Views from the front
District 8 Congressman Jim Marshall (D-Macon) recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan where he was imbedded with a U.S. Army Special Forces A team on the border of Pakistan. The following is the third in a three-part series detailing his experiences and observations from the trip.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007: We’re on a Pakistan International Airlines flight from Islamabad, Pakistan, to London, the third of four legs returning from Firebase Chamkani to Washington. This plane is much bigger than the PIA liner from Bejing to Lahore, evidence that Pakistan is more oriented toward the West. We need to keep it that way. As the saying goes — keep your allies close, your enemies closer and your potential enemies closest.
I usually get about six hours of sleep a day but only three or so on trips like these. I hate to waste time sleeping, let alone sleeping in country. This flight to London is my chance to catch up on sleep. But I still don’t feel like it. I keep thinking about the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, about their beauty and their danger.
National borders and identities mean little to the tribes of these mountains. That’s hard for me to comprehend. Individual allegiance is to tribe, not country. Tribe is the social safety net, the extended family. All outsiders are suspect. Tribe even trumps Islam. I’ve heard more than one American pastor say you can’t bring a starving man to Christ without first giving him bread. He won’t listen. He’s focused on survival, not higher callings.
Like a feudal system, tribal leaders traditionally called the shots in these remote, mountainous tribal areas, typically in consultation with a broader group of lieges, akin to lords, courtiers and select others. They retained credibility and status by taking measures that furthered the comfort and survival of the tribe. Tribes are not for sale. But they are for rent. Bin Laden is renting. He can be outbid.
I am reminded of the true story of a wealthy New York farmer in the 1700s who asked a local lawyer to represent him in a land line dispute with his neighbor. The lawyer had already been retained by the neighbor. So the lawyer politely declined the farmer’s request but offered to introduce the farmer to another lawyer in a nearby town who, the lawyer said, would do an excellent job representing him. The lawyer then penned a note to his fellow lawyer, sealed it in an envelope, handed the envelope to the farmer and gave him directions to the other lawyer’s office. While riding to the other town, the farmer’s curiosity got the better of him. So he opened the note. It said: “Two fat geese. You pluck one. I’ll pluck the other.”
We’re the wealthy farmer. Bin Laden, the current epitome of violent anti-western jihadists, is our opponent. Gun Doctor, his Afghan Security Guards, the tribes supporting us and those supporting Bin Laden are the lawyers. Our fight is not really their fight. They are for rent. This war is business for them. They’ve found two fat geese. Tribesmen are not fanatically committed to either side. They are survivors.
The same cannot be said of the mullahs, many of whom are now committed to a radical variant of Wahhabism. Historically, mullahs in these mountains deferred to tribal leaders. We unintentionally helped change that balance with our support for Islamic jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Wresting tribal loyalty from Bin Laden is greatly complicated by the mullahs. We are now trying to undo that problem by strengthening the tribal leaders.
When asked about the strategic importance of our fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, for- mer Army Chief of Staff Pete Schoomaker often referenced Pakistan as “the key to the deal.” Its politics are volatile. It possesses nuclear weapons. It is technologically savvy. It is the home of A. Q. Kahn, the Pakistani scientist who exported nuclear technology. Kahn is now under arrest largely because of our influence upon Pakistan.
Our world is growing smaller while the technology of violence develops at warp speed. Robert Wright calls it the growing lethality of hatred. Much or most of the globe survives on less than two dollars a day. The global economy is essentially unregulated and apt to cause momentous disruptions. Many worry daily of global pandemics, climate change and other forces. We evidently have not reached Fukuyama’s The End of History. Angry young men (mostly) will continue to passionately pursue righting wrongs or advancing some zealous cause, often religious. Some portion of them will war against the developed world. It won’t take many to do tremendous damage unless the world is well organized to stop them. We aren’t now. A conventional defense approach simply won’t do.
We need indigenous security forces and tribes throughout the world as force multipliers. This takes effective diplomacy, partnering and building partner capacity. Special Forces-type combat troops, Peace Corps with a punch, have a major role to play. They leverage our resources through collaboration with indigenous peoples. Along with other resources we can provide them, both military and humanitarian, they can keep the Gun Doctors and tribal leaders on our side.
With time and the right collaborative strategies, these mountains that challenged the armies of Alexander the Great and most recently spawned the London bombings will not pose a threat to the west, to America. But they do now. We abandon them at our risk.