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Eric Margolis Headshot

Kicking a Hornet's Nest in Pakistan

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Pakistan's once beautiful Swat Valley has been turned into a battlefield. Last week, Pakistan finally bowed to Washington's angry demands to unleash its military against rebellious Pashtun tribesmen of Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).

Islamabad's army and air force claimed to have killed 1,000 "terrorists" (read: mostly civilians) and almost emptied the valley of its inhabitants. UN sources now say the operation has created a staggering 1.5-2 million refugees. When Serbs did this to Albanians in Kosovo, Washington rightly called it a war crime.

Since many Pashtun men routinely carry weapons and congregate, Islamabad's claims its strike aircraft, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery can differentiate between civilians and militants is as untruthful as similar claims by the CIA and US military when targeting Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Dead civilians inevitably become "suspected Taliban terrorists."

The US keeps kicking hornet's nests around the globe and wondering why it continues getting stung.

These Pashtun tribes that were attacked are collectively mislabeled "Taliban" in the west. While Pashtun tribesmen, they are not the Afghan Taliban. But it's convenient for western media and Pentagon to slap this convenient label on them, just as a wide assortment of anti-American groups in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia that have nothing to do with Isama bin Laden are branded "al-Qaida." Now, add Pakistani "Taliban" to Washington's "bad guys" list.

The Obama administration had threatened to stop $1.2 billion annual cash payments to bankrupt Pakistan's political and military leadership, and block $5.5 billion future aid, unless Islamabad sent its soldiers into Pakistan's turbulent NWFP along the Afghan frontier and crushed attempts to re-establish Islamic Law and autonomy.

The unpopular, isolated government of Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, which many Pakistanis call American puppets, was understandably reluctant to unleash its armed forces against Pakistani citizens, but Washington's angry demands became irresistible.

Washington further demanded that Islamabad crush the reinstatement of Islamic law in Swat. Many people in the Northwest Frontier region and other parts of Pakistan want Islamic law because in utterly corrupt Pakistan it represents the only honest and swift justice. The only other "law," government civil courts and administration, are bought by the highest bidders and held in contempt.

Pakistan's armed forces, who are being paid by the US to fight Pashtun tribes, have scored a brilliant victory against their own people. Too bad Pakistan's military does not manage to do as well in wars against India. Blasting civilians at home, however, is much safer and more profitable.

Unable to pacify Afghanistan's Pashtun tribes (again, lumped together as "Taliban"), a deeply frustrated Washington has begun tearing Pakistan apart in an effort to end Pashtun resistance in both nations. CIA drone aircraft have so far killed over 700 Pakistani Pashtun. Only 6% were militants, according to Pakistan's media investigations, the rest civilians.

Pashtun, also called Pathan by outsiders, are the world's largest tribal people. Fifteen million live in Afghanistan, forming half its population. Twenty-six million live right across the border in Pakistan.

Up to three millions Afghan Pashtun are refugees in Pakistan. US policy in Afghanistan has excluded the majority Pashtun from power, handing it instead to their blood enemies, the minority Tajiks and Uzbeks.

True to their strategy of divide and rule, Britain's imperialists split the Pashtun by an artificial border, the Durand Line (which became today's Afghan-Pak border). Pashtun reject this artificial colonial border.

Many Pashtun tribes agreed to join Pakistan in 1947 provided much of their homeland remain autonomous and free of government troops. The princely Pashtun state of Swat, where Islamic Sharia law was in force, only fully joined Pakistan in 1969 after assurances of autonomy and religious freedom.

As Pakistan's Pashtun increasingly aided Pashtun resistance in Afghanistan, US "Predator" drones began attacking them. Washington forced Islamabad to violate its own constitution by sending troops into Pashtun lands. The result was the current explosion of Pashtun anger.

I have been to war with Pashtun and have seen their legendary courage, strong sense of honor, and fierce determination. They are also hugely quarrelsome, feuding, prickly, and notorious for seeking revenge. One learns never to threaten a Pashtun or give him ultimatums. These mountain warriors defied the US by refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden because he was a hero of the anti-Soviet war and their guest. Doing would have violated their ancient code of "Pashtunwali" that still guides them.

Now, Washington's ham-handed policies and last week's Swat atrocity threaten to ignite Pakistan's second worst nightmare after invasion by India: that its 26 million Pashtun will secede and join Afghanistan's Pashtun to form an independent Pashtun state, Pashtunistan.

This would rend Pakistan asunder, probably provoke its restive Baluchi tribes to secede, and might tempt mighty India to intervene military, risking nuclear war with beleaguered Pakistan.

The Pashtun of Northwest Frontier have no intention or capability of moving into Pakistan's other provinces, Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan. They just want to be left alone. Alarms of a "Taliban takeover of Pakistan" are driven by ignorance or propaganda.

Lowland Pakistanis have repeatedly rejected militant Islamic parties. Many have little love for Pashtun, whom they regard as mountain rustics best avoided. Pakistan's Islamist parties have traditionally won less than 10% of the national vote.

Nor are Pakistan's well-guarded nuclear weapons a danger -- at least not yet. False alarms about Pakistan's nukes come from neoconservative fabricators with a hidden Mideast agenda.

The real danger is in the US acting like an enraged mastodon, trampling Pakistan under foot, and forcing Islamabad's military to make war on its own people. Having wrecked Iraq, Washington now seems bent on doing the same to fragile Pakistan.

At some point nationalistic Pakistani soldiers may rebel against the corrupt generals and politicians on Washington's payroll and overthrow the government. That is what happened in Iraq in 1957 and Iran in 1979.

Equally ominous, a poor people's uprising spreading across feudal Pakistan -- also mislabeled "Taliban" -- threatens a radical national rebellion similar to India's spreading Maoist Naxalite rebellion.

As in Iraq, ignorance and military arrogance continue to drive US Afghan policy. President Obama's people have no more understanding what they are getting into in "Afpak" than did the Bush administration. Obama is getting extremely bad advice from his so-called Afghanistan "experts" and the Pentagon's gung-ho, would-be crusaders.