Is Pakistan Spinning Out of Control?

Last week, a deal between Pakistan’s government and radical Islamists to exchange peace in Pakistan’s ungoverned northwest for the imposition of Sharia (Islamic) law fortunately failed. But the fact that such a deal was even considered indicates that Pakistan is crumbling and the region is at risk of spinning out of control. Such a state of affairs diminishes America’s chances of success in Afghanistan and raises the specter of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of Islamic extremists.

That’s why President Obama’s soon to be announced strategy for the region is critical. Pakistan is the center of gravity of the global war on terror and radical Islam is the enemy’s ideology. Obama’s plan must help stabilize Pakistan and deny our Islamist enemies sanctuary in that country.

On Feb. 16, the North-West Frontier Province government, after consultation with Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, announced that it would accept a system of Islamic law in the Swat Valley, a strategic corridor first infiltrated in 2007 by Taliban militants and the scene of a failed army counteroffensive. The parties agreed to a truce, and the government suspended its efforts to crush the insurgents.

This pact is similar to previous government accords with militants in the semi-autonomous tribal areas in North and South Waziristan. Those regions have become mini-states for Taliban and al Qaeda extremists and are used as insurgent launching pads for operations into Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Shortly after the deal was announced, media reports indicated that unnamed American officials in Islamabad privately backed the deal as an attempt to drive a wedge between Swat’s Taliban, which is focused on its demand for Sharia, and the al-Qaeda-linked Taliban that controls the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

A Pakistani official insisted the Obama administration “… showed understanding of our strategy.” That “understanding” must have changed because President Zardari, reportedly under pressure from Washington, has backed away from the controversial agreement without public explanation. Over the weekend the most powerful Taliban leader in the Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, said he had only agreed to a 10-day-truce, not a “permanent cease-fire.”

At this time, the deal appears to be off, but it’s highly likely a similar agreement will resurface and other regions will seek comparable arrangements.

The deal was seen as a desperate effort to stop Taliban abuses against the population, a major military embarrassment. The proposed pact would disarm about 3,000 Taliban fighters who have kept government troops pinned down while terrorizing the Swat region’s population with Islamic justice: it torched nearly 200 schools, banned female education, forced women to stay indoors and executed dozens of government employees, especially policemen.

Pakistani officials insist the deal is urgently needed for peace and as a model for other areas ravaged by Islamic radicals. They argue the switch to Sharia law is consistent with Pakistan’s secular constitution and presented no threat to the integrity of the nation.

Prominent Pakistanis for and against the deal provided plenty of grist for the debate. Those favoring the agreement argue:

  • People in Swat are very conservative and have been demanding the implementation of Sharia law because it would expedite justice and reduce legal costs.
  • Elements of the religious judicial system have been in the Swat region since 1994 without problems.
  • Pakistan’s army was unable to defeat the insurgents and the civilians were suffering. The deal will provide peace.

Opponents argue the deal:

  • Shows the government has no coherent plan for combating militancy.
  • Demonstrates if you are powerful enough to challenge the writ of the state, it will cave in.
  • Provides the Taliban with a launching pad from which to spread anarchy deeper into Pakistan.

America’s chances for success in Afghanistan will diminish if Pakistan further surrenders its sovereignty to regional Sharia-based systems because — predictably — those regions will support the Taliban, their terrorist allies and disrupt our operations against them.

Pakistani ground transportation moves U.S. supplies from the port at Karachi through two crossing points on the Afghan border. Already, militant attacks on that lifeline have increased to the point that Washington is scurrying to find alternative resupply routes. If these transit regions further become Taliban sanctuaries, there is a significant risk that the supply routes could be permanently closed and the area will become base camps for Taliban fighters to launch attacks on allied troops.

So what should President Obama do? His war strategy must address how to stabilize Pakistan and deny our enemies sanctuary in that country.

Pakistan is stressed by extremists on its western border, but its primary strategic focus is on India and Kashmir, a half century old rivalry. Any American strategy that expects Islamabad to concentrate on West Pakistan must first restrain New Dehli and resolve the Kashmir crisis.

The Obama strategy should also recognize that America’s enemy in Afghanistan is primarily the Taliban. Yes, al Qaeda still exists, but its ranks are dwindling rapidly, and it presents more of a psychological than operational threat.

The Taliban has a long history of resilience and enjoys a home turf advantage both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Working with Islamabad, the Taliban can be dealt with from a couple perspectives.

Many Taliban are poor, uneducated Pashtun mountain men who primarily seek the means to care for their families. A jobs program and schools that teach academics rather than radical Islam might prevent some men from joining the insurgency.

Others may be convinced to join a coalition government where they share power with secular authorities and yes, a government that is influenced by their Islamic beliefs, but not based on radical Sharia code. Of course, any coalition government would have to be relatively corruption free, which will be a challenge in a part of the world where warlords and tribal loyalty prevail.

Even so there will continue to be diehards driven by radical Islamic hatred, and they will only understand the muzzle of a gun.

That means the military option has a legitimate place in the President’s strategy. Obama must seek a close working relationship with Pakistan to protect our supply lines and destroy Taliban base camps. Islamabad is unlikely to support significant numbers of U.S. troops on Pakistani soil, but a few Americans working as “advisors” along side Pakistani soldiers might work.

A parallel and potentially better military option would be to provide Pakistan with the means to deploy more of its own troops into the Islamist infested frontier. This will require further U.S. military equipment and training aid, especially for fighting counterinsurgencies.

The failed deal between Islamabad and the Taliban is a bad omen for U.S. interests in the region. It suggests the Pakistanis may lack a strategy to deal with extremists, preferring accommodation rather than confrontation. That hurts American efforts in Afghanistan, the greater war on terror and could push nuclear-armed Pakistan into the arms of Islamic extremists.