06/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Pakistan: How Did We Get Here?

In recent weeks, the danger that the Taliban pose to regional and global security in Pakistan has been discussed at great length, both by intellectuals and policy makers. This greater interest has mirrored the greater threat that the Taliban have been presumed to pose as they have grown stronger and made dramatic inroads into the "settled" areas of Pakistan. To truly understand this threat, however, we have to step back and ask a few basic questions: how did we get here? How have the Taliban been so successful in their seemingly relentless push for greater control of Pakistan? And what is required for the Pakistani state to defeat them?

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

The political problem has centered 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. There are a number of reasons for that. 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 -- the military on the one hand and feudal and business-oriented politicians on the other -- 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 (or Sharia) per se. By this logic, only the methods, and not the goals, of the Taliban are inherently problematic.

Third, the Taliban are often looked upon as the "second-movers" in this war, whereby they merely responded to the aggression showed by the U.S. in Afghanistan and former President Musharraf in Waziristan who, in turn, was accused of fighting the Taliban merely for America's benefit. Notwithstanding the empirically questionable nature of each of these claims, they create the appearance of a firm foundation for the Taliban's cause.

The military problem is rooted in the fact that Pakistan's armed forces are not terribly well-equipped to fight wars, especially counter-insurgency wars against a primarily Pashtun enemy. Pakistan's military has lost every war it has launched. More to the point, the military is not trained to fight counterinsurgency wars on its own soil. It is trained to fight the Indian military across the plains of Punjab. Finally, given the Pashtuns are the second-largest contingent in terms of ethnicity in the Pakistan military -- their membership in the military easily outpaces their share of the population, primarily due to British colonialists designating them a "martial" race -- the questions of morale and willingness amongst the troops are serious ones, keeping in mind that the Taliban is primarily a Pashtun movement.

Finally, the geopolitical problem stems from Pakistan's relationship with two actors of central importance: the U.S. and India. With regard to the U.S., the Pakistani military functions on the assumption that the Americans will leave the region, will do so inevitably, and 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 to deal with the fallout of an effectively open border with Afghanistan, and legions of angry, unemployed, well-trained, and well-armed people who believed they were fighting Allah's war against godlessness. The military understands that American interests in the region are, at best, temporary.

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 the top argue against such a position. Why fight the Taliban today when they could come in handy tomorrow, once the Americans have left? This line of thinking is exacerbated by the perception of encirclement driven by India's close relationship to the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan, and the growing strategic partnership between the two.

Finally, America's actions themselves -- whether the drone attacks brought upon by the Bush-Mush partnership, and expanded considerably by the Obama-Zardari pairing, or the promise of an even greater ground force by Obama in neighboring 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 after a "peace deal" with the government -- it was little more than an abject surrender by the state -- the Taliban recently spread into Buner and threatened the neighboring district of Shangla, both important districts within one hundred miles of Islamabad, the federal capital. They have made inroads in 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 multi-ethnic city, where a substantial Pashtun population resides.

What do such developments mean for average Pakistanis and their prospects? First, they mean that local customs and leadership will be done away with -- and the phrase about leadership being done away with is to be taken literally.

Second, business and "usual" economic activity grinds to a halt; 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.

It is important to note that these are not idle threats; they are, to the contrary, based upon the facts of the Taliban's stated worldview, and their past behavior. The infamous video of a teenage girl being beaten in public by the Taliban, for a crime only a member of the Taliban could explain, circulated a lot on the internet, but that is the mere tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, such assessments are generally reached only when the Taliban actually move into one's neighborhood. 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 Taliban's growing control and influence in the country, 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 been almost exclusively focused on the Taliban's bold ventures into Pakistan's territory lately, and their challenge to the writ of the state.

Important figures, such as Fazlur Rehman (the leader of JUI-F, a religious party with a historical foothold in the areas currently being overrun by the Taliban) and Nawaz Sharif (the country's most popular politician, a center-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 the head of the military and the Prime Minister have warned that the Taliban will not be allowed to indefinitely challenge the state.

More importantly -- and this is just a hunch, which will remain unconfirmed thanks to the absence of a Pakistani Nate Silver -- the tide of public opinion may finally be turning, from equivocation to outrage. The first salvo in the public relations battle may well have been the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in early 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 the country amidst the specter of security threats. Their targeting was an affront to all Pakistanis. The infamous girl-being-flogged video followed soon after, which were in turn followed by greater Taliban incisions in Pakistani territory. And this goes with mentioning the as-yet unyielding campaign of violence against civilians and security forces. Given these events in the last eight weeks, it would not be surprising to find people more cognizant 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 the direction of security policy in the country, the message appears to have not seeped down to all involved. This must change, and the coddling of Taliban elements for geostrategic reasons must be abandoned.

India ceased to be a threat to Pakistan on May 28, 1998. Even if India is friendly with Afghanistan, and even if Pakistan's military establishment perceives encirclement, care must be taken to evaluate the real threat, or lack thereof, that India poses to Pakistan's existential security. This is not 1914, and Pakistan is not Germany. Simply put, 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.

Of course, this still ignores the very real possibility that even if Pakistan's military is willing to tackle the Taliban, it will not be able to. And this is the scariest possibility of all. Consider, for instance, this editorial from the Daily Times, a paper that, in keeping with its liberal bent, has long argued for greater action against the Taliban:

Finally, it is the army that has to step forward and face the Taliban. It has baulked so far because of adverse public opinion spurred by Pakistan's conservative media. But now that the politicians are waking up to the danger and the media is increasingly disabused, the army must end its India-driven strategy and try to save Pakistan from becoming the caliphate of Al Qaeda.

Such a position assumes that public opinion and the vacillating political leadership is holding the military back, which is true. But it elides the possibility that the military simply cannot do the job. Observers of the region will recall that from 2004 to 2006, the military under Musharraf went into Waziristan and came out with its tail between its legs. What makes us so sure that Swat, Malakand, and -- if it comes to it -- Punjab will be so different?

At the signing of the declaration of American independence, Benjamin Franklin told the attendees that "We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately." That advice, if heeded, would prove infinitely more valuable to Pakistan's cause than any number of cash notes bearing Franklin's likeness.

Pakistanis of all stripes -- from the media to the public, the political leadership to the military -- must unite in the face of this threat. It is time for action, not words. It is clear that concessions and negotiations do not work with the Taliban. They are not reliable partners, and they have made a living on reneging on every single agreement they have made with the government (whether it be Musharraf's or Zardari's).

Fortunately, they may just have overplayed their hand in recent weeks, and done the hard job of uniting Pakistanis for us. Indeed, both the government and the military have shown a greater resolve in the last two weeks than at any time in the recent past. The military, for instance, has launched an aggressive operation in Buner in response to the Taliban's advances, which has impelled the Taliban to threaten to withdraw from its so-called peace treaty with the government. The threat is laughable, because the Taliban already abused the terms of its deal when it expanded its control beyond Swat. Be that as it may, the operation in Buner is the right move. But turning back the Taliban's recent gains must only be the beginning of this new stage in this war. Pakistan's future depends on it.

Ahsan Butt is from Pakistan and is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Chicago and blogs regularly at Five Rupees.

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