When Will Pakistan’s Spring Arrive?

It’s hard to imagine a greater provocation than your bosom buddy killing 28 of your own soldiers. NATO helicopters violated the air space of Pakistan from Afghanistan on Friday and opened unprovoked fire on a check post in Mohmand, northwest Pakistan at midnight. Presumably the pilots got the wrong coordinates from MacDill Air Force Central Command in Florida or took too many army-prescribed uppers. The attack continued even after Pakistani commanders pleaded with coalition forces to stop.

As a show of anger, Pakistan ordered the CIA to vacate drone operations at Shamsi Air Base in southwestern Baluchistan and closed both the Khyber and Baluchistan supply routes into Afghanistan, cutting off 70 per cent of NATO’s supplies. It was the worst such incident since 9/11.

This is not the first time NATO helicopters attacked Pakistani soldiers or that Pakistan closed the Khyber Pass. A US airstrike in 2008 killed 11 soldiers and last year two, prompting Pakistan to shut the Khyber Pass for 10 days in protest against the almost daily, illegal and unsanctioned US air strikes that, since 2004, have killed 2,780 people, 83 per cent civilians, among them 72 soldiers.

However, this time the rhetoric is full blast. Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani announced Pakistan would boycott the crucial Bonn II conference on Afghanistan this week, fatally undermining it. Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani call the attack a “blatant and unacceptable act”, and Interior Minister Rehman Malik insisted on Sunday that the “NATO supply line had not been suspended but permanently stopped.”

That is highly unlikely, but this could be the trigger for a political earthquake against a despised national government. MP Ahmed Khan Bahadur from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial Awami National Party told CNN, “This is the time to be united as a nation and to punch NATO with a fist. NATO could never dare if we were united.” Politically ambitious media star Imran Khan, who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party, said it was time for Pakistan to pull out of the US-led “war on terror”. Hundreds of thousands have rallied in Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi to protest government corruption and the alliance with the US.

To even begin to explain the mad “logic” of US world military strategy which resulted in this “blatant and unacceptable act”, we must look at the other recent NATO undertakings in the Middle East; namely, the invasion of Libya, the approaching invasion of Syria and the ongoing attempts to subvert Iran. The US-Israeli strategy of carving up the current regimes in order to leave Israel as the undisputed regional hegemon is well known. The plan is for the latest version of the Middle East to be unapologetically sectarian, based on conservative Islam and Judaism. No room for any real democracy, which could lead to socialism, or worse, nationalism, and the inevitable jihad against Israel.

The Muslim world could easily bury the Zionist state if the spark to light it were to spontaneously appear. So, just as forest rangers light strategic fires to clear brush and prevent uncontrolled fires from erupting, the US must light fires around Israel which burn themselves out. The tribes and conservative Islamists in Libya, and the Christians, Alawis and Sunnis in Syria will soon be tearing each other up, “part of the Turkish sphere of influence, aligned with NATO and non-hostile to Israel. In other words, another Pakistan,” quips analyst Come Carpentier.

The Arab Spring is the logical conclusion of the carving up of the Middle East following WWI and II, creating regimes which from the start were subservient, or, in the case of, say, Egypt under Nasser, brought into line after a brief rebellion. As for Pakistan, from the start, it too was very much an imperial-controlled forest fire. Britain’s most pressing problem following WWII was trying to control the march to independence in India, to prevent it from aligning with the Soviet Union. Sectarian India and Pakistan were created thanks to British intrigue, and the latter has been a faithful ally of empire ever since.

The 1947 founding of this unapologetically sectarian Muslim nation (just months before the founding of the sectarian Jewish nation of Israel) set the pattern that has unfolded in the region ever since: divide and rule, igniting civil wars where necessary to prevent any of these geopolitically vital nations exiting the US orbit or from threatening Israel. That millions died in the creation of these states, and in the neocon jihad against Communism from 1979 on, is not of the least importance. After all, few casualties are white Americans, and they are useful Heroes who protected Americans from Reds and Towelheads.

