Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
In the eight years since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, political pundits have used, and largely overused, all the available historical references. We have had the comparisons to the British 19th century failures there, to the Great Game, and to the Soviet Union’s disastrous experience in the 1980s. More recently, it has been labelled ”Obama’s Vietnam”.
The latest leitmotif is the domino theory - the view that Vietnam had to be saved from communism or other Asian countries would go the same way. In the case of Afghanistan, the argument is that if it falls to the Taliban, then Pakistan too might become vulnerable – an infinitely more dangerous proposition given that it is a country of some 170 million people with nuclear bombs.
Britain’s Paddy Ashdown alluded to this idea in an op-ed in the Independent titled “What we must do to win this war in Afghanistan”. “I start from the proposition that the war in Afghanistan is one we have to fight and must win. The cost of failure there is just too great. It includes the certain fall of Pakistan and the possible emergence of the world’s first jihadist government with a nuclear weapon …” he writes.
In an article in the American Interest, analyst Stephen Biddle spells this out further by arguing that the main reason for the United States to fight in Afghanistan is to prevent it from destabilising Pakistan.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the possibility in April of Islamist militants taking over Pakistan and its nuclear weapons, her words were dismissed as alarmist – and perhaps deliberately so as a way of putting pressure on Islamabad to act.
The problem with Pakistan is that it is almost impossible to come up with a view that is not either alarmist or complacent. It is such a complex country that nobody can agree a frame of reference for assessing the risk. It is the base for a bewildering array of militants including Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda and anti-India groups, yet also has a powerful and professional army which would be expected to defend to the last its Punjab heartland and nuclear weapons against a jihadi takeover. Its potent mix of poverty and Islamist sympathies among a significant section of the population make it ripe for revolution, yet it also has a strong and secular-minded civil society which was willing to go out into the streets earlier this year to demand an independent judiciary.
Michael Cohen and Parag Khanna have become the latest to argue, in an article in Foreign Policy, that the real focus of President Barack Obama’s battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda should be Pakistan rather than Afghanistan.
“Preventing a return of al Qaeda to Afghanistan is important, but a long, state-building mission in one of the world’s most underdeveloped countries is the costliest and least effective way to accomplish that goal,” they write.
If you were to apply the advice of 19th century Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz that one of the objectives of war is to destroy the effective strength of the enemy, it is still not clear how that aim is to be achieved when it comes to fighting the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Predictably, the Taliban has melted away in the face of offensives in both countries, retaining its capacity to live to fight another day and to open new fronts in other areas.
A new poll shows public opinion in Pakistan has turned sharply against the Taliban and other Islamist militants, even though they still do not trust the United States and President Barack Obama. Reporting on the poll, our Asia specialist in Washington, Paul Eckert, said the WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, conducted in May as Pakistan's army fought the Taliban in the Swat Valley, found that 81 percent saw the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda as a critical threat to the country, a jump from 34 percent in a similar poll in late 2007. Read Eckert's report here. (Photo: Pakistani Taliban in Swat, 2 Nov 2007/Sherin Zada Kanju)
The poll shows a wide divergence between Pakistani public opinion and the views of the Taliban on the implementation of sharia, a religious issue sometimes cited to help explain earlier tolerance of the militants. Some 80 percent of the respondents said sharia permits education for girls, one of the first services the Taliban close down when they gain control of an area. And 75 percent said sharia allows women to work, which the Taliban do not.
The suicide bomb attack on the Pakistan Army in Pakistani Kashmir on Friday was not only unprecedented; it also raised questions about the state of militancy in Pakistan.
At its simplest level, the first suicide bombing in Pakistan’s side of Kashmir was seen as a reaction by the Pakistani Taliban to Pakistan’s military campaign against them in South Waziristan. “The militants are hurting and they are reacting. And this is a reaction to the successful operations we’ve had in Waziristan and we’ve had in the Malakand division,” Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told Reuters.
One theory about how to deal with militant Islamism calls for promoting Sufism, the mystical school of Islam known for its tolerance, as a potent antidote to more radical readings of the faith. Promoted for several years now by U.S.-based think tanks such as Rand and the Heritage Institute, a Sufi-based approach arguably enjoys an advantage over other more politically or economically based strategies because it offers a faith-based answer that comes from within Islam itself. After trying so many other options for dealing with the Taliban militants now openly challenging it, the Pakistani government now seems ready to try this theory out. Just at the time when it's suffered a stinging set-back in practice... (Photo: Pakistani Sufi musicians in Karachi, 7 May 2007/Zahid Hussein)
Earlier this month, on June 7 to be exact, Islamabad announced the creation of a Sufi Advisory Council (SAC) to try to enlist spirituality against suicide bombers. In theory at least, this approach could have wide support. Exact numbers are unclear, but Pakistan is almost completely Muslim, about three-quarters of its Muslims are Sunnis and maybe two-thirds of them are Barelvis. This South Asian school of Islam, heavily influenced by traditional Sufi mysticism, is notable for its colourful shrines to saints whose very existence is anathema to more orthodox forms of Islam. Among those are the minority of Pakistani Sunnis, the Deobandis, who are followers of a stricter revivalist movement founded in 19th-century India whose militant branch led to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Many Deobandis think Pakistan's Shi'ite minority is not truly Muslim.
President Barack Obama chose his words carefully when asked in an interview with Dawn earlier this week why the United States has been silent on Kashmir in recent months:
“I don’t think that we’ve been silent on the fact that India is a great friend of the United States and Pakistan is a great friend of the United States, and it always grieves us to see friends fighting. And we can’t dictate to Pakistan or India how they should resolve their differences, but we know that both countries would prosper if those differences are resolved,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
Some people in India are calling upon the new coalition government to make a series of bold moves towards Pakistan that will compel the neighbour to put its money where the mouth is.
If Pakistan keeps saying that it cannot fully and single-mindedly go after militants on its northwest frontier and indeed increasingly within the heartland because of the threat it faces from India, then New Delhi must call its bluff, argued authors Nitin Pai and Sushant K. Singh in a recent piece for India’s Mint newspaper.
The Pakistan Army is engaged in what appears to be a very nasty little war in the Swat valley against heavily armed Taliban militants. With journalists having left Swat, there have been no independent reports of what is going on there, though the scale of the operation can be partly measured by the huge numbers of refugees – nearly 1.7 million – who fled to escape the military offensive.
Dawn newspaper carried an interview with a wounded soldier saying the Taliban had buried mines and planted IEDs every 50 metres. ‘They positioned snipers in holes made out of the walls of houses. They used civilians as human shields. They used to attack from houses and roofs,” it quoted him as saying. ‘They are well equipped, they have mortars. They have rockets, sniper rifles and every type of sophisticated weapons.”