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Pakistan Feels the American Raj

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Pakistan's powerful army just launched a major ground and air offensive against rebellious Pashtun tribes in wild South Waziristan which Islamabad claims is the epicenter of the growing insurgency against the US-backed government of Asif Ali Zardari.

The eight-year war in Afghanistan has now set Pakistan on fire. What began in 2001 as a supposedly limited American anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan has now become a spreading regional conflict that involves the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran and Russia.

Washington has long pressed Pakistan to send its army into the wilds of South Waziristan, not the least because Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, may be hiding there.

As in past Pakistani search and destroy mission, it's likely the rebellious Pashtun tribesmen will simply fade into the mountains, leaving the army stuck garrisoning major towns and trying to protect roads. A similar uprising in Kashmir has tied down 500,000 Indian soldiers and paramilitary police.

Washington, by contrast, is delighted by Pakistan's offensive. It has long been a key US goal to press Pakistan's tough army into fighting both Pashtun rebels in Pakistan, and the Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan has long hesitated doing so, loathe to wage war on its own tribal people. The US is paying most of the bills for the Waziristan offensive.

In recent weeks, bombings and shootings have been rocking Pakistan, a complex, unstable nation of 167 million, including a recent brazen attack on army HQ in Rawalpindi and a massive bombing of Peshawar's exotic Khyber Bazaar. These attacks finally went too far, goading the military, which was reluctant to attack its own people, into action. Like Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan's not very bright rebellious tribesmen have an uncanny knack for counter-productive, self-defeating behavior and awful public relations.

Meanwhile, the feeble, deeply unpopular US-installed government in Islamabad of President Asif Ali Zardari faces an increasingly rancorous confrontation with the military, angry opposition groups, and public outrage over claims it is betraying Pakistan's national interests at home, in Afghanistan, and in Kashmir.

Like the proverbial bull in the china shop, the Obama administration and US Congress chose this explosive time to try to impose yet another layer of American control over Pakistan. This heavy-handed action comes at a time when Nobel peace prize winner Barack Obama is considering sending thousands more US troops to Afghanistan.

Tragically, US policy in the Muslim world continues to be too often driven by arrogance, ignorance, and special interest groups. Afghanistan and Pakistan are the latest examples.

The current Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, advanced with President Barack Obama's blessing, is ham-handed dollar diplomacy at its worst. Pakistan, bankrupted by corruption, feudal landlords, and the previous Musharraf military regime, is being offered US $7.5 billion over five years -- but with outrageous strings attached.

Washington denies any strings are involved. But few in South Asia believe the cash-strapped US is handing over $7.5 billion for the sake of pure altruism or concern for Pakistan's social welfare.

The US wants to build a mammoth new embassy for 1,000 personnel in Islamabad, the second largest after its Baghdad fortress-embassy. New personnel are needed, claims Washington, to monitor the $7.5 billion in aid. So US mercenaries (aka `contractors') are being brought in to protect US interests and personnel. New US bases may also be in the cards. Most of this new aid will go right into the pockets of the pro-western ruling establishment, about 1% of the population.

Washington is also reportedly demanding some form of indirect veto power over promotions in Pakistan's armed forces and intelligence agency, ISI. This crude attempt to exert more US influence over Pakistan's 617,000-man military has enraged the armed forces and set off alarm bells.

It's all part of Washington's 'Afpak' strategy to clamp tighter control over restive Pakistan and make use of its armed forces and spies in Afghanistan. Seizing control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, the key to its national defense against a much more powerful India, is the other key US objective. Many Pakistanis believe the US is bent on tearing apart Pakistan in order to seize its nuclear arsenal.

Washington's neoconservatives have made neutralizing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal an urgent priority.

Ninety percent of Pakistanis oppose the US-led war in Afghanistan, and see Taliban and its allies as national resistance to western occupation. Angry Pakistanis are accusing their armed forces of having been rented to the United States as 'sepoys' -- the native troops of the old British Indian Raj.

But, at the same time, many non-Pashtun Pakistanis strongly oppose the tribal rebellion in Northwest Frontier Province and want the army to crack down on the boisterous wildmen of the Northwest Frontier. Interestingly, the British Raj had similar problems with these same warlike Pashtun tribesmen a century ago.

In an alarming development, violent attacks on Pakistan's government are coming not only from once autonomous Pashtun tribes (wrongly called `Taliban') in Northwest Frontier Province, but, increasingly, in the biggest province, Punjab. Recently, the intemperate US Ambassador in Islamabad, in a fit of imperial hubris, actually called for air attacks on Pashtun leaders in Quetta, capital of Pakistan's restive Baluchistan province.

Washington does not even bother to ask the impotent Islamabad government's permission to launch air attacks inside Pakistan. Pakistan's government is only informed after the attacks, which often cause heavy civilian casualties.

Along comes the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Big Bribe as most irate Pakistanis accuse President Asif Ali Zardari's government of being American hirelings.

Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, has been dogged for decades by charges of egregious corruption. His senior aides in Pakistan and Washington are also being denounced as foreign stooges by what's left of Pakistan's media not yet under government control. We heard similar accusations against the US-backed governments of Iran and Egypt.

Washington seems unaware of the fury its heavy-handed, counter-productive policies have whipped up in Pakistan. Like the Bush administration in Iraq, the Obama administration keeps listening to Washington-based neoconservatives, military hawks, and `experts' who tell it just what it wants to hear, not the hard facts.

As a result, Pakistan's military, the nation's premier institution, is being pushed to the point of revolt. Against the backdrop of bombings and shootings come rumors the heads of Pakistan's armed forces and intelligence may be replaced by the Zardari government. My Pakistani military and intelligence sources report growing unrest in the middle ranks against the pro-US leadership.

Pakistanis are calling for the removal of the Zardari regime's strongman, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, a former policeman. He was even refused entry into military HQ in Rawalpindi last week.

There are rising calls for the head of Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, my old friend Hussain Haqqani, who is accused of being too close to the Americans. One suspects the adroit Haqqani might become Washington's preferred Pakistani leader if Asif Zardari's government crumbles or is ousted.

The possibility of a military coup against the discredited Zardari regime grows. But Pakistan is dependent on US money, and deeply fears India. Can its generals afford to break with patron Washington and decamp from the American Raj?