Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Pakistan Isn’t a Sideshow…

It’s the Main Event

A Polish engineer is beheaded in Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban threaten attacks on Islamabad. In a desperate effort to turn around the struggle against Islamicist extremists, the Pakistani government considers permitting the imposition of sharia law in a key battleground.

Maybe it’s time to admit we don’t have an Afghanistan problem. We have a Pakistan problem, and Afghanistan is simply aggravating it.

Hamid Mir writes in Pakistan’s The News that the Taliban is threatening a major escalation of its violent campaign against the counterinsurgency operation that the Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps are mounting in the ethnic Pashtun North West Frontier Province and affiliated Federated and Tribal Areas at America’s behest:

ISLAMABAD: The local Taliban leadership has decided to send its fighters to Islamabad as a reaction to the operations in Darra Adamkhel and Swat Valley and in this regard chalkings on the walls of Islamabad are already appearing, forcing the Islamabad administration to whitewash these messages quickly.

Many religious scholars in Islamabad have also received messages from the Taliban that they have only two options, either to support the Taliban or leave the capital or they will be considered collaborators of the “pro-American Zardari government” which, they claim, is not different from the previous Musharraf regime.

Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, is in the sedentary and urbanized heartland of Punjab far from the Pashtun areas. The Taliban don’t attack Islamabad unless they believe they can make an immediate and effective political statement.

In this case, the statement would probably be that Pakistanis are dying and their country fragmenting for the sake of a Western agenda for Afghanistan that few inside Pakistan endorse.

There appears to be a major disconnect between U.S. and Pakistani strategies for dealing with the Taliban’s entrenched presence and its increasing reach into non-Pashtun areas.

Pending a review by the Obama administration, the U.S. considers the battles in west Pakistan an adjunct to the faltering Afghan adventure. As I argued elsewhere, this is a fatal misreading of the facts on the ground and ranks as a strategic blunder of historical portions.

It turns out the war against the Taliban is a counterinsurgency operation across the entire Pashtun ethnic area, on both sides of the Durand Line that arbitrarily splits the Pashtun homeland into Afghan and Pakistani jurisdictions, and in which the Taliban have discovered that their key bulwark against NATO and U.S. operations is, unsurprisingly, the Pakistan side.

U.S. attempts to deny the Pakistan havens to the Taliban have simply encouraged the Taliban to focus on the weakest element in the counter-insurgency equation, the Pakistan government, entrench themselves not only in the semi-autonomous FATA areas but also in key districts of the NWFP such as the Swat valley, and make it clear that the cost of any U.S. success against them and in Afghanistan will be borne by Pakistan.

In other words, Afghanistan is the sideshow and Pakistan is the main event.

In my view, the Obama foreign policy team should be burning the midnight oil trying to figure out how to support Pakistan in its long term struggle to integrate the Pashtun areas into the national system, not only militarily but politically, ideologically, and culturally, in order to neutralize the Taliban challenge inside Pakistan, while simply holding the line in Afghanistan--and not the other way around.

Indeed, as the Pakistan government points out resentfully, in 2008 Pakistan suffered a death toll of 2000 from terrorist attacks—and still is subjected to incessant U.S. bullyragging concerning its lackadaisical counterinsurgency efforts against the Taliban.

Relations between Pakistan and the Afghan government are quite frosty—Pakistan’s arch enemy, India, has been welcomed into Afghanistan, raising fears of strategic encirclement--and it’s safe to say that few people in Pakistan’s army or general population are enthusiastic about dying for the sake of Hamid Karzai’s regime. And when the Taliban reacts to U.S. (or U.S. mandated) pressure in the tribal areas by attacks in Pakistan’s heartland, the result has historically been anger directed not only the terrorists, but the U.S. effort in Afghanistan that brings so much suffering but little apparent benefits to Pakistan beyond a corrupting financial subsidy.

The central government of Pakistan, both under Musharraf and Zardari, has been loathe to employ solely military measures against the Taliban, in order to avoid radicalizing the Pashtun population and bringing a battle in the marginal mountainous border areas into Pakistan’s populous heartland.

The United States, on the other hand, has insisted that Pakistan subordinate its own fears of instability and terrorism to the needs of the Afghan campaign. With the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, the United States has adopted a strategy that appears supremely counter-productive: pressuring Pakistan to achieve a military victory in the Pashtun areas—a goal that has eluded non-Pashtuns for centuries—on a timetable designed to forestall a military collapse in Afghanistan next spring.

The disconnect was strikingly illustrated in Mir’s story:

Some diplomatic sources have revealed that initially Pakistan was ready to release some arrested Taliban fighters in exchange for the abducted Polish and Chinese engineers but the US authorities raised objections and a deal could not be finalised.

The Pakistani authorities successfully negotiated the release of a kidnapped Pakistani diplomat Tariq Azizuddin in 2008 and the release of kidnapped Army personnel in 2007 by releasing some Taliban fighters. But this time the US pressure complicated the situation.

The Polish engineer was subsequently decapitated.

The most genuinely eye-popping revelation of Mir’s article concerns the stated willingness of the NWFP governor—and President Zardari—to permit the imposition of sharia law in the embattled Swat Valley:

[A top Army official stated,] “We are no more fighting the secular insurgents, we are fighting with the Taliban and they are demanding the enforcement of the Islamic law in Swat and all the local secular political leaders are supporting this demand under public pressure.”

Chief Minister of NWFP Ameer Haider Hoti, Governor Awais Ghani and the Army high command have strongly recommended to enforce the long pending Sharia regulations, which will be called the “Nifaz-e-Adal regulation”.

District Police Officer of Swat Dilawar Khan Bangash said the Taliban will have no justification to fight against the state after the enforcement of the Islamic law in Swat.

Swat, which was a princely state till July 28, 1969, had Qazi courts operating when the state was finally merged into Pakistan. Residents of Swat think that it was easy to get justice before 1969 through the Qazi courts but after the imposition of the English law, the poor people of Swat are not getting justice.

Taliban have exploited this delay in justice and also instigated the poor people to rise against the big landlords. The Awami National Party swept the valley of Swat in 2008 election with the slogan of peace and justice and now this party is ruling the NWFP in collaboration with the PPP.

Sources have claimed that the ANP leadership has convinced President Asif Ali Zardari to promulgate the Sharia regulations in Swat and the president will announce the promulgation in a few days.

Maulana Sufi Muhammad of the Tehrik-e-Nafaze Shariat Muhammadi has assured the ANP leadership that he will start a long march from Dir to Swat valley after the imposition of the Sharia law and he will appeal to his son-in-law Maulana Fazalullah and other Taliban leaders to surrender.

For the Western powers, attempting to democratize Afghanistan and turn it away from Islamic fundamentalism, there are few issues more hot-buttony than Pakistan acquiescing to the imposition of sharia law in a key battle zone.

So it’s possible that President Zardari is raising the threat of sharia law as a wake-up call to the United States and NATO that the largely military counter-insurgency effort in western Pakistan is not viable, and an alternate strategy—call it engagement, call it appeasement, in any case a protracted political, propaganda, and economic effort that de-emphasizes vain hopes of a quick military solution in time to save the Karzai regime—that gives a more central position to Pakistan’s needs and priorities, indeed its survival as a democratic state, and treats the exploitation of Pakistan havens by the Taliban primarily as one element of Pakistan’s thorny Pashtun issue.

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