The Thirty Years War

If you haven’t already read Dexter Filkins’ NYT feature on the Pakistani tribal areas (via Small Wars Journal), do so now, before the “Invade Pakistan” chorus swells. As Filkins’ reporting makes clear, there are multiple layers to the power struggle going on there, and the complexities of the competing rivalries make the debate Stateside seem simplistic at best. Within the Pakistani leadership there’s a civilian-military split, and within the military there’s an ISI/fundamentalist faction that’s not necessarily integrated into the chain of command. Within the tribal areas, there’s a Taliban-traditionalist split that includes both homegrown rivalries as well as foreign jihadists. Just about everybody’s playing a double game, making it difficult to figure out who’s shooting at whom, let alone why. The idea, then, that we’re going to solve the problems plaguing our efforts in Afghanistan by broadening the conflict to the Pakistani frontier strikes me as farfetched.

Something else that jumped out at me was this passage about a traditional tribal leader that agreed to speak with Filkins:

The labor it took to persuade Jan to speak to me is a measure of what has become of the area over which his family still officially presides. Since it was not possible for me to go to South Waziristan — “Baitullah Mehsud would cut off your head,” the Taliban leader, Namdar, told me — I had to persuade Jan to come to Peshawar. For several days, military checkpoints and roadblocks made it impossible for Jan to travel. Finally, after two weeks, Jan left his home at midnight in a taxi so no one would notice either him or his car.

Jan had reason to worry. Seven members of his family — his father, two brothers, two uncles and two cousins — have been murdered by militants who inhabit the area. Jan said he believed his father was killed by Uzbek and Tajik gunmen who fled to South Waziristan after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. His father had opposed them. Jan’s cousins, he said, were killed by men working for Baitullah Mehsud.

There’s only one reason why a Pashtun tribal leader, caught in the crossfire between the Taliban, the ISI and the American military, would agree to risk his life to speak to a NY Times reporter, and that’s because he understands perfectly well the importance of the infosphere to the outcome of the conflict raging in his native land.

That, in turn, reflects a sophistication that we tend to underestimate due to the technological backwardness of the area and the Taliban insurgency. But for many of the people engaged in it, the conflict now is the same conflict that they’ve been fighting since the Soviet invasion of 1980. After close to thirty years of continuous fighting, they understand the nature of asymmetric war, they know what they need to do to win it, and their notion of time is based on a much longer horizon than ours.

I’m pretty certain that thirty years from now, we’ll still be talking about counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. When that time comes, though, I hope we’re not talking about American forces conducting them.