The situation in Pakistan

Philadelphia InquirerMay 4, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan is not going to fall to the Taliban tomorrow. But, after several days in this country, I can envision a scenario in which militant Islamists keep expanding their sway over rural areas and destabilize cities.

So far, Pakistan’s political and military leaders have failed to develop a coherent strategy to prevent this. Nor have they rallied the public to confront the threat.

The absence of political leadership or a clear security strategy leaves a huge vacuum into which the militants are rushing. Unless civilian and military leaders get their acts together, it’s possible to imagine the Taliban gaining control of a nuclear-armed state.

The militants’ strategy is to nibble away at the edges, first taking control of border areas, then expanding further into the Punjabi heartland while planting cells in the cities.

Many Pakistanis believe the Taliban are America’s problem exported from Afghanistan, not their own. The media are full of anti-American conspiracy theories. Example: Ansar Abbasi, a senior journalist at The News, told me why he believes the Taliban are gaining: “There is an international conspiracy led by Washington to destabilize and de-nuclearize Pakistan.”

For a brief moment last month, however, it looked as if the country had been jolted into facing reality. A “peace deal” with militants in the lush valley of Swat collapsed as the jihadis refused to lay down arms and advanced to within 60 miles of the capital.

Suddenly, politicians who had been extolling the deal began talking about threats to the rule of law. The normally taciturn army chief, Ashfaq Kayani, told the media that his troops would defeat militancy in the country. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s sharp statements about the threat also galvanized Pakistan’s leaders.

“Are we going to do something about it? Yes,” Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi told me in an interview recently. “We are going to take action in our own interest.”

“Something shifted in the whole of public opinion,” said Ahmed Rashid, one of the country’s top experts on the Taliban.

This was the moment for Pakistani leaders from all parties to lay out a clear strategy for curbing the militants. Didn’t happen.

Neither the president nor the prime minister addressed the nation with a cogent message. The military was sent to clear out Taliban from areas around Swat before politicians had put forward clear goals or plans to protect civilians.

“There should be a strategy to manage the fallout of the military operation, and we don’t see one,” said Ahsan Iqbal, a close political associate of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. (Sharif, who has been sympathetic to Islamists in the past, finally spoke out against the militants in an interview with foreign media, but he hasn’t been as clear with his own public.)

As Pakistanis fretted over the violence, President Asif Ali Zardari flew off for 10 days of private visits to Dubai and London and a trip to Libya, before arriving in Washington to talk with President Obama about fighting terrorism. Not much of a sense of urgency there.

So Pakistanis are left uncertain about what the government is really up to. In Peshawar, I met lawyers from Swat fleeing for their lives from militants who call secular law “un-Islamic.” I met journalists who have received death threats. Everyone asked the same question: If the army really wants to curb the militants, why hasn’t it killed or captured any top Taliban leaders?

I spoke with Swatis who wanted to resist, but felt they had no support from the government or army. “There is no guidance for the people at all,” one educated exile from Swat complained.

No federal government minister has gone to the troubled areas to stand with embattled residents. Local officials are in hiding. “Right now, the entire political leadership is bunkered down,” said Masood Khattak, a former senior intelligence official. “So how can the people believe they will be supported? The absence of governance everywhere makes way for the Taliban.”

Indeed, government behavior is contradictory. The militant cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz was released from prison two weeks ago; during Friday prayers at the notorious Red Mosque, he announced he would tour the country calling for Taliban-style Islamic law. Meantime, unregulated, radical religious schools produce Taliban recruits in the cities.

Unless political leaders make clear their plan to end the Taliban threat, the public can’t rally behind them. Nor can the military win a counterinsurgency without public backing. Suspicious of the army and politicians, hapless civilians will call for peace at any price. That is how the Taliban took over in Afghanistan.

Without strong government leadership, the Taliban can withdraw and then advance again, until it dominates roads, threatens ports and dams, and, possibly, penetrates the army. If Obama conveys anything to Zardari during their summit this week, it should be that the time for hesitation is past.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at

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