Is Pakistan Giving Up?
On Monday, the Pakistani government did what was unthinkable just a year ago. It agreed with Taliban forces in the Swat Valley to establish strict Islamic law there in return for peace. Over the past few years, the Taliban has been making large inroads in the Swat Valley. Formerly known as the “Switzerland of Pakistan”, Swat is a beautiful natural setting lush with vegetation, snowy mountaintops and a traditionally western-looking population. Swat is only 100 miles from Islamabad, the capital. To see this shocking shift is an indication of just how much power radical extremists are holding in Pakistan.
But the shock runs deeper. Many western and Pakistani policy makers are asking: how did it get to be this way so quick? Conventional wisdom would look back to the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan that aimed to crush Taliban rule in Kabul by setting up President Hamid Karzai and his NATO-supported government. The conflict in Afghanistan sent hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing out of the country, many of whom settled in the border region of Pakistan in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and other places in Pakistan proper such as Quetta. In addition, the US-led war in Afghanistan resulted in an influx of jihadist fighters from places such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. The result was a series of relatively safe havens for Islamist insurgents just inside Pakistan along the Afghan border. NATO had no legal method to fight these insurgents as they were in Pakistani territory. And Pakistan, wary of fomenting revolts or increasing instability in the government, could only use its military force with a certain degree of trepidation and discretion.
Pentagon and NATO leaders naturally chide Pakistan for not doing more to combat the insurgency growing within its own borders. In the recently published book The Inheritance, New York Times writer David Sanger has accused former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf of, among other bad deeds, “double dealing” with NATO and the Taliban, accepting money to fight the insurgency while seeking out partnerships with insurgents in order to achieve strategic goals. Musharraf denied these allegations over the weekend.
Whether charges against Musharraf are true or not, it is clear that Pakistan was not ready to fight the insurgency in its own borders. The November Mumbai terror attacks, which are widely believed to have originated in Pakistan, are just one example. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari gave an interview over the weekend with CBS that would make anyone cringe. When asked how it was that the Taliban had secured control over the Swat Valley, he responded:
“It’s been happening over time and it’s happened out of denial. Everyone was in denial that they’re weak and they won’t be able to take over, they won’t be able to give us a challenge. Our forces weren’t increased and therefore we have weaknesses, and they are taking advantage of that weakness.” See the full story here.
Denial? It seems that this same denial is what has led to the Taliban takeover of the Khyber Pass. The Khyber Pass has been NATO’s main supply route into Afghanistan for the past 7 years. With this route under serious threat from the Taliban, NATO has had to look elsewhere, agreeing to Russian support and even seeking out Iranian help.
But is it all Pakistan’s fault? Are the policies and inactions of Musharraf and Zardari or Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to blame for the increased influence of the Taliban in the Swat Valley and other areas of Pakistan? There is one facet of the conflict that Pakistan cannot take responsibility for: the controversial US-led cross-border raids performed by American drones flying from Afghanistan into Pakistani border regions. The Pentagon has argued that these raids are essential for preventing insurgents from rallying their forces to reenter Afghanistan and heighten the simmering conflict there. By targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, insurgents’ plans are destroyed and their effectiveness is diminished.
However, the Pentagon probably didn’t seriously consider one particular side effect of cross-border raids. The danger caused by cross-border raids in the FATA and NWFP is that it leads the Taliban to secure other safe havens in Pakistan. A prime example is the heavily populated southern city of Quetta. While drone attacks might prove effective and avoid a large amount of international criticism in sparse mountainous zones, they would be interpreted quite differently and have a disastrous result in an urban setting. The New York Times suggests that Taliban use of Quetta as a hub is increasing, a clear case of the group adapting to evolving military confrontation. The Swat Valley, sitting so close to the capital, is the other obvious example.
Clearly, a new tactic needs to be taken if Pakistan is going to win in the “fight for survival” against the Taliban to which President Zardari has referred. Prime Minister Gilani argues that forging an accord with the Taliban establishing peace and strict Islamic law in the Swat Valley is part of a new approach of “dialogue, development and deterrence”. The ceasefire pact has the potential to give the Taliban a great deal more influence, which could lead to its spread Pakistan. Alternatively, it could cause a split in the movement, between those who have brokered peace with the government and come into the fold, and those who remain as guerilla insurgents using terror as a weapon.
Either way, Pakistan and the US will have to agree on the best method for fighting the insurgency. US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke made some progress last week, pressuring Islamabad to admit that the Mumbai attackers planned some of their operation on Pakistani soil. He still has a long way to go. And, even if he does achieve a consensus with Prime Minister Gilani and President Zardari, the issue of cross-border raids remains. Since President Obama took power, the military has performed 4 raids in the FATA and NWFP, killing many alleged insurgents. Obama has maintained that the US “will not allow” al-Qaeda and other militant groups to use Pakistani territory for a launching ground into Afghanistan. The coming months will be telling, to discover what the Taliban in Pakistan does with its newfound legitimacy, and to see how the anticipated surge in Afghanistan plays out.
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