PESHAWAR, Pakistan — My annual visits to Peshawar, the city of my birth, have always been exciting. To see family and friends and revisit the haunts of my childhood and youth are always reassuring and refreshing. And to be able to squeeze in time for some teaching at the university just tops it off.
Peshawar has changed in many ways because of the war in Afghanistan 30 miles to the west across the Khyber Pass.
The city has changed, as any city would that is so close to war and mayhem, but not in any discernible or visible ways.
The bazaars are chock-full of all kinds of traffic: cars, rickshaws, motor scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians. Behind this chaotic normalcy are the tensions and anxiety that come to the surface even during casual conversation, with people here.
When you ask two Pakistanis about a certain issue, you get three conflicting opinions. But on some subjects there is total unanimity of opinion. The people do not like the war in Afghanistan and believe America is destroying their country by waging a futile and unwinnable war there.
There is not much love lost between the ultraorthodox militants and middle-of-the-road majority, but on the question of attacks by American drones on Pakistani territory they have similar views.
They complain about the enormous civilian toll these attacks extract. There were 124 attacks by pilotless American plans controlled by the CIA in 2010 on Pakistani soil. Of the 1,200 people killed, there were 481 suspected militants, and of those only 20 were considered high-value targets.
In December 2009, the New York Times wrote poignantly about those drone attacks. “For the first time in history,” the Times wrote, “a civilian intelligence agency is using robots to carry out a military mission, selecting people for killing in a country where the United States is not officially at war.”
Each drone attack with collateral civilian casualties pushes another wave of angry young men into the embrace of terrorists. Such events have a way of entering the collective consciousness of people.
The citizens of Peshawar still recall with horror the atrocities committed by Avitabile, an Italian mercenary who ruled Peshawar as the governor of the Sikh kingdom 150 years ago.
And the patriotic poetry of 17th century Pashtun warrior-poet Khushal Khan Khattak still resonates with people, just as it did when he was fighting Emperor Aurangzeb of India 350 years ago.
America has a dilemma in Afghanistan in that there is really no face-saving formula for an exit. The Taliban are gaining more territory, and they more or less control the countryside.
The strategy of clearing a Taliban stronghold and then installing a friendly local government has not worked. You just cannot keep retaking the same hill at an enormous cost and then lose it again.
The Afghan people are also torn apart. They are caught between the United States and NATO forces and the Taliban. Although the majority of Afghans would like a change in their country and they may not like the Taliban, they are unable to stand against the religious fanatics. They get it from both sides and in the past year 10,000 Afghans civilians lost their lives.
The policymakers in Washington as well as the people close to the conflict here realize that the war cannot be won militarily.
The Taliban have so far refused to enter into a negotiated settlement. So why waste blood and treasure for a futile and at best transitory short-term gain? There is really no good answer.
Under the current circumstances, the United States should leave Afghanistan and let different factions in the country sort out the mess the United States will be leaving behind.
The Taliban may be good fighters, but they are ignorant of statecraft. In the event they regain power in Afghanistan, they will have very few supporters in the world except for Pakistan and perhaps a few Arab countries. Sooner or later they will fail.
Pakistan may not necessarily suffer the consequences of a change in Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban may clamor to gain power, but if they succeed they will be no better suited to govern than their Afghan counterparts.
In Pakistan, though, a strong military and a powerful bureaucracy will be a better hedge against the mullahs.
The Pakistani military will not be any more subservient to the men in turbans than it has been to other civilian rulers.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org