It's awfully hard for the world's greatest power to admit its high-tech military forces are being beaten in Afghanistan by a bunch of lightly-armed mountain tribesmen that we dismiss as "terrorists."
But that's what's happening in the "Graveyard of Empires." Washington can't and won't admit it has blundered into a bloody, trillion-dollar fiasco in Afghanistan.
Right now, Pakistan is the chief whipping boy for US fury even though it is still officially called a "strategic US ally."
Last week, outgoing US chairman of the joint chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, accused Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI, of being behind recent high-profile attacks against US targets in Afghanistan that were allegedly staged by the Haqqani network, one of the Taliban's coalition members fighting foreign occupation. An assault by Taliban mujahedin on the US Embassy in Kabul revived very bad dreams of the Viet Cong's war-winning 1968 Tet Offensive.
Admiral Mullen accused the Haqqani network of being "a virtual arm" of ISI. Pakistan strongly denied US charges. In fact, both CIA and Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI, have long maintained covert links with the Haqqani group.
Much of CIA's intelligence on Afghanistan comes from two sources: electronic intercepts, and the Afghan government's intelligence service.
Most anti-US fighters are far too experienced to use electronic communications they know are easily picked up by US satellites, aircraft, drones, airships, and ground stations.
The Afghan government intelligence service is dominated by Tajik Communists from the old Soviet-created KHAD intelligence agency who are blood enemies of Pakistan and Afghanistan's Pashtun majority.
Afghan spooks have become a primary source of disinformation to US military and civilian intelligence outfits, and likely the source of claims that Pakistan's ISI was behind recent attacks on US targets in Afghanistan. US intelligence was similarly misled in 2003 over Iraq by a "friendly," self-serving intelligence service.
Official Washington is reacting with free-form rage rather than careful thought. No doubt, the example of the Soviet 1989 defeat in Afghanistan increasingly haunts Washington.
Ironically, as I saw myself in the 1980's, the US created the Haqqani network, arming and funding it. In those halcyon days, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Pashtun fighters were hailed by the US as "freedom fighters."
One of the US Senate's least intellectual members, influential Republican Lindsay Graham, is threatening more US attacks on Pakistan "to defend US troops" from "terrorism." US Predator drones are now staging almost daily attacks inside Pakistan -- without even advising the feeble government in Islamabad.
Sen. Graham's threat is pretty rich. The US invades a country, brands any who resist as "terrorists," then threatens to bomb and/or invade its neighbor to "protect" the invasion force. Meanwhile, the US is paying bankrupt Pakistan $7.5 billion over five years to sustain the war in Afghanistan.
Ever since the days of George W. Bush, US policy in the Muslim world has been driven by a combination of imperial arrogance and profound ignorance.
When the US was preparing to invade Iraq in 2003, I had dinner with three of Bush's most senior advisors. "Tell us about Iraq, Eric," they asked. As I spoke of Kurds, Sunnis, assorted Shia, Yazdis, their eyes quickly glazed over.
"Just give us the bottom line," snapped one Alpha Republican. "The bottom line," I replied, "is don't get involved in a messy country you don't understand at all."
Well, here we go again with Pakistan. Hardly any senior members of the Obama administration understand complex Pakistan. There are some experts in Washington who do understand, but they are routinely ignored. The same things happened with Iraq.
The American bulls in South Asia's china shop are ready to charge in, heedless of the facts or risks.
Threatening war against Pakistan, a nation of 180 million with a tough military, is the height of folly. Our forces have not faced a tough enemy ground force since Vietnam. Pakistan will be no cakewalk.
Pakistan controls most of the supply routes essential to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Most Pakistanis now consider the US a bigger enemy than old foe India.
Even crazier, Washington is making warlike threats against nuclear-armed Pakistan, a very close ally of China, an important nuclear power. So far, Beijing has been cautious yet firm in its support of old ally, Pakistan.
But US attacks on Pakistan that go beyond the current raids by CIA drones could draw China into a confrontation with the US. China has quietly made clear it will not allow the US to tear apart Pakistan in order to grab Islamabad's Chinese-aided nuclear arsenal.
More craziness. The US under both Bush and Barack Obama has been trying to get India militarily involved in Afghanistan. But the Indians were too clever to send combat troops into Afghanistan.
Washington then gave India a green light to pour intelligence agents and money into Afghanistan to support the anti-Taliban Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities. The US has greatly aided the buildup of India's nuclear arsenal -- which has only two targets, Pakistan and China.
All this, of course, has set off alarm bells in Islamabad, which sees Afghanistan as its strategic back yard. Russia and China are also watching this drama with growing unease, torn between concern about militant Islamists and intrusive US power.
The strategic interests of Pakistan and the US are different, often in conflict. Yet the US "put a gun to our head," as I was told by both a former ISI director and Pakistan's former president, Pervez Musharraf, and forced to join the war against Taliban, a close Pakistani ally and strategic asset.
Why should Pakistan forsake its own strategic interests for those of the United States, whose confused, erratic foreign policy is increasingly seen abroad a being run by domestic special interest and extreme religious groups?
A blow-up between Pakistan and its sometime American patron would be a calamity for all concerned. Expanding a war into the intersection of the interests of four nuclear-armed powers is the height of irresponsibility and manic behavior.
But so long as America's war in Afghanistan continues it indeed threatens to destabilize Pakistan and runs the risk of nuclear confrontation.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011