Bombing Quetta?
Bombing Quetta?
Saturday, December 19,2009 11:11

An attack on Quetta, and on the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is something else entirely - and not just because bombing Quetta would probably result in mass civilian casualties, argues Robert Dreyfuss.


If Afghanistan is Vietnam, and the Taliban is the Viet Cong, then, according to the analogy, Pakistan is North Vietnam. The really odd thing about that extended analogy is that, in the case of Vietnam, North Vietnam's ally was the USSR. But Pakistan's ally is, well, the United States.

Which points up the utter absurdity of the contemplated drone attacks into the Taliban's refuge in Quetta, Pakistan.

For years, since the early 1990s at least, Pakistan has been the chief sponsor of the Taliban. When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, only three countries recognized its rule: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. After 2001, when the United States invaded Afghanistan with its token force -- in alliance with the India-backed Northern Alliance -- Pakistan pretended to stop supporting the Taliban, but its military command and its intelligence service, the ISI, continued to provide not-so-covert support. Despite the eight year US war next door, Pakistan has refused to halt its support for the Taliban, and it has allowed the Taliban leadership to operate freely from safe havens inside Pakistan, from Karachi to the tribal areas in Pakistan's northwest to, especially, the teeming urban center of Quetta, in the Baluchistan area of southwest Pakistan.

For weeks now, the United States has been telegraphing its intention to bombard Quetta in order to strike at Mullah Omar, the one-eyed pirate who leads the Taliban, and his confreres. The Los Angeles Times reports today:

"Senior US officials are pushing to expand CIA drone strikes beyond Pakistan's tribal region and into a major city in an attempt to pressure the Pakistani government to pursue Taliban leaders based in Quetta.

"The proposal has opened a contentious new front in the clandestine war. The prospect of Predator aircraft strikes in Quetta, a sprawling city, signals a new U.S. resolve to decapitate the Taliban. But it also risks rupturing Washington's relationship with Islamabad."

The paper quotes a Pakistani official who says, "We are not a banana republic." If the US attacks Quetta, a city of nearly one million, the senior Pakistani official added: "This might be the end of the road."

Until now, beginning in 2008 under the Bush administration and accelerating this year under President Obama, the United States has conducted a regular series of drone attacks aimed mostly at Al Qaeda terrorists in North and South Waziristan and other areas of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The FATA attacks, while nominally denounced by the government of Pakistan, have in fact been supported by the Pakistani military, because they've been targeted against Al Qaeda and elements of the Pakistani Taliban who've been responsible for horrific attacks in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, including the assassination of President Zardari's wife, Benazir Bhutto, and mass-killing bomb attacks. The protest-too-much criticism of the drone attacks by Pakistan are for domestic consumption only, meant to temper the reaction of the nationalist and Islamic Pakistani populace which is decidedly anti-American.

But an attack on Quetta, and on the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is something else entirely - and not just because bombing Quetta would probably result in mass civilian casualties.

Why? Because the core of Pakistan's military elite sees the Afghan Taliban as a strategic asset. The Taliban is Pakistan's ace-in-the-hole against India's burgeoning influence in Afghanistan, and they're not likely to give it up without a fight. By taking on the Taliban's shura in Quetta, the United States is in effect making the war in Afghanistan a war against both the Taliban and the Pakistani military.

It's true that Pakistan's politics is complicated. First of all, the Pakistani military and the ISI are not Islamic fanatics. Most of the generals are whisky-drinking secularists. But they see the Taliban as a tool, and they intend to use it. Meanwhile, Pakistan's civilian government, under President Zardari, is less than enamored of the Taliban, but they don't have the control over the military that they'd need to rein in the army's support for the Taliban. Already, the Pakistani army is unhappy with what they see as a pro-Indian tilt by the diplomacy-minded Zardari government. In fact, the military would be much happier, it seems, if former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family mafia, who are close to Saudi Arabia, would take over power from the very unpopular Zardari. The Sharifs, too, are far more sympathetic to the Taliban than is the Zardari clan. In recent years, Sharif has taken part in secret talks with the Taliban, sponsored by the king of Saudi Arabia.

By attacking Quetta, the United States is effectively declaring war on Pakistan. It appears that the Obama administration is calculating that Pakistan is so dependent on the United States that if push comes to shove the Pakistanis will capitulate. That's a dangerous gamble, one made more complicated by the fact that Pakistan is allied with China in a de facto coalition against India.

The ever-receding diplomatic solution for Afghanistan involves a US-sponsored deal with the Taliban, Pakistan, and their allies, on one side, and with India, Russia, Iran, and their Afghan allies, on the other. Or has Obama forgotten about diplomacy entirely?

Robert Dreyfuss is a contributing editor to The Nation magazine, and the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Metropolitan)