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Pakistan on the Brink

Asif Ali Zardari; drawing by Pancho

To get to President Asif Ali Zardari’s presidential palace in the heart of Islamabad for dinner is like running an obstacle course. Pakistan’s once sleepy capital, full of restaurant-going bureaucrats and diplomats, is now littered with concrete barriers, blast walls, checkpoints, armed police, and soldiers; as a result of recent suicide bombings the city now resembles Baghdad or Kabul. At the first checkpoint, two miles from the palace, they have my name and my car’s license number. There are seven more checkpoints to negotiate along the way.

Apart from traveling to the airport by helicopter to take trips abroad, the President stays inside the palace; he fears threats to his life by the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, who in December 2007 killed his wife, the charismatic Benazir Bhutto, then perhaps the country’s only genuine national leader. Zardari’s isolation has only added to his growing unpopularity, his indecisiveness, and the public feeling that he is out of touch. Even as most Pakistanis have concluded that the Taliban now pose the greatest threat to the Pakistani state since its cre- ation, the president, the prime minister, and the army chief have, until recently, been in a state of denial of reality.

We are not a failed state yet but we may become one in ten years if we don’t receive international support to combat the Taliban threat,” Zardari indignantly says, pointing out that in contrast to the more than $11 billion former president Pervez Musharraf received from the US in the years after the September 11 attacks, his own administration has received only between “$10 and $15 million,” despite all the new American promises of aid. He objects to the charge that his government has no plan to counter the Taliban-led insurgency that since the middle of April has spread to within sixty miles of the capital. “We have many plans including dealing with the 18,000 madrasas”—i.e., the Muslim religious schools—“that are brainwashing our youth, but we have no money to arm the police or fund development, give jobs or revive the economy. What are we supposed to do?” Zardari’s complaints are true, but he does acknowledge that additional foreign money would have to be linked to a plan of action, which does not exist.

The sense of unrealism is widespread. As the Taliban stormed south from their mountain bases near the Afghan border in northern Pakistan in late April, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told the parliament that they posed no threat and there was nothing to worry about. Interior Minister Rehman Malik talked about how the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai was supporting the Taliban and how India and Russia were sowing more unrest in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the inscrutable, chain-smoking army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, remained silent. By the time Kiyani made his first statement on the advance of the Taliban, on April 24, the army was being widely and loudly criticized for failing to deploy troops in time.

Pakistan is close to the brink, perhaps not to a meltdown of the government, but to a permanent state of anarchy, as the Islamist revolutionaries led by the Taliban and their many allies take more territory, and state power shrinks. There will be no mass revolutionary uprising like in Iran in 1979 or storming of the citadels of power as in Vietnam and Cambodia; rather we can expect a slow, insidious, long-burning fuse of fear, terror, and paralysis that the Taliban have lit and that the state is unable, and partly unwilling, to douse.

In northern Pakistan, where the Taliban and their allies are largely in control, the situation is critical. State institutions are paralyzed, and over one million people have fled their homes. The provincial government of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) has gone into hiding, and law and order have collapsed, with 180 kidnappings for ransom in the NWFP capital of Peshawar in the first months of this year alone. The overall economy is crashing, with drastic power cuts across the country as industry shuts down. Joblessness and lack of access to schools among the young are widespread, creating a new source of recruits to the Taliban. Zar-dari and Gilani have spent the past year battling their political rivals instead of facing up to the Taliban threat and the economic crisis.

According to the Islamabad columnist Farrukh Saleem, 11 percent of Pakistan’s territory is either directly controlled or contested by the Taliban. Ten percent of Balochistan province, in the southwest of the country, is a no-go area because of another raging insurgency led by Baloch separatists. Karachi, the port city of 17 million people, is an ethnic and sectarian tinderbox waiting to explode. In the last days of April thirty-six people were killed there in ethnic violence. The Taliban are now penetrating into Punjab, Pakistan’s political and economic heartland where the major cities of Islamabad and Lahore are located and where 60 percent of the country’s 170 million people live. Fear is gripping the population there.

The Taliban have taken advantage of the vacuum of governance by carrying out spectacular suicide bombings in major cities across the country. They are generating fear, rumor, and also support from countless unemployed youth, some of whom are willing to kill themselves to advance the Taliban cause. The mean age for a suicide bomber is now just sixteen.

