Waziristan? If you asked most Americans whether their safety depended on killing people in Waziristan, they might wonder what you were talking about. But not in Washington, where Waziristan, the Swat Valley, the Lower Dir district, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, also known as FATA, and the North-West Frontier Province, among other places you'd previously never heard of, are not only on the collective mind but evidently considered crucial to the well-being, and even existence, of the United States. Perhaps that's simply the new norm. After all, we now live in a thoroughly ramped-up atmosphere in which "American national security" -- defined to include just about anything unsettling that occurs anywhere on Earth -- is the eternal preoccupation of a vast national security bureaucracy whose bread and butter increasingly seems to be worst-case scenarios.
The ongoing hysteria about lightly settled, mountainous Pashtun tribal lands in Pakistan on or near the ill-defined Afghan border might seem unique to our imperial moment. So imagine my surprise when Juan Cole told me it actually has a history more than a century old. And there's nothing like a little history lesson, is there, to put the strange hysterias of our moment into perspective?
Cole has just written a whole book about America's "Islam Anxiety," Engaging the Muslim World, and his invaluable website Informed Comment is one of my first daily on-line stops -- so who better to offer a little history lesson in imperial delusions of grandeur and peril? If you feel like a more extensive lesson in what to make of the gamut of issues where the U.S. and the Muslim world meet, or rather collide, don't miss his book. It's a continual eye-opener. Tom
Armageddon at the Top of the World: Not!A Century of Frenzy over the North-West Frontier
By Juan Cole
WHAT, what, what,
What's the news from Swat?
Comes by the cable led
Through the Indian Ocean's bed,
Through the Persian Gulf, the Red
Sea and the Med-
Iterranean -- he 's dead;
The Ahkoond is dead!
-- George Thomas Lanigan
Despite being among the poorest people in the world, the inhabitants of the craggy northwest of what is now Pakistan have managed to throw a series of frights into distant Western capitals for more than a century. That's certainly one for the record books.
And it hasn't ended yet. Not by a long shot. Not with the headlines in the U.S. papers about the depredations of the Pakistani Taliban, not with the CIA's drone aircraft striking gatherings in Waziristan and elsewhere near the Afghan border. This spring, for instance, one counter-terrorism analyst stridently (and wholly implausibly) warned that "in one to six months" we could "see the collapse of the Pakistani state," at the hands of the bloodthirsty Taliban, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the situation in Pakistan a "mortal danger" to global security.
What most observers don't realize is that the doomsday rhetoric about this region at the top of the world is hardly new. It's at least 100 years old. During their campaigns in the northwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British officers, journalists and editorialists sounded much like American strategists, analysts, and pundits of the present moment. They construed the Pashtun tribesmen who inhabited Waziristan as the new Normans, a dire menace to London that threatened to overturn the British Empire.