As an oddly smiling President Zardari of Pakistan stood behind a visibly concerned President Obama in the White House yesterday, one had to wonder what Mr. Zardari was smiling about. Seven thousand miles away, in the country over which he presides, the economy has tanked, the province of Baluchistan is in the grips of a secessionist movement, Karachi is embroiled in ethnic violence between Pashtuns and Urdu speakers, and that's not even the most pressing problem this nation of 170 million people is facing. As I write this, tens of thousands of refugees were pouring out of the Swat valley in anticipation of a major military offensive by the Pakistani Army against the Taliban.
For weeks, headlines around the world have raised alarm about the proximity of the Taliban to the capital Islamabad, and analysts have puzzled over the curious detachment with which the civilian government and the Pakistani Army seemed to be observing the situation deteriorate. Now that the Pakistani army is finally engaging the Taliban, there is one question on everyone's mind: Is Pakistan serious about this fight this time, or will it cut a deal with the militants, as it has done in the past with disastrous consequences?
The answer to this question depends on the outcome of a larger battle for Pakistan's soul which is raging across Pakistan's cities, homes, television channels, newspapers and in heated conversations in people's living rooms. The fight for the hearts and minds of the ordinary Pakistani is the most important fight going on in Pakistan, as its outcome will determine whether the cancer of Talibanization can be localised and ultimately rooted out, or whether it will continue to metastasize and further destabilize a country which is already reeling from economic, political, and leadership woes. As in most battles there are two adversaries - in this case two competing views of Pakistan, and the nature of the challenge facing it.
The conservative view held by many Islamist parties, populist politicians, retired army brass and hyper-nationalistic television anchors is that the Taliban are a reflection of the people's desire for an Islamic system of governance, with quick justice, order and compliance with God's will as the hallmarks of public life. Proponents of this view maintain that the excesses of the Taliban are greatly exaggerated, and that the real threat to Pakistan is from the US, which has destabilized the whole region with its Afghan war and its drone attacks on Pakistan. According to this view, the real aim of the US is to undermine Pakistan's sovereignty and deprive it of its cherished nuclear weapons. To date, the conservatives have been more vocal, and gained more traction with the Pakistani public - drowning out the concerns about the Taliban by pointing fingers at George Bush, the US and India.
On the other side are people derided as "Liberals" and "Western apologists" by the conservatives. These liberals, many of them western educated, secular and belonging to the professional urban classes, have been reminding whoever will listen that while Pakistan is a Muslim majority country, it was created as a constitutional republic with the ideals of an independent judiciary, a parliamentary system of government, and representative democracy. Liberals argue that letting parts of the country become theocratic enclaves run by armed gangs of religious extremists undermines the ideals on which Pakistan was built, threatens its territorial integrity and is a recipe for disaster. Liberals insist that the Taliban, and their policy of "Islamicization at gun point" is the real threat to Pakistan, not India or the United States.
Which narrative ultimately prevails is crucial to Pakistan's future because it determines whether the people of Pakistan see the fight against the Taliban and extremism as their own fight, or whether they will continue to see it as a US manufactured Global War on Terror into which Pakistan has been sucked. If Pakistanis see the fight in Swat as their own, then there will be public support for a continuing military offensive, there will be more latitude given to the bumbling civilian government of Asif Zardari, and there may even be some tolerance for the drone attacks which normally cause deep resentment among Pakistanis. But if the dominant narrative in Pakistan continues to be that Pakistanis are victims of global conspiracies, that the Taliban threat is exaggerated, and that Pakistan should have no part in fighting "America's war", then the military will most likely be forced to sign a truce with the Taleban, the civilian government will probably collapse under the weight of its unpopularity, and Talibanization will continue unchecked, one district at a time.
The lack of singular narrative and of national unity in the face of the Taliban threat is the reason that the army has been reluctant to engage in battle. That is also why the civilian government vacillates between threatening the Taliban one moment and begging them for a truce the next. More than economic aid, more than drone attacks, the fate of Pakistan will be determined by whether the people of Pakistan will come to believe the conservative view or the liberal view as the legitimate approach to understanding the challenges they face. The good news is that in the one month that the Taliban ruled Swat under the peace deal, they committed so many atrocities and imposed such a grotesque version of Islam that many Pakistanis were repulsed. The bad news is that an equal number of Pakistanis are disappointed and disgusted with their corrupt and incompetent elected leaders, who aren't much of an alternative.