By Ameer Bhutto
In recent weeks and months, the Taliban advances in the North West Frontier province of Pakistan have come to pose a far more direct threat to the Pakistani state than ever before. Not only have they occupied Swat district in the North West Frontier Province under a peace deal with the Government of Pakistan and instituted their own administrative set up as well as an independent judicial system of qazi courts, but they have stepped up their activities in the neighboring Dir and Buner districts, effectively extending their authority to the entire Malakand Division. Their condemnation of the democratic and legal systems of Pakistan as â€˜un-Islamicâ€™ stands as a challenge to the legitimacy of the Pakistani state since the free practice of Islam was the cornerstone of the struggle for an independent Pakistan. Taking into consideration perceived American security concerns and the lethargic response of the Pakistani authorities thus far to the bolder and more confrontationalist maneuvers of the militants, it is not difficult to imagine how the events might unfold along the Pakistanâ€“Afghan border.
Apart from the high profile incidents like the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the alleged link with the Mumbai terrorist attack, in recent days Pakistan has had to endure terrorism on its soil in the form of the attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team and the Police Training Academy in Lahore. In addition to this are the plethora of bomb blasts and suicide attacks that have resulted in a large number of casualties and destruction and have paralyzed life in major urban centers. Such incidents include the bombing of mosques, imambargahs, shrines of saints, attacks on military and police installations and convoys and even the abduction of military and other security personel, not to mention foreign nationals, and their subsequent cold blooded executions in some instances. The most recent such incidents were the 4th April attacks on Frontier Constabulary check posts in Islamabad and Miranshah that killed eight and seventeen soldiers respectively, the 5th April attack on an imambargah in Chakwal which killed twenty-six people and the 17th April attack on a military convoy in Hangu that killed twenty-seven people. This incessant blood bath has identified Pakistan world wide as the nursery of global terrorism, with threads connecting it to various terrorist plots and incidents all over the world.
The situation in the North West Frontier Province is indeed explosive. The prevailing establishment view in Pakistan is that it is one thing to overrun Swat district or even Malakand Division, but quite another to forcibly take Islamabad, Karachi or the nuclear power plant at Kahuta, since Taliban lack the requisite military hardware and trained personel to achieve this. Who could have thought just six months ago that the Taliban could establish their own state within Pakistan, with their own laws and administration? History is replete with instances of Davids overcoming Goliaths. It is not just military prowess but also public support that has made the Taliban advance possible. A few days ago most newspapers in Pakistan carried photographs of a mammoth public meeting held in Swat by the Taliban leader of the area, Sufi Mohammad. A public meeting of such massive proportions has not been seen in recent times in Pakistan and it should dispel all notions that the Taliban have no public support. It is this influence and appeal the Taliban wield over certain segments of Pakistani society that is perhaps a greater threat to the Pakistani state than their military might. Besides, is the Pakistani state now limited solely to Islamabad, Karachi and Kahuta? What about the vast rural heartland? Is it government strategy to abandon these areas to the Taliban and retreat to a few urban fortresses to save their own skins?
The passage of the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation in parliament marks the cowardly surrender of the parliament and government to Taliban demands. It is a national disgrace how, in a lame attempt to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, the supposed guardians of national sovereignty and interests are shamelessly pandering to the western powers as well as the militant extremists, both of whose interests and objectives are equally corrosive to our national sovereignty. Yet they have the temerity to boast about defending our sovereignty. What is left of our sovereignty? Having sacrificed it at the alter of expediency and lust for power, the Pakistani authorities have sowed the seeds of our ruin and obliteration. What did Pakistan receive in return for the Swat peace deal with the Taliban? The deal has failed to bring peace to the region. Just two days after the conclusion of the Swat peace deal, the militants categorically refused to disarm. Instead, they have stepped up their activities in the surrounding areas.
Since there can not conceivably be two legal and political systems operating concurrently in one state, the peace deal with the Taliban in Swat and the passage of the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation has effectively granted independence to Swat and given official recognition to the Taliban government there by virtue of the peace accord with them. How can Swat still be considered to be part of Pakistan when the Taliban government operates under its own set of laws beyond the limits of the constitution of Pakistan and is not only not answerable to the Pakistan government but considers it to be un-Islamic? This has further curbed the writ of the Pakistani government, which is now, in fact, restricted only to government palaces in Islamabad. As things stand, much of NWFP is under Taliban influence, if not control. Balochistan is ruled by tribal sardars and nationalists. Punjab is controlled by the Sharif brothers and an army spokesman expressed concern recently that extremism is rapidly growing in southern Punjab. Southern Sindh has been handed over to the MQM to do with as they deem fit. Northern Sindh is the unchallenged domain of dacoits and criminals against whom the government dare not take action. That leaves Islamabad, which has come under increasing terrorist attack in recent times, so much so that the president and prime minister donâ€™t venture forth from their government palaces even on Eid day to offer prayers at Faisal Mosque.
