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|A HEFTY HELPING OF D.C. DOUBLE-TALK
At the White House on Sept. 22, President Bush met with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who vowed continuing efforts to root out the Taliban and other extremists from Afghanistan and from Pakistan’s own northwest provinces.
Then, Sept. 26, President Bush met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who continues to complain that Musharraf’s Pakistan allows sanctuary to cross-border Taliban raiders.
And the three leaders dined together Sept. 27, at which point the public were assured everything has been ironed out, that this triple alliance against radical Islamic terrorism is now functioning like a well-oiled machine.
Unfortunately -- while the White House can hardly be blamed for trying -- there’s hardly enough makeup in the world to convince anyone to kiss that pig.
There are now 20,000 U.S. soldiers guarding Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan. Another 20,000 NATO troops are still battling the Taliban -- widely believed to have been defeated years ago -- in the south.
And Gen. Musharraf’s smooth-talking abilities were surely challenged to the maximum last week as he tried to paint the prettiest possible face on the separate peace he recently signed with Islamic militants in North Waziristan. Having lost some 500 men in failed combat operations designed to root out Osama bin laden and other terrorists believed to the hiding in those rocky crags, Musharraf’s reluctant army turned tail and ran home, saving face with a “peace treaty” under which the Wahhabi terrorists are granted de facto sovereignty in exchange for a hollow promise to lay down their weapons and refrain from “imposing draconian religious edicts.”
“There will be no al-Qaida activity in our tribal (area) or across the border in Afghanistan,” Gen. Musharraf assured the White House Friday. “There will be no Taliban activity. ... There will be no Talibanization.”
“Bush said he was satisfied with those assurances,” reported The Washington Post, with a straight face.
Really? Could we interest the White House in some attractive little ranchitas between Gila Bend and Ajo, in a subdivision we like to call Canyon De Los Muertos? How about this slightly used deed to the Brooklyn Bridge?
In fact, as the Post points out, radical militias thumb their noses at Musharraf and Karzai both, operating openly in the Pakistani provincial capital of Quetta, and limiting the reach of President Karzai’s “regime” to a long stone’s throw from the streets of Kabul.
“The problem is Musharraf is proving to be an incredibly grudging ally,” explains Robert Templer, director of the Asia program for the International Crisis Group, which monitors events in the region. “He has received a lot of aid, and he is simply not delivering on the really critical security issues.”
One is put in mind of Chiang Kai-Shek, supplied by the United States at incredible expense and sacrifice “over the hump” from India during World War II on the promise he would use that materiel to open a “second front” against the Japanese on the Chinese mainland.
It never happened. The generalissimo hoarded those supplies for the post-war struggle he foresaw against Mao’s Communists. Many of them still lay unused in the warehouses when they fell to the Reds.
Meantime, American commanders agree the timetable for sizing down the U.S. military presence in Iraq is dependent on the ability of Iraqi troops to “step up” and take a more significant role. Yet reports of Iraqi troops showing up late for combined operations (and then allowing vehicles full of armed militia through their “roadblocks” even when they’re assigned only far-from-demanding support roles) bring to mind the laughable assurances that the “Army of the Republic of Vietnam” -- a bunch of reluctant teen-agers in oversized uniforms -- was fully able to take over defense of its own country after the American pull-out in 1973.
Is our leadership really falling for all this double-talk?
The problem is that Americans tend to be straightforward. Without idealizing our culture, America’s is nonetheless a 300-year history of a primarily rural folk, dependent on the willingness of neighbors to pitch in and help each other, where matters could often be settled with a handshake because men set a high value on their reputations. A high premium was placed on straight talk.
Wading into the Middle East, we encounter a very different set of cultures, that mark their histories not in centuries but millennia. And those histories have led them to value not independence, achievement and straight dealing, but rather subtlety and misdirection, a talent for smiling and telling the powerful what they want to hear.
Consider the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Seleucids, the Parthians, the Macedonians under Alexander, the Abbasid and Seljuq Arabs, the Mongols, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, the British, the Russians and finally the Ba’th and the Taliban. For five thousand years, the people of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan have spent most of their time living under the heel of one conqueror or another, and their survival has depended far more on guile and treachery than on straight dealings.
And so they smile and tell us what we want to hear.
No politically palatable solution comes to mind, though one suspects the Romans would have known how to deal with villages or even entire provinces harboring Osama bin Laden and his ilk. The British and Russian empires spent long decades trying to impose a more Western idea of civilization on these lands, with little success.
Fifty or 80 years ago, the CIA would probably have been sent in to remove a recalcitrant Pervez Musharraf, replacing him with a more amenable strongman.
The problem is -- for all his faults -- Musharraf does keep Pakistan from tipping over into Iranian-style fundamentalism.
Too bad such a stabilizing force can’t be found to create a calm, secular Iraq.
Cynics might reply we once had such a man. And his name was Saddam Hussein.