At a recent dinner party in the British embassy in Kabul, one of the guests referred to “the Afghan-Pakistan war.” The rest of the table fell silent. This is the truth that dare not speak its name. Even mentioning it in private in the Afghan capital’s green zone is enough to solicit murmurs of disapproval. Few want to accept that the war is widening; that it now involves Pakistan, a country with an unstable government and nuclear weapons.
“Don’t mention the war,” as Basil insists with mounting hysteria in Fawlty Towers. And, when discussing the deepening crisis in Afghanistan, most people seem deliberately to avoid such telling phrases as “Pakistani aggression” or—more accurate still—”Pakistani colonialism.” The truth is that the Taliban, and its al-Qaida guests, were originally imposed on Afghanistan from without as a projection of Pakistani state power. (Along with Pakistan, only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ever recognized the Taliban as the legal government in Kabul.) Important circles in Pakistan have never given up the aspiration to run Afghanistan as a client or dependent or proxy state, and this colonial mindset is especially well-entrenched among senior army officers and in the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI.
We were all warned of this many years ago. When the Clinton administration sent cruise missiles into Afghanistan in reprisal for the attacks on our embassies in East Africa, the missiles missed Osama Bin Ladin but did, if you remember, manage to kill two officers of the ISI. It wasn’t asked loudly enough: What were these men doing in an al-Qaida camp in the first place? In those years, as in earlier ones, almost no tough questions were asked of Pakistan. Successive U.S. administrations used to keep certifying to Congress that Pakistan was not exploiting U.S. aid (and U.S. indulgence over the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan) to build itself a nuclear weapons capacity. Indeed, it wasn’t until afterSept.11, 2001, that we allowed ourselves to learn that at least two of Pakistan’s top nuclear scientists—Mirza Yusuf Baig and Chaudhry Abdul Majid—had been taken in for “questioning” about their close links to the Taliban. But then, in those days, we were too incurious to take note of the fact that Pakistan’s chief nuclear operative, A.Q. Khan, had opened a private-enterprise “Nukes ‘R’ Us” market and was selling his apocalyptic wares to regimes as disparate as Libya and North Korea, sometimes using Pakistani air force planes to make the deliveries.
The very name Pakistan inscribes the nature of the problem. It is not a real country or nation but an acronym devised in the 1930s by a Muslim propagandist for partition named Chaudhary Rahmat Ali. It stands for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, and Indus-Sind. The stan suffix merely means “land.” In the Urdu language, the resulting acronym means “land of the pure.” It can be easily seen that this very name expresses expansionist tendencies and also conceals discriminatory ones. Kashmir, for example, is part of India. The Afghans are Muslim but not part of Pakistan. Most of Punjab is also in India. Interestingly, too, there is no B in this cobbled-together name, despite the fact that the country originally included the eastern part of Bengal (now Bangladesh, after fighting a war of independence against genocidal Pakistani repression) and still includes Baluchistan, a restive and neglected province that has been fighting a low-level secessionist struggle for decades. The P comes first only because Pakistan is essentially the property of the Punjabi military caste (which hated Benazir Bhutto, for example, because she came from Sind). As I once wrote, the country’s name “might as easily be rendered as ‘Akpistan’ or ‘Kapistan,’ depending on whether the battle to take over Afghanistan or Kashmir is to the fore.”
I could have phrased that a bit more tightly, since the original Pakistani motive for annexing and controlling Afghanistan is precisely the acquisition of “strategic depth” for its never-ending confrontation with India over Kashmir. And that dispute became latently thermonuclear while we simply looked on. One of the most creditable (and neglected) foreign-policy shifts of the Bush administration after 9/11 was away from our dangerous regional dependence on the untrustworthy and ramshackle Pakistan and toward a much more generous rapprochement with India, the world’s other great federal, democratic, and multiethnic state.
Recent accounts of murderous violence in the capital cities of two of our allies, India and Afghanistan, make it appear overwhelmingly probable that the bombs were not the work of local or homegrown “insurgents” but were orchestrated by agents of the Pakistani ISI. This is a fantastically unacceptable state of affairs, which needs to be given its right name of state-sponsored terrorism. Meanwhile, and on Pakistani soil and under the very noses of its army and the ISI, the city of Quetta and the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas are becoming the incubating ground of a reorganized and protected al-Qaida. Sen. Barack Obama has, if anything, been the more militant of the two presidential candidates in stressing the danger here and the need to act without too much sentiment about our so-called Islamabad ally. He began using this rhetoric when it was much simpler to counterpose the “good” war in Afghanistan with the “bad” one in Iraq. Never mind that now; he is committed in advance to a serious projection of American power into the heartland of our deadliest enemy. And that, I think, is another reason why so many people are reluctant to employ truthful descriptions for the emerging Afghan-Pakistan confrontation: American liberals can’t quite face the fact that if their man does win in November, and if he has meant a single serious word he’s ever said, it means more war, and more bitter and protracted war at that—not less.