Winning: How Al Qaeda Lost Pakistan

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January 7, 2008: Al Qaeda would have its hands full if it tries to take over Pakistan. Aside from the fact that the vast majority of the population is not fundamentalist, those who are tend to the be the fiercely tribal types who don't want Arabs telling them what to do. While South Asians and Arabs have traded for thousands of years, they have never developed very warm relations. One reason the Taliban lost power so quickly in Afghanistan in 2001 was because the large al Qaeda presence there. The Arabs, who were the largest component of al Qaeda, exhibited open disdain for the Afghans (who, like most South Asians, are Indo-European).

Al Qaeda's biggest problem is that most of their support is among the Pushtun tribes, and these only comprise 15 percent of the population. They are also the poorest and least educated minority. A unique feature of Pakistan is that it's 165 million people are all minorities, although the Punjabis (44 percent of the population) are the dominant one (not just in numbers, but in education and income as well). Closely allied with the Punjabis are the Sinds (14 percent), and together these two groups pretty much run the country. What these lowland people have not been able to run are the Pushtun and Baluch tribes up in the hills. This has been a problem for thousands of years. The hill tribesmen are fearless warriors, but the lowlanders are more numerous, disciplined and, in the end, more than a match militarily for the tribes. The hill people can threaten and raid, but they can't conquer.

Since Pakistan was created in 1947, the policy towards the tribes was largely one of live-and-let-live. That has fallen apart with the growth of Islamic radicalism (seen as a cure for the corruption and poverty of the nation). This religious fervor calls for more violence throughout the country, with the goal of establishing a religious dictatorship. The Islamic radicalism never caught on, in a big way, among the Punjabis and Sinds. There are plenty of Islamic radicals in the lowlands, but they are split into many factions, and some of the factions (especially Sunni and Shia) are at war with each other. The tribal radicals can make a lot of noise, carry out terrorist attacks and threaten all those who disagree with them (including many Pushtuns and Baluchis). But they can't take over the country. It's been tried before, and this time around the lowlanders have something their ancestors didn't, aircraft and helicopters that can go after the tribesmen in the mountain redoubts. That's already happening, and more and more of the tribal leaders are figuring out the implications. If the lowlanders get really mad, especially if the Taliban and al Qaeda try to set up their own little terrorist kingdom up in the hills, there will be lots of blood.

 


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