One of the strangest notions in the modern world is that of borders. Centuries ago, they didn’t exist, and the truth is that they have always been artificial, inexact, changeable, and conducive to conflict.
Just this past Friday, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, ostensibly our most dedicated ally in the war on terror, announced that any American incursion into Pakistan at its border with Afghanistan would be viewed as an invasion. What’s all this about?
Trouble revolves around borders these days. Iraq was an artifice created by the British after World War I, carved out of the defeated Ottoman lands without regard to tribal, ethnic or religious loyalties. There are Kurds in northern Iraq, but they are also in eastern Turkey and western Syria and Iran, among other places. The Turks have been battling a Kurdish insurgent movement for some time, and a few weeks ago with American assistance, Turkey struck at Kurdish separatist strongholds in Iraq.
Now, Iraq is nominally a sovereign nation that should be highly motivated to defend its homeland against foreign assault, but it doesn’t have the capability, and the U.S. is on the other side of this conflict anyway. And despite some predictable squawking from Baghdad, the U.S. will assist such incursions again. It would appear that the security of the borders of Iraq is far less important than the danger of the regional war that would result from a concerted effort by the Kurds to create their own state.
Throughout history, countries came and went. At various times, much of Poland, for example, has been part of Sweden, part of Russia, or part of Germany, and some of it was even ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Large chunks of the western world were once pieces of the Holy Roman Empire or Austria-Hungary. Algeria used to be a department of France and for about 400 years, the Arabs ruled much of what is now Spain.
Pakistan: Ally or enemy in the war on terror?
When Musharraf made his announcement about borders on Friday, he was setting himself up for conflict. Remember that the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan is a rugged area that harbors numerous al-Qaida cells and training sites and the people who support them. In addition, intelligence information indicates quite strongly that Osama bin Laden has been in the region ever since we routed the Taliban and al-Qaida from Afghanistan. For years, so far without success, the U.S. has been asking, cajoling, and encouraging Musharraf to send the Pakistani army into the area in sufficient force to kill or capture the terrorists.
But the Pakistani army is predominantly Punjabi, the Hindu Kush is populated mostly by Pushtun tribespeople, and Islamabad has little interest in rooting around alien territory, even inside its own borders. These are the same Pushtun who live in Afghanistan. How did it happen that the border was drawn so that these people now live in two markedly different countries?
In 1898, the British Foreign Office arbitrarily drew the present border between Afghanistan and Pakistan as a means of dividing the troublesome and independent-minded Pushtun. It didn’t work then, and today the border is no more of a barrier than it was a hundred years ago: terrorists and insurgents move freely between the two countries.
So, for the U.S. to go after the enemy inside Pakistan, it must cross the border.
And cross the border we do, Musharraf’s complaints notwithstanding. If we’re smart, we’ll continue to go after terrorists inside Pakistan, no matter what Musharraf says. After all, much of his bravado is for domestic consumption in the wake of both Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and the approaching election. His audience is neither the U.S. nor even the international community. It’s the Pakistani electorate.
So, despite the fact that Musharraf, our friend, may be fighting for his political life and our own safety, we will continue to whack the bad guys inside Pakistan whenever we find them.
Pragmatism almost always trumps self-determination.
Jack Jacobs is a military analyst and a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.