Taliban at the gate

Issue 26 - May 2009

Ahsan Butt

THE INCREASING concern—internationally, regionally, and nationally—directed at Pakistan’s internal stability is well-founded. The threat from the Taliban and their various local surrogates is growing, not abating, and there seems to be little that state institutions can do about it. These concerns raise important questions. How did Pakistan get here? Why has it been unable to stem Taliban advancement in “settled” territory? And, most importantly, what is required for Pakistan to escape this existential crisis?

There have been three basic components of the growing Taliban problem: the political, the military, and the geopolitical.

The political problem has centred on a lack of willingness of Pakistan’s political elite, as well as wide swathes of the public, to clearly and unequivocally identify the Taliban as a force to be opposed. This is for a number of reasons. First, the rampant anti-Americanism that runs through the country has made it easy for the Taliban to be conceived of as the lesser of two evils—the enemy of my enemy, if you will. Second, given the failure of Pakistan’s traditional governing structures to actually deal with the problems of the average Pakistani, there has been a growing sympathy to the idea of “Islamic democracy”, whereby the state is run on religious principles, if not religious laws per se. Since everything else has failed, the logic goes, why not give this a try? By this logic, what is truly problematic for many Pakistanis are the methods, and not the overarching goals, of the Taliban. Third, the Taliban are often looked upon as the “second-movers” in this war, whereby they merely responded to the aggression showed by the United States in Afghanistan and by former President Pervez Musharraf in Waziristan. Notwithstanding the empirical questionability of each of these claims, they make for a firm foundation of countenancing the Taliban, if not outrightly supporting them.

The military problem is rooted in the fact that Pakistan’s armed forces are not terribly well-equipped to fighting wars, especially counter-insurgency wars against a primarily Pashtun enemy. Pakistan’s military has lost every war it has launched or, at the very least, it has not won any of them. More to the point, the military is not trained to fight counterinsurgency wars on its own soil. On the contrary, it is trained to fight the Indian military across the plains of Punjab. Finally, given that the Pashtuns are the second-largest contingent in terms of ethnicity in the Pakistan military—their membership in the armed forces easily outpaces their share of the total population—the questions of morale and willingness amongst the troops are serious ones, keeping in mind that the Taliban is primarily a Pashtun movement. More generally, militaries which have been excessively involved in a country’s politics are sometimes unable to perform their primary role due to their adopted power positions; the erosion of Argentina’s military in the 1970s and 1980s is a good example.

Finally, the geopolitical problem centres on two key actors: the United States and India. With respect to the U.S., the Pakistani military establishment functions on the assumption that the Americans will leave the region, that they will do so inevitably, and that they will do so soon. This assumption is born out of the partnership in the 1980s against the Soviets in Afghanistan, when at the conclusion of the conflict, the U.S. left Pakistan all alone in dealing with a porous border with Afghanistan, not to mention legions of armed and unemployed fighters who were convinced they were waging war on Allah’s behalf. American history in the region, then, guides the belief that their stay this time will be brief too.

What this expectation of an American exit does is ensure that the entire military establishment in Pakistan may not wholeheartedly be behind the conflict against all elements of the Taliban, even if orders from above argue against such thinking. Why fight them today when they could come in handy tomorrow, once the Americans have left? This strategic rationale is exacerbated by the perception of encirclement driven by India’s close relationship to the Karzai government, and the growing strategic partnership between the two in the region.

Finally, America’s actions themselves—whether they be the drone attacks brought upon by the Bush-Musharraf partnership, and expanded considerably by the Obama-Zardari pairing, or the promise of an even greater ground force by Obama in neighbouring Afghanistan — are effectively pushing the Taliban east, closer and closer to the heart of Pakistan.

These factors in conjunction have meant that the Taliban, far from being on the run, are spreading their tentacles further and further into the settled areas of Pakistan. Having moved in to Swat at the end of last year, and easily winning control of the picturesque valley, they have now spread into neighbouring districts. The Taliban now effectively administer important areas within one hundred miles of Islamabad, the federal capital. They have made inroads into Punjab, the country’s most populous and politically important province. And they are treading water in Karachi, the country’s business, commercial, and financial hub, its port city, and its most (read: only) multi-ethnic city, where a substantial Pashtun population resides, which would allow them ease in remaining undetected.
These developments should be wholly troubling for average Pakistanis. First and foremost, they mean the prospect of local customs and leadership literally being done away with. Second, business and “usual” economic activity grinds to a halt under the Taliban; the only template we have, that of Afghanistan in the 1990s, does not hold a great deal of promise on this front. Third, women can expect to be subjected to even greater violations of basic human rights than they currently are deprived of in Pakistan. Fourth, all social and cultural freedoms, such as those of speech, art, religion, will be a thing of the past. The well-circulated video of a teenage girl being flogged in public – for a crime that only a member of the Taliban would be able to explain – is a fair harbinger of what the rest of Pakistan should expect under Taliban rule. Unfortunately, such assessments are generally reached only when the Taliban actually move into one’s neighbourhood. Until the manifestation of a direct threat, it seems, Pakistanis have been largely content to look the other way.

