Al Qaeda wants to set up a pre-fab Afghan War in Pakistan, and the U.S. just might go in. As the NYT reports, NATO was drawn in and returned fire this afternoon.
By "Afghan War," Al Qaeda means the Soviet/Afghan War of the 1980s.
By "pre-fab," I mean that a U.S. shoot out with the Islamist fighters in the mountains of Western Pakistan might look and feel like the Soviet standoff with the Mujahideen in the 1980s, but the comparison would be dumb.
Yes, the Afghan Mujahideen was a religious army, but at its root, the movement was a nationalist fight against an illegitimate government, not a holy war without a nationalist base. Indeed, bin Laden's "Afghan" template for defeating the U.S. in Pakistan is ill-conceived for two reasons: 1) His edited version of what went down in Afghanistan in the 1980s—where he commanded what was known at the time as "The Brigade of the Ridiculous"—is off base to begin with and 2) the current situation in Pakistan doesn't line up with the situation that actually existed in Afghanistan in the '80s either.
Bin Laden made the same mistake about Afghanistan after 9/11 when he predicted—conjuring up images of the Soviet defeat— that a U.S. invasion there would destroy the U.S. rather than doing what it actually did: topple the Taliban and send Al Qaeda into retreat in Pakistan. Obviously, the U.S. has botched things since, but that has more to do with subsequent policy by the Bush Administration—shifting the fight to Iraq (?), effectively baling on Karzai— than with any equation on the ground that naturally favored Al Qaeda.
Unlike the Afghan Mujahideen of the 1980s (who defined the nationalist uprising), the radical Islamists in the Western region of Pakistan are far removed from the political action currently redefining Pakistan. The movement, which seems poised to oust the Musharaff government today, stars mainstream political parties, all with bases of popular support—the conservative PML-N, the liberal PPP, and the lawyers movement.
For example, Aitzaz Ashan, the leader of the lawyers movement —which sent hundreds of thousands to the streets in peaceful protests earlier this month— is, in fact, a member of the left-leaning PPP.
Translating the current situation into a fight against an American (or NATO) invasion of Western Pakistan seems several steps removed from the action. (Although, there is some wiggle room for smoke and mirrors by the Islamists because the blockheaded U.S. still supports Musharaff.)
If the U.S. wasn't in Iraq, I would support calling Al Qaeda on its bluff and pulling off another "Afghanistan." And by "Afghanistan," I mean the U.S. victory there in 2002 (not the Soviet fiasco in the '80s)—because that's the template that actually fits the facts on the ground.
Indeed, another thing Bin Laden's "Afghanistan" fantasy leaves out: Lots of U.S. money and missiles helped drive the Soviets out in the 1980s.