Monday, April 20, 2009

Crush the Taliban?

Apologies for the long delay between posts.  For the past week I was roaming around southern Punjab reporting on a story for Maclean's (more on that in an upcoming post).  While I was sweating it out in the south - quite literally - a facebook friend asked me a question that I think deserves some serious attention.  It's something I've been asked often, on radio interviews, by my editor at Maclean's: why can't the Pakistani army just take out the Taliban?  It's a difficult question to answer but I'll give it a try.

The Pakistani military has proven it is capable of defeating Taliban militants.  The Bajaur operations are one example; success in Mohmand is another.  But why then the concessions in Swat?  Why turn it over to militants with barely a fight.  One military commander based in Swat 
told me it was because that region is too heavily populated to engage in the kind of heavy operations that won Bajaur (if you can call it a win; more accurately, it was a strategic victory with the Taliban retreating into the mountains to regroup).  Collateral damage is a concern for Pakistan.  Bajaur has been devastated.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees have flooded into camps on the outskirts of Peshawar.  And for every man, woman and child killed because of Pakistan's military actions, potentially dozens more join the militant ranks.

That's the humanitarian side.  There is, however, another, less noble reason for Pakistan's restraint.  In military terms, the Taliban still represent an asset for the Pakistani military.  I discuss this in some detail in a Maclean's story: since the fall of the Mullah Omar Taliban regime in 2002, Pakistan's military, particularly the ISI, have been desperately looking for a new partner in Afghanistan to counter Indian influence.  After the Taliban fell, the opposition Northern Alliance, heavily backed by India as well as the U.S., took control of the Afghan government (these are primarily Persian-speaking warlords who were losing the civil war against the Taliban before the U.S. intervened; Karzai, a Pashtun, was a token figurehead who has proven that he is unable to reconcile Afghanistan's warring ethnic groups).  After losing their trump card, the ISI has been scrambling to find a malleable Taliban faction that can represent Pakistan's interests in the new Afghanistan.  That objective has become increasingly important since the Obama administration recalibrated its foreign policy, placing Afghanistan at the top of its agenda.  Obama has said he is willing to find a negotiated solution to Afghanistan.  He is willing to speak to "moderate Taliban" (whomever they may be).  In Swat, Sufi Muhammad represents a possible candidate (Obama has indicated that he will take a wait and see approach to Swat, and if successful, to perhaps repeat it in Afghanistan).  The message the ISI is getting is that the Taliban will likely play a role in a future Afghan government, similar to the re-emergence of the Baath Party in Iraq, albeit under a different name - the Sunni Awakening.  By giving ground in Swat, the ISI is freeing up the fighters there to take the fight over to Afghanistan where they will, by the prevailing logic, gain some influence so if and when the Taliban enter Afghan politics, Pakistan will have its interests represented.  A similar strategy was in play in Waziristan where the Pakistani military left militant factions led by Nazir and Bahadur alone in return for their guarantees not to take their jihad to Pakistan, focusing instead on Nato and American troops across the border in Afghanistan.  that deal appears to have fallen apart after both commanders recently struck a deal with Baitullah Mehsud, the South Waziristan militant commander of the Pakistani Taliban.

Confused yet?  Well, it gets even more complicated.  From the government perspective, instability in Pakistan is a potential financial windfall.  Pakistani politicians, particularly President Zardari, have repeatedly demanded financial compensation for Pakistan's participation in the war against the Taliban.  Billions of dollars are being pumped into the country and no one really knows where that money is going.  Pakistan's military is being modernized at U.S. expense.  It's a cushy little scenario for greedy, corrupt politicians and war-obsessed military leaders alike (especially considering Pakistan's enduring paranoia over the Indian threat).  If Pakistan looks to be winning the war against militancy, they lose that financial and military support.  

All very complicated and all extremely risky.  This is the dark, decrepit world of competing national interests.  

Photo Credits: (from top) Adnan R. Khan - A Pakistani military checkpost in the Swat Valley; Adnan R. Khan - Villagers in Bajaur pay their respects at a mass grave site where victims of a U.S. drone attack were buried.


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