Until now. In response to the trend of increasing Taliban influence, there are small but substantive encouraging signs that Pakistan and its public may finally be waking up to the threat. Coverage in the local media has lately been almost exclusively focused on the Taliban’s bold ventures into Pakistan’s territory, and their challenge to the writ of the state. Important figures, such as Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islami (JUI-F), a religious party with a historical foothold in the areas currently overrun by the Taliban, and Nawaz Sharif, the country’s most popular politician, a centre-right figure who has hitherto shown little inclination to speak against the Taliban, have begun to publicly speak of the dangers that Pakistan faces. Both General Kayani and the Prime Minister have warned that the Taliban will not be allowed to indefinitely challenge the state.

More importantly, the tide of public opinion may finally be turning, from equivocation to outrage. The first salvo in the public opinion wars may well have been the attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricketers in March. Cricket was and is the one thing that unites this deeply divided country, and the Sri Lankans were the only international team that braved to tour amidst the spectre of security threats. Their targeting was an affront to all Pakistanis. The infamous girl-being-flogged followed soon after, which was in turn followed by greater Taliban incisions in Pakistani territory. And one has not even mentioned the as-yet unyielding campaign of violence against Pakistani civilians and security forces. Given these events in the last eight weeks, it would not be surprising to find people more cognisant of the Taliban threat.

Despite these purported changes, however, the military—as always in Pakistan—holds the key. Even though the leadership of the military has been unequivocal about security policy in the country, the message appears to not have seeped down to all actors involved. This must change. Simply put, there can be no more coddling of Taliban elements for geostrategic reasons. India ceased to be a threat to Pakistan on May 28, 1998. Even if India is friendly with Afghanistan, and even if some members of Pakistan’s military establishment perceive encirclement, care must be taken to carefully evaluate the real threat, or lack thereof, that India poses to Pakistan’s existential security. This is not 1914, and Pakistan is not Germany. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal guarantees that India cannot overrun Pakistan, with or without an alliance with Afghanistan. The nuclear guarantee, unfortunately, does not extend to the prospect of the Taliban overrunning Pakistan. The military establishment must decide which eventuality is more likely.

Of course, this still ignores the very real possibility that even if Pakistan’s military is willing to tackle the Taliban, it is not able to. This may well be the scariest possibility of all. Those who have long warned about the dangers of the Taliban and the ostrich-like attitude of the media and the general public – such as this writer – have generally directed their ire at those elements that constrain the military by not providing political cover for the war. Such a position is correct insofar as it assumes that public opinion and the vacillating political leadership is holding the military back. But it elides the possibility that the military simply cannot do the job. Recall that from 2004 to 2006, the military under Musharraf went into Waziristan and came out with its tail between its legs, having lost more than a thousand soldiers without winning any substantial political concessions. What makes us so sure that Swat, Malakand, and – if it comes to it – Punjab will be so different?

Whether the answer to that question is as troubling as it could be is something we must discover for ourselves. Pakistanis of all stripes — from the media to the public, from the political leadership to the military — must unite in the face of this threat. It is time for action, not words. Though no options, whether they be military, diplomatic, or economic, should ever be taken off the table in a war, it is clear that concessions and negotiations do not work the Taliban. They are not reliable partners, and they have made a habit of reneging on every single agreement they have made with the government, whether it be Musharraf’s or Zardari’s. Pakistan’s security apparatus must make place for greater (and smarter) force at this juncture, and Pakistan’s government must ensure that the damage to innocents is minimized as those actions are taken – including safe passage for locals, and temporary housing and care for internally displaced persons. Such sacrifices require unity before all else, and fortunately, the Taliban may just have done the hard job for us by overplaying their hand in recent weeks. It is now up to the institutions of the state — the civilians in parliament, and the men entrusted to protect our territorial integrity — to do their job, and save Pakistanis from this madness.

At the signing of the declaration of American independence, Benjamin Franklin told the attendees present that ‘we must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” That advice would serve Pakistanis infinitely better than any amount of cash notes that bear Franklin’s likeness. This is Pakistan’s war, and it must be fought and won for and by Pakistanis. Any fudging of that fact, and any abdication of ownership of this conflict, would have consequences too dire to contemplate.

Ahsan Butt is a doctoral student at the political science department of the University of Chicago and blogs at Five Rupees (fiverupees.blogspot.com)