Across the Durand Line

Owen Bennett-Jones reviews two books on the AfPak situation in the London Review of Books:

DownloadThe conflict in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands has similarities with other contemporary struggles. From Timbuktu to Kandahar, jihadis, national governments, ethnic groups and, in some cases, tribes are fighting for supremacy. In each place there are complicating local factors: badly drawn international borders; the relative strength or weakness of non-violent Islamist movements; the presence or absence of foreign forces, whether Western or jihadi; and different historical experiences of colonialism. From the point of view of Western policymakers some of these conflicts seem to be more important than others. For the French, the potential fall of Mali to radical Islamist forces was unacceptable, so they intervened. In Somalia, by contrast, the problem has largely been ignored by the West and is mostly being dealt with by the African Union. It was said that al-Qaida must not be allowed to hold territory in Syria, but both an al-Qaida affiliate and Isis have been doing just that, and it wasn’t until earlier this month that Obama announced he’d strike Isis from the air.

Download (1)It’s far from clear that these varied responses to jihadi activity are the result of rational decision-making. In Yemen, for example, al-Qaida supporters move about freely and plot attacks against the West. Yet although the US has used air power in Yemen it has for the most part left the fighting to the far from capable Yemeni armed forces. But the Pashtun areas of the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands are an exception to the mixed messages. There the West has used every tactic at its disposal to confront jihadis: boots on the ground, air strikes, drone attacks, bribes, social welfare programmes and infrastructure projects – the effort to control the Pashtuns hasn’t lacked commitment. There are, of course, important differences between Yemen and the Pashtun areas. Attacks organised in Pashtun areas – including 9/11 and 7/7 – have succeeded; even the most sophisticated plot to emerge from Yemen, in which bombs were disguised as printer cartridges, was foiled. And it isn’t just that the US was impelled to avenge 9/11. The outside world is interested in the Pashtuns’ poppy crop and their hosting of much of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Over the last century and a half the intricacies of Pashtun politics have been discussed by politicians and their advisers in the capitals of all the Great Powers: it’s Washington that’s worrying today, but it used to be Moscow, and before that London.

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