pushtunistan or eliminate al-Qaeda ideology from its mountain hideouts and humming online servers.
Pakistan is in a very fragile state with regard to its own domestic consciousness. Militants have killed so many innocents in the last few years, that while it may be difficult for people in the West to sympathize, normal Pakistanis live in fear from the day to day actual, unrelenting terrorism that has turned the public deeply against these barbaric groups. The other side of the equation has Urdu and English language national satellite new channels showing yet another missile impact killing children in the Frontier that Pakistanis are well aware their own elected government does not have the technological capability to carry out. The civilian population of Pakistan has something in common with President Obama. Both are in situations desperately in need of a third way. Escalating the overt war in Afghanistan and the covert war in Pakistan is a tired paradigm without a visible shift on the horizon.
Far more destructive to the confines of militant thought would be the financing of new roads and schools in a joint Pakistani-American venture, perhaps with the blessing of enlightened members of the local ulema (religious councils). The people of Pushtunistan would likely welcome decent state healthcare for their children and the financing of at least minimal infrastructure in the region if it was not peppered with condescending, Punjabi dominated governance. Doing the necessary work in Pakistan’s deteriorating northwest would require a long and perhaps initially dangerous commitment. Hearts and minds cannot be won with Hellfire.