THE ROVING EYE
The myth of Talibanistan
By Pepe Escobar
Apocalypse Now. Run for cover. The turbans are coming. This is the state of
Pakistan today, according to the current hysteria disseminated by the Barack
Obama administration and United States corporate media - from Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton to The New York Times. Even British Prime Minister Gordon
Brown has said on the record that Pakistani Talibanistan is a threat to the
security of Britain.
But unlike St Petersburg in 1917 or Tehran in late 1978, Islamabad won't fall
tomorrow to a turban revolution.
Pakistan is not an ungovernable Somalia. The numbers tell the story. At least
55% of Pakistan's 170 million-strong population are Punjabis. There's no
evidence they are about to embrace
Talibanistan; they are essentially Shi'ites, Sufis or a mix of both. Around 50
million are Sindhis - faithful followers of the late Benazir Bhutto and her
husband, now President Asif Ali Zardari's centrist and overwhelmingly secular
Pakistan People's Party. Talibanistan fanatics in these two provinces -
amounting to 85% of Pakistan's population, with a heavy concentration of the
urban middle class - are an infinitesimal minority.
The Pakistan-based Taliban - subdivided in roughly three major groups,
amounting to less than 10,000 fighters with no air force, no Predator drones,
no tanks and no heavily weaponized vehicles - are concentrated in the Pashtun
tribal areas, in some districts of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), and
some very localized, small parts of Punjab.
To believe this rag-tag band could rout the well-equipped, very professional
550,000-strong Pakistani army, the sixth-largest military in the world, which
has already met the Indian colossus in battle, is a ludicrous proposition.
Moreover, there's no evidence the Taliban, in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, have
any capability to hit a target outside of "Af-Pak"(Afghanistan and Pakistan).
That's mythical al-Qaeda's privileged territory. As for the nuclear hysteria of
the Taliban being able to crack the Pakistani army codes for the country's
nuclear arsenal (most of the Taliban, by the way, are semi-literate), even
Obama, at his 100-day news conference, stressed the nuclear arsenal was safe.
Of course, there's a smatter of junior Pashtun army officers who sympathize
with the Taliban - as well as significant sections of the powerful
Inter-Services Intelligence agency. But the military institution itself is
backed by none other than the American army - with which it has been closely
intertwined since the 1970s. Zardari would be a fool to unleash a mass killing
of Pakistani Pashtuns; on the contrary, Pashtuns can be very useful for
Islamabad's own designs.
Zardari's government this week had to send in troops and the air force to deal
with the Buner problem, in the Malakand district of NWFP, which shares a border
with Kunar province in Afghanistan and thus is relatively close to US and North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops. They are fighting less than 500
members of the Tehrik-e Taliban-e Pakistan (TTP). But for the Pakistani army,
the possibility of the area joining Talibanistan is a great asset - because
this skyrockets Pakistani control of Pashtun southern Afghanistan, ever in
accordance to the eternal "strategic depth" doctrine prevailing in Islamabad.
Bring me the head of Baitullah Mehsud
So if Islamabad is not burning tomorrow, why the hysteria? There are several
reasons. To start with, what Washington - now under Obama's "Af-Pak" strategy -
simply cannot stomach is real democracy and a true civilian government in
Islamabad; these would be much more than a threat to "US interests" than the
Taliban, whom the Bill Clinton administration was happily wining and dining in
the late 1990s.
What Washington may certainly relish is yet another military coup - and sources
tell Asia Times Online that former dictator General Pervez Musharraf (Busharraf
as he was derisively referred to) is active behind the hysteria scene.
It's crucial to remember that every military coup in Pakistan has been
conducted by the army chief of staff. So the man of the hour - and the next few
hours, days and months - is discreet General Ashfaq Kiani, Benazir's former
army secretary. He is very cozy with US military chief Admiral Mike Mullen, and
definitely not a Taliban-hugger.
Moreover, there are canyons of the Pakistani military/security bureaucracy who
would love nothing better than to extract even more US dollars from Washington
to fight the Pashtun neo-Taliban that they are simultaneously arming to fight
the Americans and NATO. It works. Washington is now under a counter-insurgency
craze, with the Pentagon eager to teach such tactics to every Pakistani officer
What is never mentioned by US corporate media is the tremendous social problems
Pakistan has to deal with because of the mess in the tribal areas. Islamabad
believes that between the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and NWFP,
at least 1 million people are now displaced (not to mention badly in need of
food aid). FATA's population is around 3.5 million - overwhelmingly poor
Pashtun peasants. And obviously war in FATA translates into insecurity and
paranoia in the fabled capital of NWFP, Peshawar.
The myth of Talibanistan anyway is just a diversion, a cog in the slow-moving
regional big wheel - which in itself is part of the new great game in Eurasia.
During a first stage - let's call it the branding of evil - Washington
think-tanks and corporate media hammered non-stop on the "threat of al-Qaeda"
to Pakistan and the US. FATA was branded as terrorist central - the most
dangerous place in the world where "the terrorists" and an army of suicide
bombers were trained and unleashed into Afghanistan to kill the "liberators" of
In the second stage, the new Obama administration accelerated the Predator
"hell from above" drone war over Pashtun peasants. Now comes the stage where
the soon over 100,000-strong US/NATO troops are depicted as the true liberators
of the poor in Af-Pak (and not the "evil" Taliban) - an essential ploy in the
new narrative to legitimize Obama's Af-Pak surge.
For all pieces to fall into place, a new uber-bogeyman is needed. And he is TTP
leader Baitullah Mehsud, who, curiously, had never been hit by even a fake US
drone until, in early March, he made official his allegiance to historic
Taliban leader Mullah Omar, "The Shadow" himself, who is said to live
undisturbed somewhere around Quetta, in Pakistani Balochistan.
Now there's a US$5 million price on Baitullah's head. The Predators have duly
hit the Mehsud family's South Waziristan bases. But - curioser and curioser -
not once but twice, the ISI forwarded a detailed dossier of Baitullah's
location directly to its cousin, the Central Intelligence Agency. But there was
no drone hit.
And maybe there won't be - especially now that a bewildered Zardari government
is starting to consider that the previous uber-bogeyman, a certain Osama bin
Laden, is no more than a ghost. Drones can incinerate any single Pashtun
wedding in sight. But international bogeymen of mystery - Osama, Baitullah,
Mullah Omar - star players in the new OCO (overseas contingency operations),
formerly GWOT ("global war on terror"), of course deserve star treatment.