Peshawar Politics

By PARAG KHANNA

Peshawar, Pakistan -- Here, at the base of the fabled Khyber Pass, the British Raj not only trained the famous Khyber Rifle Regiment but, knowing they were in for a long haul, also built a rail network and the structures that are still used as civil and army offices to oversee Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. The guest book of the Khan Klub, a Peshawar guesthouse, is filled with thank you notes from British tourists who are still welcome here. By contrast, throughout the 1980s, America used Pakistan as a base from which to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and all Pakistan got in return was several million refugees who now overwhelm Peshawar’s once bustling bazaars. The blessing of being an oasis near the rugged peaks of the Afghan-Pakistani border has long since become a curse.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently led a Congressional delegation to Pakistan and Afghanistan to urge the two countries’ embattled leaders to work together on routing Taliban forces straddling their porous border, and Vice President Dick Cheney recently visited the region as well to reiterate Congress’s threat of cuts in military aid if they fail to do so. But this borderland is not truly part of any country. It belongs to the Pashtun people who have lived here for centuries, and who care little for the nominal existence of states called Afghanistan or Pakistan. This is their country -- all others are invaders. It is widely believed that Osama bin Laden is hiding among the Pashtun, who gave birth to Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. Certainly, if bin Laden is not here already, he would be welcome any time. But the Pashtun are an ally America badly needs in the struggle to pacify this region where Taliban and al Qaeda freely roam. The Pashtun are considered to be among the world’s fiercest tribes, but in fact they have survived because of their strict code of honor and sense of humanity. Military might does not scare those who wore down the Soviet Union. Rather, like all people, the Pashtun respond to incentives that focus on meeting their basic needs. The way to win hearts and minds is through the stomach. Rather than view the Pashtun as bin Laden’s accomplices and protectors, we should allow them to use him as their bargaining chip in exchange for more resources devoted to giving them a better life. America and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan must put more on the table than army incursions and the wanton destruction of tribal homes and local schools by unmanned aircraft if they ever hope to reduce sympathy for the Taliban and al Qaeda. Ordering Pakistan to send in more troops to be slaughtered by far craftier Pashtun tribal forces only piques local resentment against both the government and its American patrons, while creating an ever-growing demand for more military equipment that Pakistan doesn’t need. Pakistan has become the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, but even half that money would be put to better use creating jobs and livelihoods for the Pashtun rather than assaulting them in their own homes. The British were never as cruel as the Pakistani Army is -- and they knew that improving tribal welfare was crucial to their success. The U.S. and Pakistani governments instead hold on to the antiquated notion that providing aggrieved populations with resources will only spur their vengeful agendas. But as in Iraq, the ones fighting back are not so much insurgents as pious tribesmen defending their country against foreign interference -- and they will continue to until some form of justice is achieved. For the country that created the Marshall Plan after WWII, it shouldn’t be a radical departure to think more in terms of the Peace Corps than precision-guided missiles. Pakistan is only one example of how feeble and emasculated American engagement with foreign populations has become. The United States recently opened one of the State Department’s mini-libraries -- known as a “Lincoln Corner” -- here, but it caters to the privileged university-going children of army officers, not illiterate refugees who have become the area’s restive core. Meanwhile, it is the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and assorted humanitarian NGOs -- not NATO or any other army -- that have been doing the heavy lifting with far too few resources and for far too long. America is still the world’s military superpower, but it is certainly not the only state with an interest in seeing that other societies’ needs are met. The EU is by far the world’s largest humanitarian donor, and China’s rising trade and aid presence in Latin America and Africa shows that it, too, can compete to assist and influence developing countries. Restoring America’s stature in the world begins with focusing on these fundamentals for people like the Pashtun, rather than treating them all as fundamentalists. Copyright 2007, GOOD Magazine