Daniel Ellsberg, the famous journalist who released the Pentagon Papers, described Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald’s latest book Crossing Zero: The Afpak War At The Turning Point of American Empire as “a ferocious, iron-clad argument about the institutional failure of American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
“No border,” write Gould and Fitzgerald, “has been more contentious than the one today separating Pakistan from Afghanistan, known as the Durand line but referred to by the military and intelligence community as Zero line.”
As the authors point out, by “crossing Zero” the Obama administration’s AfPak strategy has accelerated the CIA’s illegal secret war in Pakistan which has had the antipodal effect of fanning violent Islamic extremism while violating America’s values and principles.
Using the dismantling of Al Qaeda as a pretense, the U.S. approach has been nothing more than an extension of British policy employed during the 19th century’s Great Game in Central Asia, driven by private enterprise and the West’s “Christian zeal” to “carry the light” to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan – bearing resemblance to the British East India Company’s exploitation of the region which began in the 1600s.
This work is unique in the way it portrays how the legacy of colonialism continues to haunt the present, including British regulations imposed on Pashtuns and other indigenous people in the border regions. The authors explain:
“The British then re-enacted a set of legal rules known as the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). The FCR were imported and adapted from the Irish Penal codes, a series of English laws and rules introduced into Ireland beginning in 1366 (Statutes of Kilkenny), for the purposes of keeping the Anglo-Norman population from intermarrying with the native Irish. After centuries of legal evolution, the FCR had transformed from a severe code developed by a Protestant Christian Empire to subjugate the Catholic Irish into a set of harsh rules selectively applied to Muslim Pashtuns and Baluchs.”
Gould and Fitzgerald assert that after the 1947 partition of India and the creation of Pakistan these regulations were applied on an even broader scale, quoting Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid:
“Even after 1996, FATA [Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas] remained a backwater, as under the FCR, Pakistani political parties were banned from operating in the area, thereby giving the mullahs and religious parties a monopoly of influence under the guise of religion. Development, literacy and health facilities in FATA therefore remained at a minimum.”
The book highlights critical inflection points throughout Afghan history that have led to the current turmoil, chief among them being the forced partition of Afghanistan in 1893 when the British drew the Durand line as part of their “divide-and-rule” stratagem – a demarcation that split the Pashtun tribes.
The Durand line deprived Afghanistan of real estate east of the Hindu Kush and of the most strategic mountain passes west of it. It disallowed the return of Peshawar, a city long identified with Afghanistan, and cut access routes to the Arabian sea, leaving the country landlocked and dependent.
In 1947 Pakistan was created by Britain to maintain a strategic military zone for use during the Cold War. Pakistan inherited Britain’s “threefold frontier” of separation from Russia’s South Asia khanates, applying it to their present-day “strategic depth” doctrine to prevent any Indian presence in Afghanistan, which the authors contend is a “a continuation under different conditions of the British policy of treating Afghanistan as part of the security buffer zone of South Asia.”
Pakistan was always paranoid of Pashtun nationalism and worked to undermine an independent Pashtunistan movement. According to Selig Harrison, after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistan’s Punjabi-dominated military theocracy pitted Punjabis and their Arab allies against Baluchis, Sindhis and Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand line, in a cruel historical irony. For centuries they had resisted the incursions of the Moghuls into their territories, but now find themselves ruled by Punjabis who invoke the grandeur of the Moghuls to justify their power.
Crossing Zero thoroughly documents how the best-laid plans of Western powers have led to three decades of incessant war and the annihilation of Afghanistan’s secular tribal structure, transforming it into one of the most violent and poverty-stricken places on earth. According to Gould and Fitzgerald:
“After nearly thirty years of war, Afghanistan had been reduced to a Stone Age subsistence, its already impoverished population traumatized, displaced and occupied by an army of savage religious extremists exported by Pakistan, calling themselves the Taliban – ‘seekers of the light’.”
The authors condemn Washington’s “special relationship” with Pakistan, which obscured a pre-existing ethnic and political time bomb created by the Durand line. Since the dawn of the Cold War the U.S. has continually chosen to partner with Pakistan as a strategic bulwark at Afghanistan’s expense, reminiscent of Britain’s “Forward Policy” to destabilize Afghanistan and put pressure on the Russian empire’s southern flank.
The book is a clear indictment of America’s misguided funding and training of the mujahideen – Islamic extremists dubbed “freedom fighters” by President Reagan – via Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) during the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s– a strategy that directly led to the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Gould and Fitzgerald smash conventional wisdom throughout the book, including uncovering the reality that the U.S. and C.I.A. tricked the Soviets into invading Afghanistan, as President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put it: “We now have the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam War ”, as the U.S. went from Nixonian détente to Carterian confrontation.
During the post-Soviet era the CIA tragically continued to support Islamist efforts to establish a caliphate in Kabul, despite the fact a 1987 poll of Afghan refugees concluded that 71.6 percent were in favor of King Zahir Shah being reinstalled as leader of postwar Afghanistan, longing for the 40 years of peace they had experienced during his reign which ended abruptly in 1973.
The book elucidates how U.S. officials during the Clinton administration implicitly approved Pakistan’s plan to create the Taliban during the 1990s, calculating that the Taliban could bring stability to civil war-plagued Afghanistan so Western oil companies could lay down a pipeline through the region.
Post-9/11, the region spiraled into chaos as the U.S. redirected resources to Iraq as opposed to stabilizing Afghanistan and funded violent Afghan warlords to “keep the peace”. Most damaging was the installation of Hamid Karzai as president in 2002 by Bush neoconservatives against the will of the Afghan people who again wanted Zahir Shah as head of state. The Karzai regime was corrupt, dysfunctional, and over-centralized – the type of government that ran counter to thousands of years of Afghan tradition.
The U.S. did everything in its power to, as former Special Assistant to Ronald Reagan Congressman Dana Rohrbacher said, “snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory because the Taliban were beaten at that point.” The U.S. then invented a cult of “mafia networks”, transferring vast sums of wealth through a handful of favored front companies – including some entangled with Karzai relatives – that went directly to Afghan gangsters, warlords and even the Taliban.
Crossing Zero’s primary critique is focused on the policies of President Obama, who had run for office on a platform of staying out of “dumb wars”. Yet, this president not only escalated the Afghanistan war but condoned the privatized secret extrajudicial executions of terrorist suspects by Predator drone – a program that dwarfed the size of the one started under Bush.
Click here for part 2 of “Crossing Zero: Obama’s AfPak War and imperial overreach”