Obama's bulldozer risks turning the Taliban into Pakistan's Khmer Rouge

Last month Richard Holbrooke, the US state department's special representative, met students from Pakistan's north-west tribal ­areas. They were ­enraged by drone attacks, which – ­according to David Kilcullen, counterinsurgency adviser to General Petraeus – have eliminated only about 14 terrorist leaders while killing 700 civilians. One young man told Holbrooke that he knew someone killed in a Predator drone strike. "You killed 10 members of his family," he said. ­Another claimed that the strikes had unleashed a fresh wave of refugees. "Are many of them Taliban?" Holbrooke asked. "We are all Taliban," he replied.

Describing this scene in Time, Joe Klein said he was shocked by the declaration, though he recognised it as one "of solidarity, not affiliation". He was also bewildered by the "mixed loyalties and deep resentments [that] make Pakistan so difficult to handle". One wishes Klein had paused to wonder if people anywhere else would wholeheartedly support a foreign power that "collaterally" murders 50 relatives and friends from the air for every militant killed.

Much has been made of Pakistan's "denial" about the threat posed by the Taliban rather than India; correspondingly, western politicians and commentators have applauded the Pakistani military operation in Swat valley that has exposed 3 million people to what Human Rights Watch calls a humanitarian catastrophe. Relatively little attention has been given to America's more damaging evasion of the fact that most people in Pakistan, a "frontline" country in the war on terror, are unsympathetic, if not actively hostile, to it.

Political bitterness rather than racial or religious supremacism fuels this variant of anti-Americanism. Twice in three decades the US has enlisted military dictators in Pakistan to fight its battles – most damagingly in the cold war when, as Barack Obama conceded recently in Cairo, the US heedlessly deployed Muslims as proxies against Soviet communism. Many Pakistanis remember how the blowback from the CIA's anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan (millions of Afghan refugees, a rampant Kalashnikov "culture", and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism) ravaged their country, years before it crashed into the US itself on 11 September 2001. Pakistanis now accuse the US, again not unreasonably, for pursuing its failed war on terror in Afghanistan into Pakistan, reinvigorating the extremists it had helped to spawn.

Though beholden to American aid, Pakistan's civilian-military elite has been naturally reluctant to fight too hard to redeem the blunders of an overweening and unreliable ally; covertly supporting extremist groups, elements in the army and intelligence have tried to maintain their room for manoeuvre in both Afghanistan and Kashmir. Occasionally, as in Swat and now again in Waziristan, intense American pressure yields a military assault. It can even attract a degree of public support, as most Pakistanis are appalled by the brutality of Talibanised Pashtuns.

But this does not amount to popular endorsement of drone attacks. Last month Fareed Zakaria informed Jon Stewart on the Daily Show that Pakistan is emerging from its state of denial since his Pakistani friends, who previously opposed the drone attacks, now tell him: "You know what? If that's the only thing that will work, kill those guys." Some members of Pakistan's tiny elite, where Zakaria's native informants come from, may long to exterminate the brutes: they fear, often correctly, Islamic extremists as embodying the rage and frustration of the country's underprivileged majority. But as the suffering of civilians in Swat becomes known, the highly qualified public support for military action will wane quickly.

Certainly, claims of success in Swat are premature. The Taliban may ­vanish in order to regroup as they did after their apparently decisive defeat in Afghanistan in 2001. Furthermore, the refugee crisis can only strengthen the Taliban. Their pied pipers of jihad, nursed on hatred in refugee camps, will easily recruit suicide-bombers among the freshly uprooted millions. Pakistan will suffer many more attacks of the kind we have seen in recent days.

But all is not lost. The idea that Pakistan, with its ethnically and politically diverse population of Punjabis, Sindhis, and Balochs, is ready to surrender to fanatics led by Pashtuns is a paranoid fantasy – easily dispelled by the briefest scrutiny of structures of religious and political power, and indeed recent election results, in any region of Pakistan.

As Mohsin Hamid recently pointed out, Pakistan's apparently failed state is more than capable of dealing with violent extremists if it can sort out its mixed loyalties. Institutionally distrustful of the US, which recently turned India into its main Asian ally with an extravagant nuclear deal, Pakistan has continued to incite extremists against the America-backed, pro-India regime in Kabul and Indian interests in Kashmir. However, much of the strength of the duplicitous intelligence agency, the ISI, derives from its claim to protect what even moderate Pakistanis regard as their country's legitimate interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir – national interests that, as Obama partly admitted in Cairo, America's overriding geopolitical priorities have often rendered illicit, driving them underground.

The US has the opportunity to shrink the ISI's malign role and redeem its standing among Pakistanis by urging India and Pakistan to a comprehensive political solution in Kashmir and by explicitly acknowledging that Pakistan, which shares a long border and a large Pashtun population with Afghanistan, will never tolerate a hostile ruler in Kabul, especially if backed by India.

Abandoned by their American allies after the anti-Soviet jihad, some of Pakistan's megalomaniac generals sought "strategic depth" in Afghanistan against India; even their sober successors are unlikely to affect indifference to their volatile neighbor. Having grudgingly admitted Iran's influence in Iraq, tThe US will eventually have to trust Pakistan to control its proxies in Afghanistan – a crucial component of any ­"regional" solution. The US can reasonably expect responsible behaviour from Islamabad only if – as with Iran – it treats Pakistan as a power with inalienable interests, rather than as a nuclear-armed "rogue" state. Obama could then expedite the inevitable task of drawing up a timetable for the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan.

Deprived of their main antagonists, the Taliban are unlikely to collectively embrace Sufism. But ending the occupation of Afghanistan would dry up their main source of legitimacy and support, and undermine their loose alliance with al-Qaida. It is no accident that Afghan Pashtuns have not been implicated in any international terrorist conspiracies even as many of them fight Nato troops in Afghanistan. The Obama administration should consider the possibility that, as Graham Fuller, the CIA's forer station chief in Kabul puts it, few Pashtuns "will long maintain a radical and international jihadi perspective once the incitement of the US presence is gone."

Obama came to power, however, promising to exert brawn in Afghanistan rather than Iraq. Even his harshest Republican critics, including Dick Cheney, have applauded his recent military "surge". Admiral Mike Mullen, the US joint chief of staff , admitted that intensified action in Afghanistan could push the Taliban deeper into Pakistan, further destabilising the country. Whether Obama, who is probably aware of the dangers of turning the Taliban into Pakistan's Khmer Rouge, can break out of his hardline posture remains to be seen. But it is clear that, regardless of what Obama does with healthcare and financial reform, the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan will define his presidency just as Vietnam tainted Lyndon Johnson's achievement with civil rights.

Pankaj Mishra