Monday, May 4, 2009

How Pakistan's Relationship with the Taliban Changed

I have spent a lot of time and many words in this blog banging my head against a brick wall over why the hell the Pakistani people, their government, its military, wanted to sit idle over the Taliban. "If only they could act," I lamented, over and over. As did the Bush administration. As does the Obama administration. Pakistan's formidable army could turn the tide of NATO's war to end Taliban hegemony and secure Afghanistan, if only the will existed to bring it to bear.

But I've done a lot of reading and thinking since then. And I believe I have a compelling story that explains both the behavior of the Taliban and the responses of the Pakistani government until now.

Hardline Muslims of Pashtun descent have lived in Pakistan for a very long time. They lived in the far northwestern reaches of British India, and remained right where they were when Punjabi/Sindhi peoples of Muslim and Hindu belief cross-migrated over the line drawn between India and the new Pakistan. The Pashtuns wanted little or nothing to do with the new Pakistan, and arranged a large amount of autonomy in the Northwest Frontier Province and (especially) in the Fedrally Administered Tribal Areas. And for a long time, these Pashtuns lived a mostly isolationist existence, with very close ties to their Afghan brethren across the border (mostly not concerned with the lines that the rest of the world considered sovereign).

Enter the Soviet Union. Their invasion of Afghanistan prompted the West (the US in particular) to arm the Afghanis and train them. The CIA often chose the most fanatic and enthusiastic of Afghani warriors, ready and hellbent to kill Soviets. The mujahideen drove the Soviets out, and began to fight amongst themselves for control of Kabul. The Taliban, a Pakistan ISI-backed Pashtun Islamic group, emerged victorious. By 2001, they had mopped up most of Afghanistan. The support of this Pashtun group by the Pakistan government pleased Pashtuns in Pakistan enough that they remained quiet.

But like most militant groups supported by states, the Taliban did not listen to their ISI backers indefinitely. Their radical version of Islam called for a foreign jihad to destroy oppressors of Islam, those that stood in its path. The Taliban supported the international terrorist organization, al-Qaeda, in order to further their ideological goals.

Enter the Americans. NATO invaded Afghanistan and quickly ousted the Taliban with the Northern Alliance. Many have criticized the invasion of Iraq as hasty. But the Bush Administration prepared that for years. The invasion of Afghanistan was planned for in a few weeks. The Taliban fled, and NATO thought their back had broken. But in retrospect, failing to trap and destroy the Taliban's leadership in Tora Bora proved to be one of a number of crucial mistakes. The Taliban retreated to Pakistan, where they joined sympathetic Pakistani Taliban. They spoke the same language, they looked the same, they worshipped very similarly. They got along well. The Pakistani Taliban hoped to see their Afghani brethren return to power; they helped. And the Afghani Taliban, hardened and experienced by two decades of endless war, began to advise, teach, and then militarily lead the Pakistani Taliban.

The West put incredible pressure on Pakistan to not let the Taliban operate in the northwest with impunity. Musharraf, a tough secular realist, was willing to cooperate to some extent, but operations into the Northwest ended in disaster: civilians and Pakistani troops died in large numbers, and the public reacted with rage. Pakistanis did not want their army to be a tool of the West, especially the US. They did not want to attack their own Pakistani people to please the foreign devils they hated. Retaliatory attacks by the Taliban were seen as terrible, but the public viewed them with sympathy: they were stern messages that there had been a deal for a long time, and it had worked. Leave us alone, leave you alone. But if you break it, we will hurt you.

But the Pakistani government has also been cripplingly short on money for a very long time. And as much as it is in the interest of the West to keep Pakistan propped up, it does mean that the Pakistan government has a very weak bargaining position. International pressure would mount, particularly when convoys were destroyed, and reach a local maximum, and the Pakistani army would launch an operation to take control of some valley or pass. The Taliban would react, and the public would be enraged. Then the army would back off.

International pressure has grown in the long term, too, as the Afghan war has dragged on and Talibani offensives have led to more deaths of both NATO soldiers and Afghani civilians. The Pakistani Taliban, largely influenced by the even-more-radical Afghani Taliban, saw that the situation might not end favourably for them if they did nothing. And so they have launched offensives to drive government troops out of Pashtun areas and create a state with stronger autonomy. Recently, this desire for autonomy has taken the form of buffer zones--and thus, the Taliban move into Kheber district.

And there are some Taliban that hope to take over Pakistan completely. Victories over the past seven years have convinced many Taliban, whose power has grown, that Pakistan (whose government they consider largely puppeted by the West) should be their next target if and when they drive the West out of Afghanistan and re-establish hegemony there.

These offensives for buffer zones were a grave error by the Taliban. As much as international pressure was difficult and people did die, the Taliban did not appear a threat to the existence of Pakistan, or the lives of most Pakistani people. But the Taliban have broken the Swat Peace Deal, and it has become painfully obvious that the deal was an attempt to make strategic military gains by using sly negotiating, and create a safe haven near offensive zones. (the Taliban in the area remain armed, patrolling the streets, extracting resources from the local population, indoctrinating new recruits, and arming/organizing/planning for operations elsewhere.)

The Pakistani people have now seen how the aspirations of the Pakistani Taliban have changed. Formerly a status-quo actor (hoping to maintain Talibani hegemony in Afghanistan and independence in the Pakistani Northwest), the Pakistani Taliban have now become a powerful and threatening revisionist actor as their power has approached parity with the government. And now, a growing number of people in Pakistan are supporting that the government use its formiddable army to put down the Taliban while there is still hope of doing so.

The costs will be high. Civilians will die. Good soldiers will die. The Taliban will respond and terrorize Karachi, Islamabad, and other civilian centers to intimidate the population. But this new resolve in the Pakistani people is real, and exists for good reasons. And if it sticks, it might be the key to winning the war in Afghanistan.

So that's my story: how Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban changed.
Post a Comment
There was an error in this gadget