Taliban Problem Turns Critical in Pakistan
A spokesman for Pakistan’s military said Tuesday that the peace agreement between the government and Islamist militants in the Swat region has given the Taliban an opportunity to regroup, after having been flushed out by army operations some months back. Elsewhere, the information ministers of both the federal government and North-West Frontier Province warned the Taliban group in Swat, the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-Muhammadi (TNSM), to uphold its end of the peace deal and disarm, or face government action.
These comments followed statements made during the weekend by TNSM leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad: He denounced Pakistan’s constitution, parliament and Supreme Court as un-Islamic and called for Sharia to be imposed throughout the country. In a related development, the rebellious imam of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz — who led a bloody rising in July 2007 — was released on bail. He told followers to be ready to make sacrifices to ensure that Islam is enforced through the entire country.
As expected, the Swat “Sharia for peace” deal appears to be falling apart — within a week of being ratified. The collapse is yet another manifestation of a weakened Pakistani state being manipulated by Taliban rebels. But a far important point is that the current situation is untenable.
Pakistani government leaders cannot remain on the path of negotiations while the Taliban are going for the jugular. The entire rationale behind the peace agreement was that the insurgency in Swat could be ended if Sharia was enforced in the restive area. The Taliban not only have shown that they are unwilling to disarm, but their ambitions are escalating from a local to a national level.
This leaves the government with two choices: Either continue down the current path — allowing the jihadists to advance their cause while trying to avoid confrontation — or draw the line. In either case, conflict would be inevitable.
The difference is one of time and location. The Pakistanis either can fight the jihadists now, seeking to limit the conflict to the Pashtun regions of the northwest, or wait to fight — while the jihadists move to strengthen their ability to strike in Punjab province, the heart of Pakistan. The state is being pushed toward taking action by both the deteriorating security situation at home and mounting pressure from the United States. But it is not clear whether there is sufficient political will in Islamabad to go on the offensive.
Much of this is because the state is caught between the contradictory needs to combat the “bad” Taliban (those that fight in Pakistan) while still maintaining influence over the “good” ones (those that fight in Afghanistan). This distinction itself is a problem: The jihadist landscape is far more complicated than such neat binary categorizations would seem to allow. The problems Islamabad faces in this regard offer a glimpse of what the Obama administration can expect in its efforts to distinguish between what Washington sees as Taliban it can deal with versus Taliban it cannot deal with.
Overall, Pakistan’s situation is far more dire than the situation the United States will face in Afghanistan as it increases troop commitments and seeks out pragmatic Taliban with whom to negotiate. For Islamabad, the war is hitting home now more than ever.