Pakistan’s Taliban

February 18, 2009 at 11:41 pm | Posted in International | 2 Comments

According to Fund for Peace, there are 12 different indicators of a failed state. They include an inability to provide basic public services, massive displacement of the country’s population, widespread corruption, sharp economic decline, and, most importantly, a state’s failure to control its own territory and maintain a monopoly on the use of violence. In its 2008 assessment, the D.C.-based think tank ranked Pakistan as the 9th most failed state in the world, and only two months into 2009, there doesn’t seem much chance of the situation improving.

A few days ago, in an attempt to establish a ceasefire in a long-running war against militant Islamists, Pakistan agreed to the abolition of rational, secular law in the Swat Valley. Once renowned for such outstanding natural beauty that it was often described as the ‘Switzerland of Pakistan’, the valley’s recent history has been plagued by the violence and repressive fundamentalism of a group of Taliban thugs led by Maulana Fazlullah.

Fazlullah is a prime example of why we should save the word ‘fascist’ for those who really deserve it: his battle to exterminate all things sinful and ‘un-Islamic’ extends to music, dancing, shaving, the polio vaccine and women receiving either an education or employment. Under his reign of tyranny, over a quarter of a million people are reported to have left Swat to escape the violence, hundreds of schools have been torched or bombed, militants have set up ‘parallel governments’ for the imposition of Sharia law and well over a thousand people have been killed.

Pakistan’s military has been fighting the enemy within since Musharraf’s time, but lacks the capability to defeat an insurgency built on fear, local grievance and repression, and has evidently concluded that it just can’t win. As a result of this agreement, the government has essentially conceded that it can’t control its borders, doesn’t have a monopoly on the use of violence and can’t even impose law upon the country as a whole. This leaves a largely autonomous, Taliban-run district with good access to Afghanistan and which lies just 80 miles from the capital of the most fragile nuclear power in the region. Not a happy thought, is it?

All of this just underscores, I think, the dangers which await the Obama administration following the announcement of more troop deployments to Afghanistan and the ongoing review of American policy in the region. If the Taliban can continue to maintain supply lines of munitions and manpower, then NATO’s efforts will surely fail, and so the success or failure of whatever new strategy emerges will depend on what happens in Pakistan.

The U.S. has been sending unmanned aircraft into the region since August, and though the government has publically condemned the military strikes as a breach of sovereignty, there is also some suggestion that their intelligence service has been privately passing on intelligence about which targets to hit. Could it be that by trying to isolate Swat from the rest of the country, Pakistan is privately inviting the Americans to be much more proactive in rooting-out the terrorists within? Possibly, but bombing raids also have the effect of enraging a public, stoking nationalism and radicalisation. In this part of the world, each victim of American aggression is seen as a martyr, even if not all the victims of Fazlullah and his clan are.

Bottom line: it’s awful, complicated, and each possible course of action seems to contain ominous but unknowable consequences. There’s no easy way out of this mess we’re in, and Obama might just discover that this is one conflict where hope goes to die.



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  1. […] Place seems to do here. Shiraz Maher links the tragedy in Lahore with the recently-brokered ceasefire between the national government and the thugs who control the North-Western Province (or Swat […]

  2. […] proselytise and plot carnage, and stemming the leakage of militants into Afghanistan. As I’ve mentioned before, Pakistan lacks both the will and the resources to deal with these groups on its own: they […]

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