Since quite some time, the United States has expressed apprehensions about the international security threat posed by terrorist elements sheltering on Pakistani soil. The alarm signals going off in the United States and Europe in the face of Taliban advances in Pakistan and the policy of appeasement adopted by the Pakistani authorities, are understandable. For them it is hardly a question of Pakistani sovereignty or even survival, but rather a matter of their own security. As such, their impatience, indeed exasperation, with the slow motion of Pakistani authorities too is understandable. Rightly or wrongly, the Unites States believes that the Pakistan armed forces and intelligence agencies, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in particular, are not sincerely committed to the war on terror. The U.S. has evolved a deep distrust of them, which is why it turned down their repeated requests for intelligence gathering equipment and funds.
Western powers are deeply concerned about the Swat peace deal and its implications. On 2nd April 2009, General Patreas told Congress that the United States was preparing for decisive action in Pakistan. U.S. President Barak Obama, along with the Gâ€“20 heads of states in London, and subsequently the NATO members and commanders in Strasbourg a few days later, reiterated urgent concern over the threat posed by terrorists operating from within Pakistan. In his speech on 3rd April 2009, President Obama stated that though terrorism can not be defeated by a military operation alone, there will be a military option available. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown minced no words in telling Zardari, during his visit to Islamabad, that all strands of global terrorist activity invariably lead back to Pakistan. Most recently, on 22nd April 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton expressed astonishment at the complacency of the Pakistani authorities to the Taliban advance, who she said posed a â€˜mortal threatâ€™ to America and the world. Where is the outrage at this in Pakistani society, she asked, and lamented that the Pakistani authorities are handing Pakistan over to the Taliban without a fight. The Indian Prime Minister too chimed in, referring to Pakistan as the epicenter of world terrorism. Such strong statements from key western leaders are telltale signs of an itch that they are soon bound to scratch.
Until now the western response to the Taliban advance has been restricted to drone attacks on specific targets in Pakistan. There have been fourteen such attacks so far in 2009. But the critical question is how long can the western response be expected to be thus restrained? The obstacles in the way of full fledged direct American or NATO military engagement in Pakistan are formidable. To begin with, the financial expense would be crippling. Some estimates put the cost of the American foray into Iraq at approximately three billion dollars per day. In a time of severe recession, it would take a very brave president indeed to authorize such expensive adventurism. Also, the western public is largely opposed to military excursions along the Iraq model. When, once again, the body bags start arriving back in America and Europe, the public backlash is likely to be very harsh indeed.
Despite all this, given the Pakistani authoritiesâ€™ unwillingness and inability to contain the Taliban threat, it is clear that western powers will have to, sooner rather than later, swallow a bitter pill and directly engage the Taliban militarily in the Pakistani border regions in NWFP and Balochistan. Having already admitted knowledge of plots being hatched against them on Pakistani soil, the choice western powers face is simply this: Wait for another debacle like 9â€“11 and then go after the culprits, but also have to explain to their own people why there was no positive pre-emptive action which could have saved lives when the identity and whereabouts of the perpetrators was known, or strike pre-emptively and avoid a greater catastrophe, despite the economic and political cost, which is bound to be many fold higher otherwise. President Obama rightly identified Afghanistan as the focal point of the war on terror and his administration has shifted the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. The next step across the border into Pakistan is no quantum leap and they have been systematically laying the foundations for it since before President Obamaâ€™s historic electoral triumph. The Times reported that the ongoing military operation grudgingly launched by the Pakistani authorities against the militants in NWFP was a direct result of an American threat to intervene themselves if the Pakistani authorities remained passive. But if similar past operations are accurate barometers, then this operation too is unlikely to produce significant results. Already, the military operation in the troubled Dir district has been concluded after just three days in which seventy-five militants have reportedly been killed and the army operation has moved on to Buner district. The authorities have announced that Dir has been cleared of militant extremists. Are we to surmise that there were only seventy-five militants in Dir? According to some press reports, Taliban are still in control of a telephone exchange and a government rest house in Dir.
A Pakistan army spokesman admitted to the press on 28th April that they do not know the whereabouts of Taliban leader Sufi Mohammad and they do not know how the Taliban in Pakistan are acquiring arms supplies. This implies that the authorities have totally lost control of the Pak-Afghan border and have no clue about the traffic back and forth across it. As for Sufi Mohammad, he is running a parallel government in Swat and it is shocking that the authorities should not know the whereabouts of a high profile public figure on what they claims is still Pakistani soil. It should come as no surprise that a spokesman for U.S. Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told American television a few days ago that the Pakistani leadership lacks the competence to handle the dangers it is faced with. These dangers, in fact, pertain not just to Pakistan but the world and the United States in particular and there will come a day when the Americans will have no alternative left but to march in.
Direct U.S. military intervention in Pakistan is likely to be far bloodier than either Iraq or Afghanistan since the Pakistanâ€“Afghan border region is far more densely populated. And once American troops set foot in the border region, some of the militants may be compelled to flee to other parts of the country, particularly large urban centers like Karachi, Rawalpindi and Lahore, and the U.S. troops will have no choice but to pursue them if their objectives are to be effectively realized. Pretty soon, the scenario in Pakistan will resemble that in Iraq or Afghanistan, with American or NATO troops in full control of the country.
Economic collapse, a comprehensive disintegration of the writ and authority of government and state and the breakdown of the glue of nationhood and common identity that binds people together, have pushed Pakistan closer than ever before to being a failed state. Add to that the Taliban threat and the looming scepter of military intervention by western powers and it becomes immediately apparent that dark days lie ahead for this nation.