Thus, the cool reaction by the US to the Pakistani fury, which just barely hides the implicit racism of imperial fiat. That Pakistan is a failed state, its elite totally dependent on US handouts, means that the occasional closing of the Khyber Pass or even the attack on the US embassy in Kabul by a certain Pakistan-based (Haqqani) resistance group can be tolerated. US officials sometimes chide their Pakistani colleagues with “playing a double game”, a warning not to push the boundaries too far, but the planners on all sides know that all the players are playing at least several roles in the geopolitical play-off now underway, the winner being the one who sees that extra move ahead and is able to plan for it.

In a sense, the game has become incredibly complex, with supposed allies of empire — from Mubarak and Gaddafi to mujahideen and, increasingly, Pakistan soldiers — moving from ally to enemy in the twinkling of an eye. The Arab Spring is even now being subtlely and not-so-subtlely manipulated from Washington, with daily briefings and financial aid to Egypt’s ruling generals (“more democracy but not if it harms Israel”), daily bombings for others (Libya, Syria, Iran, Pakistan), or a blind eye to cruel autocracies which are able to crush their opposition and continue to faithfully serve the cause (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain). This apparent complexity and chaos is not complex or chaotic at all, but the realisation of contingent strategies in pursuit of clear goals. Egyptian analyst Mohamed Heikal calls it the new “Sykes-Picot agreement”.

The goals and rules of the game are, in fact, age-old. In the first place, the US dollar and profit, followed by military might and its transformation into political soft power, used to buttress the dollar and ensure the flow of profit from the colonial (now neocolonial) periphery to the imperial centre.

So the huffing and puffing of even generals in the periphery can be tolerated, since they must inevitably bite the imperial bullet so it doesn’t explode in their faces. Similarly, the tens of thousands of deaths resulting from “collateral damage” or the inevitable uprisings against the vicious reality of neocolonialism, now dubbed the Arab Spring.

Also very simple for the sports fan to understand is how the game will end. History shows conclusively that empires inevitably fall, the victims of overreach. Just as the US lost in Vietnam, leaving it bloodied and destroyed, so it will lose in Afghanistan and will eventually leave Pakistan, both devastated, but in the long run, beholden to empire. The Vietnamese communists supposedly triumphed — a rare win against empire — but three short decades later are now allying unashamedly with the empire against holdout China. The logic in AfPak is presumably to pack up and leave AfPak a series of sectarian, feuding entities (states?), whose new elites similarly will be reaching out to the empire in the face of holdout Iran.

But these holdouts — China the heir to the communist foe of yesteryear, Iran the Muslim heir to the anti-communists of yesteryear — are now key players in the game, the only ones who play to beat the imperialists, not just to a draw or stalemate. As the prospect of losing the game in Iraq and Afghanistan looms, Iran gains greater regional importance, without having to do much except survive the intense efforts by the empire to subvert it. From a distance, China similarly must only be patient, continuing to expand its economic might. Both these countries, unlike AfPak, Libya, Iraq and Syria, are much more united around a strong sense of historic destiny and national self-awareness — in the end, impossible for the empire to successfully subvert.

America’s increasingly unwilling Pakistan ally is increasingly turning to both. In the wake of the collapse of US-Pakistani relations, Pakistan confirmed its gas pipeline project with Iran would be online by 2013, flouting US pressures to nix the deal and instead wait for the trans-Afghanistan pipe dream (excuse me, pipeline). Iran need not drop bombs or invade its neighbours (it ended any imperial pretensions in the 17th century), but like China, seduce them economically. The pipeline will also export gas to Turkey, Armenia and even Iraq. Iran has excellent relations with nearby India, Russia and, of course, China. But, of course, Pakistan’s main lifeline is still the US.

Whether the Western intervention in Libya and Syria will turn them into willing (if conservative Islamic) allies of imperialism a la Saudi Arabia, Morocco or, yes, Pakistan, is yet to be seen. But this is the game plan, and the seemingly bizarre friendly fire on its lapdog ally, as happened last week, is from Washington’s point of view merely a blip in the old-fashioned regional radar it inherited from Britain. Unless, of course, Pakistan has its 25 January moment.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-Emerging Islamic Civilization and Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.