Pakistan’s borderline problem

It’s not just Bin Laden’s deputy turning up on channel as-Sahab last week promising to pulverise the United Kingdom’s honours committee for knighting Salman Rushdie, nor the self-same Ayman al-Zawahiri vowing revenge over the Red Mosque a couple of days later. It isn’t even Osama himself and Monday’s 40-minute video featuring another of his panegyrics to happiness and martyrdom — with a ripe supporting cast of al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan.

No, the essential question remains dismally unchanging. Where is Osama? And the ritual CIA answer (‘Somewhere on the Pakistan-Afghan border”) sounds more dismal than ever. The might of the West, and much of Islam, has been pursuing Osama bin Laden for more than a decade — and with cash-rich intensity since 9/11. Catching him might be only a symbolic victory, as al-Qaeda morphs leaders and legends on a regular basis. But some symbols do matter. This one would show an intelligence effort making strides. It would at least soften the United States’s most recent bleak official assessment, of an al-Qaeda back to pre-2001 levels of potency. Yet observe why it doesn’t happen.

The problem of the terrain and tribalism, of a dissonant, dislocated medieval society armed with hi-tech weaponry, is also the problem of Pakistan. And the reason, now, that Nato generals and Washington planners grow visibly alarmed is also Pakistan.

Take any relevant war. If your enemy can flit back and forth across a porous border, eventual failure comes guaranteed. It was how the West humiliated the Red Army years ago. The Russians couldn’t find Bin Laden then; his erstwhile bankrollers can’t find him now.

It’s easy to blame Pervez Musharraf at this point, of course. He’s not merely the political boss of Pakistan but the chief of its army too — and that army is the force that gives a potentially inchoate nation its semblance of coherence. But everywhere Musharraf turns today he finds the rope of power running short. He’s brave. People keep trying to kill him. He can, in extremis, be tough when Red Mosques of defiance had to be stormed. Yet the alliances that have kept Pakistan’s permutating military ‘strongmen” afloat inevitably involve playing cynical games. If my enemy is an elected prime minister named Bhutto, then the enemies of my enemy — conservative mullahs, rightwing religious parties — are my friends.

Reverse that last equation, though. If my enemies are rightwing religious extremists then Benazir Bhutto, the elected PM I banished abroad, is my friend, who must be welcomed home to give me the parliamentary majority that will re-elect me president for another beleagured term.

But the true difficulty is that, in one lethal sense, the return of Benazir doesn’t matter anyway. Benazir in power enjoyed no real authority over the badlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan where al-Qaeda makes its videos and issues its orders. And, restored to power, she would be just as impotent. Even the ‘border” is a bit of delusion. The rocks and the mountains, the deserts and the scrub know no frontier. Nor do the tribesmen who traditionally live their lives on both sides of a non-existent line. It is possible that an Islamabad coalition of last resort — Bhutto, Musharraf — might buy Pakistan more time and stop it toppling over into anarchy. But it is not possible that this will tackle, let alone solve, the border dilemma. —

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