26 April 2009

Dr Gareth Price

Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


Before he took office the US president, Barack Obama, had stressed that he would put Afghanistan at the top of his list of foreign-policy priorities. This quickly morphed into 'Af-Pak' and then into Pakistan.

The reason for this shift has been the apparent capitulation of the Pakistani government to the 'Pakistani Taliban'. This has been most notable in Swat, where the government agreed a ceasefire with the Taliban allowing the implementation of Sharia law, in return for the militants laying down their weapons.

This prompted US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to argue that deteriorating security in Pakistan 'poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world'. Her fears were underlined by the subsequent unopposed movement of Taliban militants from Swat into the neighbouring district of Buner, just 60 miles from Islamabad. The strong Pakistani reaction against Mrs Clinton's statement that Pakistan had 'abdicated' to the Taliban may have prompted her to subsequently state that the US also had to bear some responsibility for creating the conditions that had nurtured the Taliban - a virtually unprecedented statement from a US official of her rank.

Pakistani officials have been quick to argue that they are better placed to come up with a response to the Taliban threat, although their decision to quickly launch an attack on another Taliban stronghold, the Lower Dir district, also adjacent to Swat, suggests that they are not immune from US influence. A bomb, disguised as a football, left outside a girls' school in Dir killed 12 schoolchildren on Saturday.

In some respect there is less difference between the US and Pakistani positions than meets the eye. The US has stressed the need to talk to the 'moderate Taliban' in Afghanistan, something with which the Pakistan government would agree. Successive peace deals in Pakistan have failed on the grounds that these districts have then been used as safe havens for other Taliban militants (an issue that would arise in the event of meaningful talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan). Interpretations of the identity of the 'moderate' Taliban are very much in the eye of the beholder - the US would certainly disapprove of some of those with whom Pakistan regards as moderate, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Both sides also agree that development and education provide the answers to the problems, both of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the long-term this is undoubtedly true. But in the short-term it is pretty straight-forward for the Taliban to derail any such efforts. Civil society groups, and schools, are among the first to be targeted by the Taliban, quickly removing any local capacity to implement development efforts.

Where the US and Pakistan differ, however, is in their prioritisation of the threat. What Mrs Clinton describes as a mortal threat seems to be one among many challenges facing Pakistan. Its military is constructed to fight India, not to conduct counter-terrorism operations internally. And at the slightest threat from India the military is quick to halt any operations within Pakistan to reinforce its eastern border.

The civilian government also seems unable to prioritise between consolidating its own power, dealing with the Taliban and confronting Pakistan's economic crises. For now, the president, Asif Ali Zardari, seems to see his main political opponent, Nawaz Sharif, as a greater threat than the Taliban. But he is far from the first Pakistani leader to blur his own needs with those of Pakistan. While the US may consider that alternatives to Mr Zardari, may have a better sense of their priorities, history suggests that such a wager may be somewhat risky.

Pakistan's military has also emphasised the impossibility of a military solution. The more they have fought in the tribal areas, the more they alienate the local population and the greater the support for the Taliban. While this is true, it is also something of a statistical anomaly. Those individuals in the tribal areas who would support the government are those that leave, either to Pakistan's larger cities, or to the reopened refugee camps that used to house Afghans. This leaves behind those individuals most susceptible to Taliban propaganda.

But the greatest difference between the US and Pakistan is that the latter has no strategy to deal with the Taliban. While questions can be asked of the US strategy, at least it is evolving one. Maybe Pakistan's military is unable to deal with the threat. Maybe it would prefer not to, thereby discrediting the civilian leadership. Certainly, the language emanating from senior officers is dismissive of the threat. Pakistan deals with the threat from the 'rag-tag' Taliban by sending paramilitaries, while its elite troops remain focussed on a hypothetical war with India. Were Indian forces within 60 miles of Islamabad, it is safe to say that a stronger response would be expected.

Possibly by chance Pakistan has stumbled across something of a strategy to galvanise public opinion against the Taliban. Post 9/11, improving women's rights was seen as a positive outcome of the ousting of the Taliban. Latterly, this element has been sidelined by a more narrow focus on preventing the creation of safe-havens for Al Qaida.

But letting the Taliban into power in Swat has quickly reminded not just the Western media but a host of moderate opinion within Pakistan about the threat that they face. In recent years the growing influence of the Taliban in the North West Frontier Province has been excused (as video shops and barbers close and Sufi traditions are sidelined). If anything should galvanise Pakistani public opinion against the Taliban, it is seeing how this joyless bunch of thuggish bullies behave when they are in power.

For its many flaws, Pakistan is in no sense comparable to the war-ravaged anarchy that was Afghanistan in the 1990s. While the Taliban may have provided a temporary answer in that situation, when people craved law and order, public expectations in Pakistan are surely higher. Yet until the government comes up with a coherent strategy, it will fail to reap any benefits from public outrage at events in Swat.

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