We Have All Been Here Before

The windows overlooking the airfield were smoked and double glazed. On the runway aircraft landed and took off without making a sound. This is how they tried to win, Jerry thought: from inside sound-proof rooms, through smoked glass, using machines at arm’s length. This is how they lost.

—John Le Carre, The Honourable Schoolboy

The government of Pakistan has refused the US military permission to expand its drone show into Baluchistan province. It is believed that this is where the Afghan Taliban leadership—including the fabled Mullah Omar—today gathers, in and around the densely populated city of Quetta.

Though the drone blunderbuss is now extinguishing the lives of 98 innocents for every 2 jihadis killed, US knuckleheads apparently thought it a good idea to start sending the things over an area occupied by nearly a million civilians.

Pakistan said forget it. It has instead offered to permit an increased CIA presence in the region, with US Clouseaus yoked to teams of agents from the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service. That should work out well, since it is the ISI that protects and promotes the Taliban; the ISI has a history of bamboozling the CIA into lending its agents and equipment to operations that facilitate the ISI’s own, very selfish ends. “They are so innocent,” a Pakistani official has said fondly of US spooks.

Meanwhile, out in the badlands of North Waziristan, a semi-autonomous “tribal region” where the US is tacitly permitted by the Pakistani government to fly drones, those Al Qaeda homeboys known as the Haqqani are getting out of the way of the aircraft by elbowing into the neighboring high-mountain region of Kurram.

Flying drones over Kurram is apparently not an option. “It would mean big trouble between the two countries,” says Pakistani journalist/analyst Imtiaz Gul. “It would amount to a lot of friction.”

The Haqqani are bad dudes: they brought suicide bombings to Afghanistan, nearly succeeded in assassinating Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2008, and last May took on the heavily fortified Bagram airfield near Kabul. And like the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani are friends and fellows of the ISI, which has allowed the Haqqani to use North Waziristan, and “regards the Haqqani group as a valuable hedge against Indian influence in a post-U.S. Afghanistan” (see: India again).

The Pakistani military has long promised to move into North Waziristan to sweep out such riffraff, and has even pocketed a $2 billion bribe from the US to do so. But, like General Tommy Franks in Operation Iraqi Fiefdom, it has insisted on the right to “close with and engage the enemy at a time and place of our choosing.”

“I think they’ll start the operation,” opines tribal-region analyst Khadim Hussain, “once every single fighter has moved out of North Waziristan and into Kurram.”

During the course of losing the war in Vietnam, the US several times decided that it was losing because of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This trail was actually a complex series of trails, paths, and watercourses—some of them hundreds of years old—by which the North Vietnamese moved men and materiel through Laos and Cambodia and into the Vietnam of the south.

The Yanks believed that even if they sealed off access routes from the north to the south through the DMZ and by sea—which they never did, but no matter—the Godless Commies would not be stopped unless US forces could also bung up the trail. So this they rhythmically tried to do, over a period of more than 15 years.

They ceaselessly papered the trial with psy-ops leaflets, promising Certain Death to anyone who stepped onto it. They dumped from the air innumerable acoustic and seismic sensors, designed to allow them to hear and feel every step along the trail. They seeded the clouds over southeastern Laos, hoping to thereby create a permanent season of monsoons. They rained onto the trail a product concocted by the boys at Dow Chemical—the same young lovelies who contributed napalm to the war—designed to “make mud, not war”: a sort of super-soap that, combined with rainwater, was supposed to wash the trail entirely away. They bombed the bejesus out of Laos and Cambodia, and ran American troops into the latter. They shoved the South Vietnamese Army over both borders, so those sullen conscripts could get their clocks cleaned in those countries, as well as their own.

None of it worked. In fact, the trail kept improving. By the early 1970s it had evolved into an intricate maze of 18-foot wide dirt roads, some paved with gravel, as well as the occasional foot or bicycle path. Along the merry winding 10,000-mile way were numerous supply bunkers, storage areas, barracks, hospitals—even a petroleum pipeline. By 1973, trucks could drive the entire length of the trail on a two-lane highway paved with crushed limestone and gravel, never emerging from the cover of the triple-canopied jungle or thick rainforest except to ford streams, or cross them over bridges built underwater.

What the war on the trail mostly did was radicalize the peoples of Laos and Cambodia, insuring that these countries would “go Commie,” too.

This same bloody farce is today eternally recurring in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So as not to violate the “neutrality” and “sovereignty” of Laos (as well as US law), American ground troops were not permitted in that country; when Richard Nixon decided to invade Cambodia with such troops, he had to invent a new word—”incursion”—to justify it. So the war effort was an air effort, combined with shadowy spooks loping over the landscape to organize native paramilitary outfits: for a fair approximation of how that worked out, see Apocalypse Now. Or the US warred by “here, you go do it”—pushing the South Vietnamese, or the Laotians, or the Cambodians, into using their own troops.

Today, 25 years later, the same sort of touchy sovereignty (and US law) questions require that in Pakistan too the US be constrained to fruitlessly warring by air, with an occasional assist from the spy corps. Here also the US asks, this time of Pakistan, “here, you go do it”—regularly trying to persuade, bribe, or cajole the Pakistani military into going out to kill people that it Doesn’t Like because of what those people do in Afghanistan.

That Afghani fighters would regularly retreat to, and even base themselves in, Pakistan, that should hardly be a novel notion to American policymakers. That is because it was Wild Bill Casey’s CIA, under the Reagan administration, that first came up with the notion: encouraging jihadis to fight the Godless Russians in Afghanistan, and Pakistan to arm, feed, house, and protect them. The same game is playing through again, 20 years later; only difference is, today it’s the Godless Americans who must be driven out of Afghanistan.

The drone war occurring in Pakistan is serving the same radicalizing function as did the war on the Ho Chi Minh Trail: it is turning the Pakistani people against the United States, and will ultimately crumble their own government. The US and Pakistan are attempting the same sort of shadow dance as occurred in Laos and Cambodia. History shows such a dance to be dangerous, unsustainable, counterproductive. Jihadis in Pakistan will keep moving to keep away from the drones; if need be, they will keep moving until they enter the capital. And then, just as the US made of Vietnam one, two, many Vietnams, so too will the US have made of Afghanistan one two, many Afghanistans.

“When they want to come, they will come,” he said, smiling at her in the mirror. “In the bad weather. While the Americans are adding another five metres of concrete to the Embassy roof, and the soldiers are crouching in capes under their trees, and the journalists are drinking whisky, and the generals are at the opium houses, the Khmer Rouge will come out of the jungle and cut our throats.”

—John Le Carre, The Honourable Schoolboy


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When I Worked

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