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Crossing the Zero Line in Afghanistan

The region today delineated as both Afghanistan and Pakistan has known many borders over the millennia, yet none have been more artificial or 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. A funny thing happened to the United States when the Obama administration decided to cross Zero line and bring the Afghan war into Pakistan. Instead of resolution, after nearly two years into the administration’s AfPak strategy, it would seem the gap between reality and the Washington beltway has only widened.

Instead of moving into a new future that defused India and Pakistan’s nuclear rivalry and promised “a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan that serves the Afghan people,” the U.S. is falling back on its old cold war relationships that created the problem in the first place. But as the costs of maintaining an archaic cold war posture mount, the world’s economy crumbles and the contradictions tear the war’s flimsy logic to shreds, it’s clear that, the U.S. is facing a bigger enemy than it ever imagined.

Before the Obama administration even set foot in office it promised to shift its attention, time, money and energy away from Iraq towards Afghanistan. The president’s AfPak policy was intended to correct the mistakes of the past while addressing the war in a more realistic fashion that focused as much on the actions of Pakistan’s military as it did the actions of the Afghan government.

The Obama administration’s decision to actively address Pakistan’s behavior emerged only after Washington’s military/intelligence community reluctantly accepted proof that Pakistan’s ISI was aiding Taliban actors such as Malawi Jalaluddin Haqqani. It also emerged after solid evidence suggested that Pakistan itself was on the verge of caving in to their own Taliban extremists, known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP .

Despite being the single largest focus of the American military, much of what the United States does in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains a military secret. A report issued by the Center For Strategic and International Studies by Anthony H. Cordesman in September 2008, declared alarmingly. “No country or international organization provides useful unclassified overview data on the developments in the fighting [in Afghanistan] in anything like the depth that the US Department of Defense provides in its quarterly reports on the Iraq war. The [limited] reporting that is available also decouples the fighting in Afghanistan from that in Pakistan. Accordingly, public official reporting on the growing intensity of the war since 2006 ignores one of the most critical aspects of the conflict.”

Evidence of the strain facing America’s cold war-trained bureaucrats now appears regularly as the contradictions deepen. Defense Secretary Robert Gates crossed his own personal zero line in an address to the National Defense University in February when he criticized Europe’s growing anti-war sentiment as a dangerous threat to peace. The Obama administration rails at the Karzai government’s corruption but denies it the guidance and expertise necessary to make it effective at governance. The U.S. then diverts power and money to regional tribal leaders whom many fear (including U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry) will simply become a new class of warlord, once the U.S. departs.

Since January 2009, U.S. Predator Drone strikes are reported to have killed at least 529 people in the tribal areas of Pakistan of whom 20 percent may have been civilians. Considered to be a clear violation of international law by American legal scholars, the cross border strikes inflame Pakistani opinion against the U.S. Yet, the Pentagon praises their new anti-terror weapon while at the same time continuing to deny that the program even exists.

As the Obama administration struggles to reconcile Washington’s special interests with those posed by Iran, Pakistan, India, China and Russia, it should be remembered that the Soviet Union faced a similar challenge in Afghanistan. But in the end the biggest enemy the Soviets faced was not the Stinger missiles or the disunited Mujahideen Jihadis. The Soviet Union’s biggest enemy was the archaic cold war structure of the Soviet system itself, and that is a lesson that Washington refuses to accept.

The United States has fought on both the Pakistani and Afghan sides of the Durand line. In the 1980s it fought on the side of extremist-political Islam. Since September 11, 2001 it has fought against it. But the border separating the two seemingly incompatible behaviors remains largely a dark mystery. It is therefore appropriate to think of Zero line as the vanishing point for the American empire, the point beyond which its power and influence disappears; the line where 60 year’s worth of American policy in Eurasia confronts itself and ceases to exist. The Durand line separating the two countries is visible on a map. Zero line is not.

Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are authors of “Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story,” published by City Lights. They can be reached at  www.invisiblehistory.com

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Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are authors of “Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story,” published by City Lights. They can be reached at  www.invisiblehistory.com

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