“The only thing we learn from history is that people learn nothing from history”
— Georg Wilhelm Hegel
Inspired by post on Foreign Policy Magazine’s Passport blog.
It began in an unassuming way: the American commanding general in theater sent a memo to Washington informing his superiors that an important enemy target had been tentatively located, but that it was over the border in a neighboring country whose status in all conflicts was neutral and that the territory in question was for all intents and purposes, though inhabited, ungoverned and ungovernable by the central government.
The year was 1969, the theater was Indochina, the general was Creighton Abrams, the target was COSVN HQ – Headquarters of the Central Office for South Viet Nam, supposedly the central control of the North’s campaign in the south. The neutral country it was located in was Cambodia, whose people at that time lived peacefully and basically free from want. The date of the memo was February 9, 1969, barely a month since Richard Nixon and his security advisor Henry Kissinger had taken office.
Though there remains some debate on the degree of American culpability for what happened afterward, at least nobody claims that the B-52 airstrikes that General Abrams’ memo generated had no effect on the downfall of the Sihanouk regime, the rise of the North Vietnamese-aided Khmer Rouge, and the subsequent genocide that followed. Unlike the “Salem House” (later called “Daniel Boone”) Special Forces-led raids against North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia, the B-52 strikes had some effect—the sanctuaries were moved farther west where the Vietnamese came into greater and greater contact with Cambodians who had hitherto escaped direct effects of the conflict as well as the outliers of Cambodian officialdom.
Wars on the Asian landmass. Witness Russia’s vastness—a direct result of the tendency for Asian conflicts to spill over frontiers. Her efforts to stabilize the periphery throughout the 17th and 18th centuries continually required sending forces into yet another territory, until there was no more territory left to invade. Twice in my lifetime now this phenomenon has directly affected US military ground forces in Asia, and each time enemy forces have found sanctuary over international borders. The tactical situation we face on the Afghan-Pakistani border is nothing new.
I’m not suggesting a humanitarian crisis on the scale of Cambodia’s as a result of a US invasion of Waziristan, though I believe one on the scale of what we have seen in our occupation of Iraq is certainly likely. Evidently, Tough talk on Pakistan from Obama (August 2007) has passed the Palin test, and that’s enough said on the merits of an air campaign or even a short term invasion.
A brief look at history perhaps points to another strategy. Guerrilla (call them terrorist if you want) movements in both Greece and Malaya were successfully overcome as the guerrillas were physically isolated then essentially disarmed and crushed. I see a possible opportunity to explore here to do the same with the radical elements in the FATA. Presently we have fairly good relations with Pakistan on which to build, and there are three institutions in Pakistan to pay special attention to: the office of the president, the Pakistani parliament and its army.
In this spirit, unilateral strikes by the US into Waziristan should cease immediately, and this perception:
“One of the greatest weaknesses in the current bilateral partnership is that most Pakistanis view the United States as a fickle ally, likely to drag Pakistan into its post-9/11 war on terror and then to walk away as soon as Washington’s own interests are served.”
—Policy Options Paper—Pakistan [Council on Foreign Relations, Daniel Markey, December 2007]
must be conclusively disproved through a long term commitment to remaining constructively engaged with Pakistan. Instead of insisting the Pakistani army move into the FATA, we might be better off helping them to interdict arms shipments.
Reducing the influence of the ISI in Pakistani policy circles should be our measure of success. Pakistan stands at a fork in the road, and the US should make it clear that should they choose the road which leads to greater development and participation in the international system, would not walk that road alone.
The task before us in Pakistan is a long one, and I see that as a blessing. The American domestic political pressure to bring OBL to justice and crush Al Qaeda through unilateral attacks on Pakistani territory should be called exactly what it is: both irresponsible and potentially disasterous. All four presidential and vice presidential candidates should express policies that respect Pakistan’s territory as well as strengthening our long term relationship with the three entities I mentioned above.
Al Qaeda should whither on the vine, like so many of its predecessors, through the state isolation of the tribes of Waziristan.
UPDATE: It seems I’m not the only one to make the connection of Pakistan to Cambodia. On 1 October 2008, Maleeha Lodhi and Anatol Lieven write (much better than I do here) in the International Herald Tribune Heeding the lessons of another war.