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The Five Bridges Of Waziristan

Most opinion makers and foreign-policy gurus agree that President-elect Barack Obama's principal foreign-policy challenge is centered on the complex sets of conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly the mountainous border region the two neighbors share.

Most of the advice directed at him advocates two primary approaches. One centers on increasing the troop numbers in Afghanistan to fill the gaps in the U.S. military strategy and aim at defeating the "enemy." And, in turn, to be able to talk to them from a position of strength.

Others advocate robust diplomacy to engage and convince all global powers, Afghanistan, and its various near and far neighbors to give up their various proxy wars and put an end to the two-century-old "Great Game."

Most observers and commentators argue that it is important to find innovative ways to accommodate the interests and aspirations of various capitals: Islamabad, New Delhi, Moscow, Tehran, and Riyadh.

Nobody, however, worries about the more than 40 million Pashtuns who consider themselves to be the rightful owners of one of the most strategically important pieces of real estate on the planet: the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But their interaction with the outside world -- the West in particular -- reminds me of the story of the five bridges in Waziristan that were never built.

During the 1980s when the Afghan mujahedin were fighting against the Soviet occupation, they were seen by many in the West as struggling for the very survival of the Western civilization against godless communism.

The bulk of the estimated $50 billion the United States and its allies gave the holy warriors was spent on weapons, training, paying fighters, and supporting some 3 million Afghan refugees who lived in refugee camps across western Pakistan. And no doubt a large chunk of the cash ended up in the pockets of corrupt officials.

There were, however, modest efforts at developing one of the most impoverished communities in the world. One such project was a USAID road that aimed to connect half a dozen villages to a market in a remote valley called Wana, the administrative headquarters of South Waziristan tribal district.

When work began on the USAID road in the mid 1980s, nobody knew if the Soviets would ever be defeated in Afghanistan. So the planning was for the long war, down to the last Pashtun.

Thus the farm-to-market road the USAID was building in Wana was something unheard of in that part of Pakistan. It was nearly 15 meters wide and tough enough to weather the summer monsoon and occasional snow in the winter.

By late 1980s the nearly 20-kilometer-long road was complete and preparations were under way to build the five bridges, which were necessary to cross the perennial stream that traversed the road in many places. The stream would turn into a torrent whenever it rained in the Wana valley or the surrounding mountains. But the bridges weren't built.

In the early 1990s, communism had been successfully defeated in neighboring Afghanistan, but it was replaced by anarchy and a fratricidal civil war. The U.S. foreign-policy establishment became less interested in a bloody civil war in a distant land. Politicians and strategists in Washington concluded that they had won "the war" -- the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Iron Curtain had come down.

And that is why the five bridges were never built. Warlords were left to fight it out to decide who was most suited to occupy Arg -- the presidential palace in Kabul. Waziristan and the rest of the tribal agencies merged into the Afghan battle space and turned into laboratories for a new kind of warfare in the 21st century.

It's a reminded that for Obama's foreign policy to succeed in this part of the world, it will have to build the bridges in Waziristan -- both literally and figuratively.

It will be hard to solve the complex Afghanistan-Pakistan conundrum without paying attention to political, social, and economic transformation in one of the world's most intricate tribal societies. It won't be an easy undertaking and will require more schools, hospitals, and bridges -- the very things extremists are blowing up almost every day.

-- Abubakar Siddique

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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