American officials are in a concealed state of panic, as I observed during a recent visit to Washington at the time when 17,000 additional troops were being dispatched to Afghanistan. The Obama administration unveiled its new Afghan strategy on March 27, only to discover that Pakistan is the much larger security challenge, while US options there are far more limited. The real US fear was bluntly addressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Baghdad on April 25:

One of our concerns…is that if the worst, the unthinkable were to happen, and this advancing Taliban…were to essentially topple the government for failure to beat them back, then they would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan…. We can’t even contemplate that.

Pakistan has between sixty and one hundred nuclear weapons, and they are mostly housed in western Punjab where the Taliban have made some inroads; but they are under the control of the army, which remains united and disciplined if ineffective against terrorism. In his press conference on April 29, President Obama made statements intended to be reassuring after the specter of Pakistani weakness evoked by Clinton, saying, “I feel confident that that nuclear arsenal will remain out of militant hands.”

A week earlier Clinton had accused the Pakistani government of “basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists.” Leading US military figures such as General David Petraeus and Admiral Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have chimed in with even more dire predictions. Clinton’s statements have provoked increasing anti-Americanism in the Pakistani army and public, and thus will complicate the effectiveness of any future aid the US may give. On April 24 General Kiyani said that the army was fully capable of defending the country and went on to strongly condemn “the pronouncements” by outside powers that criticized the army and raised doubts about the future of Pakistan.

The Obama administration has promised Pakistan $1.5 billion a year for the next five years, but the bill is stuck in Congress with a long list of conditions that the Pakistanis are unwilling to accept. In early April other countries pledged a miserly $5.3 billion in aid, even as Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to the region, told me that Pakistan needs $50 billion. None of this money is likely to come immediately.

The Current Crisis The present scare was set off in mid-February when the North-West Frontier provincial government signed a deal with a neo-Taliban movement in the scenic Swat valley, a major tourist resort area about a hundred miles from Islamabad, allowing the Taliban to impose strict sharia law in Swat’s courts. (The creation of a new Islamic appeals court was announced by the Pakistani government on May 2.) In return for the Pakistani army withdrawing, the Taliban agreed to disarm, then promptly refused to do so. The accord followed the defeat in Swat last year of 12,000 government troops at the hands of some three thousand Taliban after bloody fighting, the blowing up of over one hundred girls’ schools, heavy civilian casualties, and the mass exodus of one third of Swat’s 1.5 million people. The Taliban swiftly imposed their brutal interpretation of sharia, which allowed for executions, floggings, and destruction of people’s homes and girls’ schools, as well as preventing women from leaving their homes and wiping out the families that had earlier resisted them.

Despite dire warnings by experts and Pakistan’s increasingly vocal commentators in the press and elsewhere that the accord was a major capitulation to the militants and a terrible precedent that contradicted the rule of law as stipulated by the constitution, Zardari and the national parliament approved the deal on April 14 without even a debate. Within days the Taliban in Swat moved further, taking control of the local administration, police, and schools. On April 19 Sufi Mohammed, a radical leader who the government had released from prison in November 2008 and termed “a moderate” and whose son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, is now the leader of the Swat Taliban, said that democracy, the legal system of the country, and civil society should be disbanded since they were all “systems of infidels.” Having won Swat, the Taliban made clear their intentions to overthrow the national government.

The Taliban in Swat quickly grew to more than eight thousand fighters, including hundreds of foreign and al-Qaeda militants, seasoned Pashtun fighters from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and extremist groups from Punjab and Karachi. They invited Osama bin Laden to come live in Swat. In fact al-Qaeda and the Taliban had targeted Swat three years earlier in their search for a safe, secure sanctuary that would be at a good distance from the Afghan border, with better facilities for an insurgency than FATA, as well as far away from the US drone missiles that have been falling on the tribal areas, killing Taliban leaders. Several top Taliban commanders from FATA have already moved to Swat. The valley also has income from lucrative emerald mines and timber businesses that the Taliban seized from their owners.

It was also obvious that having taken possession of Swat, the Taliban would expand beyond it; yet the army failed to deploy any troops in neighboring areas to deter them. On April 21 the Taliban moved into the adjoining districts of Buner, Shangla, and Dir, from which they threatened several key sites—Mardan, the second-largest city in the North-West Frontier Province; Nowshera, the army’s major training center; several large dams; and the Islamabad–Peshawar highway. In Buner they were now just sixty miles from Islamabad.

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