Globalist Interview

The U.S. in Waziristan: Learning from the Past

Why have U.S. policies in the Muslim world failed — and what should the United States do in the future?

Dr. Akbar Ahmed has written a unique account of Waziristan, Resistance and Control in Pakistan (2004), based on his field experience there.

Takeaways


  • It is in the interest of the United States to help Pakistan to plan a strategy for Waziristan which is holistic and long-term and one which will emphasize education and development.
  • Implementing a failed policy in Waziristan will simply confirm the bankruptcy of vision and wisdom.
  • Today the Taliban are stronger than they have ever been in eastern Afghanistan and they now have areas of influence across the border in Pakistan.
  • Successful foreign policy is based on sophistication, intelligence and diplomacy. The current U.S. foreign policy is based on the twin pillars of arrogance and ignorance.

The Globalist: Why does the U.S. government rely so heavily on the military option?
AA: Bernard Lewis, who under the current administration is viewed as the authority on Islam, believes Muslims need to be treated with force. But that policy has been a failure, an unmitigated disaster.

This policy has been a disaster in Iraq, a disaster in Afghanistan — and now the U.S. government is thinking of implementing the same disaster in Waziristan. Waziristan is not Iraq. It was not ruled by a cruel dictator for 30 years. Not only that, Waziristan has never been ruled in history.

What’s the logic there? Implementing a failed policy in Waziristan will simply confirm the bankruptcy of vision and wisdom.

Successful foreign policy is based on sophistication, intelligence and diplomacy. The current U.S. foreign policy in the examples above is based on the twin pillars of arrogance and ignorance. One is bad enough, but you really can’t have both. If it were based on arrogance, but with a lot of knowledge, it would have still worked. But you cannot combine arrogance and ignorance — and then hope to succeed.

The Globalist: What advice do you have for the U.S. government?
I would say that the United States should be very cautious — and should send its finest diplomats to have good relations with the tribal chiefs, through jirgas. They should meet them, show them respect, listen to them.

The United States needs to realize that it cannot make the mistake, whatever it does, of sending in troops, because that will do two things: It will consolidate all the tribes against the United States — and also push even those wavering into the local Taliban camp. The local Taliban are already dominating the tribal areas — and now, they are spilling into the settled districts of Pakistan.

Action in the tribal areas will also inflame all of Pakistan. Even those who are seen to be pro-American, like President Musharraf, have warned against any U.S. military action in Pakistan.

The Globalist: What else?
That is enough of a tragedy. The United States as a superpower must succeed in its stated mission of spreading human rights, democracy and civil liberties. It will only do so if it changes its strategy.

Let me tell you a story about that part of the world which will help get my point across if we can draw some principles from it. Let’s travel back in time. Alexander the Great crossed into India in triumph. He had defeated the Persians and the Central Asian tribes. In India, he fought King Porus.

It was one of the toughest battles Alexander had ever fought. Finally, he defeated King Porus, and the king was brought in front of him in chains.

Alexander’s aides suggested that Alexander punish King Porus for all the men they lost. Alexander asked King Porus, ‘How would you like to be treated?’ King Porus replied, ‘Like a King.’ Alexander liked the answer and said, ‘So you shall’.

Alexander then appointed King Porus as a king of his empire. Alexander told King Porus that he would have the same authority in that region as Alexander himself did, and that he would represent him. Needless to say, the king became Alexander’s strongest ally overnight.

That’s how smart operators act in the real world. This is brilliant administration of foreign lands. Compare that to the U.S. record in Iraq. The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars, it has lost 4,000 soldiers and the wars have resulted in the deaths of anywhere between half a million to one million local people.

What is the result? How many people love Americans for it?

The policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a failure and going into Waziristan would be an extension of that failure. It would be the “last gasp” of those policies, if you will. My prediction would be that the tribes of Waziristan, the Wazir and the Mahsud, would not fight openly. That is not their strategy.

Take the example of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan after the American led invasion. The Pashtun responded with their classic strategy by abandoning Kabul and taking to the mountains and waiting to strike at the time and place of their choosing. The Americans thought Kabul had fallen and the war was over. For the Taliban, this was just when the battle was starting.

Today the Taliban are stronger than they have ever been in eastern Afghanistan and they now have areas of influence across the border in Pakistan.

The Globalist: That is similar to the insurgency in Iraq, correct?
AA: In principle yes. In Waziristan tribal warriors will wait until the time is right, the season is right, until their sons can fight and then they will come back. They may blow up things or take hostages. They may strike in Karachi or hit the American consulate in Islamabad. They are not going to fight the American battle. They are going to fight their own battle.

Already commentators are pointing fingers to Waziristan at the murder and mayhem recently in Lahore and Peshawar. We now hear statements about the connection between Benazir’s assassins and Waziristan.

The Globalist: And looking to the future?
AA: Washington has to look at morality but also ask ‘What is practical?’ ‘Is it working or is it not working?’ One great thing I do respect about Americans is that they are pragmatic. If something does not work, they change it.

It is in their interest to help Pakistan to plan a strategy for Waziristan which is holistic and long-term and one which will emphasize education and development.

Americans will discover that they can win friends and influence people at a fraction of the cost of throwing bombs and missiles at them. Too much is at stake in Waziristan because of its importance in the region for a continuation of policies based in arrogance and ignorance.

Editors Note: This interview was conducted on January 6, 2008 by Nathan Richter as part of the St. Andrew’s American Century Oral History Project.

You can read Part I here and Part II here.

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About Akbar Ahmed

Akbar S. Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and professor of International Relations at American University, in Washington, D.C.

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