Pakistan’s border dilemma

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 Bin Laden for more than a decade now — and with cash-rich intensity since 9/11. Catching him, of course, might be only a symbolic victory, as Al Queda morphs leaders and legends on a regular basis. But some symbols do matter. This one, for instance, would show an intelligence effort making strides. It would at least soften the US’s most recent bleak official assessment, of an Al Qaeda back to pre-2001 levels of potency. Yet 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. If your enemy can flit back and forth across a porous border, reinforcing or withdrawing at will, failure is 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 Musharraf at this point. He’s not merely the political boss of Pakistan but the chief of its army too — and that army, lavishly financed, 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 be tough when Red Mosques of defiance had to be stormed. Yet the alliances that have kept Pakistan’s permutating military “strongmen” afloat, almost since the army machine produced Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia-ul-Haq, inevitably involve playing cynical games. If my enemy is an elected PM named Bhutto, father or daughter, then the enemies of my enemy — conservative mullahs, rightwing religious parties — are my friends.

Reverse that equation for the moment, though. If my enemies are rightwing religious extremists then Benazir Bhutto, the elected PM I traduced and 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 difficulty is that the return of Benazir doesn’t matter anyway. Of course, having the popular leader of the Pakistan Peoples’ party back in town is a good thing. Of course, having her old Muslim League rival, Narwaz Sharif, back in parliament would make politics more vibrant. Yet Benazir in power, like Sharif in power, enjoyed no real authority over the badlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan where Al Queda makes its videos and issues its orders.

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 on both sides of a non-existent line. It is possible that an Islamabad coalition of last resort — PM Bhutto, President Musharraf — might buy Pakistan more time and stop it toppling over into anarchy, a nuclear-armed, technologically advanced state of 160 million people without any means of settled governance. But it is not possible that this will tackle, let alone solve, the border dilemma. — The Guardian