Borderland Pakistan untameable

America has seen enough John Ford movies to get the point. Britain, too, had its fill of John Wayne. So why are we all so infernally slow to realise that borderland Pakistan is the old west reincarnated — except that we’re not talking Apaches or Sioux now, just Bugti, Swati, Jadoon and Tareen in the realms of the Pashtuns and Baluchis? Such parallels bound out only a few kilometres from Peshawar. If this were Nevada, you’d find casinos down some desert road, run as a matter of restitution by the tribes.

That big, lushly watered house on the hill would be where the chief lives, counting his cash. And here the feeling is just the same: no slots or blackjack, maybe, but gun supermarkets, smugglers’ paradises, walled mansions and the rest — ritually patrolled by the tribes’ own internal police. Ten metres off the Khyber Pass, Pakistan’s national forces’ law and order give up the ghost. Their writ doesn’t run.

Yet still, Washington doesn’t see the similarities. It wanted elections, even after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, but now it can’t abide the result. Yousuf Raza Gilani’s fragile PPP-led government seems more feeble than president Musharraf at bringing the tribes to heel. Even more cross-border flits for the Taliban; even less hope of catching Bin Laden.

A bomb in Kabul kills 58, and renegade extremists in Pakistan army intelligence must be “weeded out”.

This country has just got to do what it’s told — otherwise (shades of Barack

Obama) the White House will send its cavalry in.

After you, General Custer... And nobody sees the challenge whole.

That shanty city along the main route out of Peshawar is Afghanistan by another name: more than a million who fled the Russians and haven’t gone home.

In Baluchistan far to the south, the tribes have been fighting each other for centuries — and, much more recently, the troops Musharraf sent in to try to bring some semblance of order (they want independence, not devolution). The North-West Frontier Province has a population the size of Iraq, and the religious far right in control. It’s a dusty, rugged, rock-strewn terrain, perfect for using the Stingers you bought on your last trip to the supermarket.

Telling Gilani, far away in Islamabad, to order his army to crack down on this chaos is empty foolishness. The army — mostly born and nurtured in Punjab — has scant stomach for rumbling civil war. It has lost too many of its own on these killing slopes already.

Meanwhile, slipping and slithering back and forth, the enemies we call the Taliban — or Al Qaeda, in our more facile moments — are part of the landscape, simply unstoppable except by the kind of massive, sustained surge nobody has the will or resources to mount.

Pakistan as a whole voted against extremism a few months ago: but Pakistan is not a whole. Indeed, in many places, Pakistan hardly exists. Gilani — widely advised — has tried to take off the pressure, to reassure the Baluchis and Pashtuns, to bring gifts and pipes of peace. That’s not good enough for the long knives from DC, perhaps.

They want crackdowns and action: they’ve got a war against terrorism to win. But we know, only too well, from too many seats in the stalls, who truly wins in the end. And it’s not the

ignorant, impatient outsiders raining death on a people their “civilisation”, in its careless way, cannot comprehend. — The Guardian