Al-Qaeda's Dream, America's Nightmare

After the Sept. 2001 attacks on America, U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan to deny the terrorist group al-Qaeda a sanctuary from which to train, launch attacks and brew weapons of mass death.  That effort could now backfire if next door Pakistan falls into extremist hands thus providing al-Qaeda a secure base of operations armed with ready to launch atomic tipped missiles.

Pakistan is showing signs of collapsing, its government is inept and its military seems unwilling or ill prepared to stop the extremists.  Only radical action by Pakistan’s army and plenty of help from the U.S. and Islamabad’s neighbors can keep the entire region from exploding.

Pakistan’s crisis shouldn’t be understated.  Both U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates labeled the current crisis an “existential threat” to the state of Pakistan and Clinton said the deterioration of security in nuclear-armed Pakistan “… poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world.”  Pakistan has an atomic arsenal of approximately 60-80 warheads and five types of nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missiles.

This tragic situation started when the Taliban, an Islamic extremist group operating in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, gained control of the border region.  Recently, the Taliban expanded its control by violently pushing toward Pakistan’s heartland.  

The Taliban’s first foray outside the border region was into the Swat valley region, northwest of Islamabad, the nation’s capital.  Pakistan’s army proved unable to subdue the militants so Islamabad capitulated to the extremists granting their demand, the imposition of Sharia (Islamic) law, in exchange for promises of peace.   

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani warned Swat’s Taliban, the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-Muhammadi (TNSM), to honor the deal or face government action.  “We reserve the right to go for other options if Talibanization continues,” Gilani said. 

But granting the Taliban’s Sharia demand has proven to be a tragic mistake.  The extremists took control of Swat’s everyday life banning all western influences, denying women school and forcing them into all-enveloping burqa clothing, and imposing harsh punishment like public whippings and beheadings. Worse, TNSM leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad denounced Pakistan’s constitution and the whole of government as un-Islamic and called for Sharia to be imposed throughout the country.  He also said al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other militants aiming to oust the Americans from Afghanistan would be welcome and protected.

The day after the Sharia-for-peace deal was signed the TNSM used the agreement as a pretext to stream hundreds of heavily-armed militants across Swat’s border into adjacent Buner, a strategically vital district by the Indus River just 60 miles from Islamabad.  The Taliban called on graduates of a local madrasa, an Islamic school, to run local governments and then it set-up checkpoints and announced the Taliban would open Islamic courts by the end of the month.  

Pakistan responded to the invasion by raising the threat level in Islamabad to “Red” and sent frontier constabulary forces to Buner.  Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, Pakistan army’s chief spokesman, insisted the situation in Buner was not dire.  “The other side has been informed to move these people out of this area,” Abbas said.

The Taliban must have missed Gen. Abbas’ threatening press release.  Instead of abandoning Buner the TNSM announced, “The day is not far when Islamabad will be in the hands of the mujahideen.”

The lesson from Swat and Buner is that the Taliban’s methodical tactic can be replicated elsewhere.  Both regions were taken by force and guile.  Sleeper cells were awakened, police were murdered and the ruse of peace talks quickly overwhelmed the opposition.  

Last Friday, government officials confirmed that armed Taliban were seen close to Buner’s southern border visiting mosques and patrolling.  “People are anxious and in a state of fear,” said Riaz Khan, a lawyer in the district of Mardan, the next region likely to fall to Taliban control as the terror group advances to Islamabad.

Over the weekend violence broke out in Pakistan’s main port city of Karachi, where U.S. supply routes to Afghanistan originate.  The city’s authorities say these developments come because of the expansion of the Taliban phenomenon which is being encouraged by the Awami National Party, the dominant party in the Swat valley region.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University, explains why the Taliban poses a widespread threat.  The Taliban has “natural allies in the religious parties in other parts of the country.  They have social and religious networks that have supported their suicide attacks and attacks against the security forces,” Rais said.

The urgency of the situation isn’t lost on key leaders.  Pakistani Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Army Chief of Staff, said he is “very concerned” about the situation and on Friday Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “We’re certainly moving closer to the tipping point” where Pakistan could be overtaken by Islamic extremists.

Unfortunately, the Pakistani army is avoiding the fight.  The army seems fixated on its arch enemy India rather than the growing internal insurgency and besides it is ill equipped for counterinsurgency operations.  The army’s past engagements with Taliban forces in the tribal areas and the Swat valley have consistently failed which convinces some Pakistanis that their military is inept.

U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D – RI), who was in Pakistan last week, said Islamabad’s Sharia-for-peace deal “… reflects both the growing strength of the Pakistani Taliban and the inability of the Pakistani army to conduct successful counterinsurgency operations.”   Reed said the crisis “illustrates there is a lack of political will in the Pakistan civilian leadership to confront these Pakistan Taliban.”  He believes “The Taliban sense this huge vacuum that they can pour into.”

What can be done to stop the Taliban?  President Obama’s just completed regional strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan calls for money to help Pakistan’s troubled economy and military aid to fight the insurgency.  But money and military aid alone aren’t enough.

Pakistani authorities lack courage to resist the Taliban.  U.S. Representative David Obey (D-WI), who leads the House Appropriations Committee, said “I have absolutely no confidence in the ability of the existing Pakistan government to do one blessed thing.”   Obey’s committee is considering Obama’s request for $7.5 billion in non-military aid to Pakistan.

Secretary Clinton said “I think the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists” and Secretary Gates admits some Pakistani leaders recognize the threat “but it is important that they not only recognize it but take appropriate actions to deal with it.”

Unless Pakistan’s government acts quickly to stop the Taliban, the military will have no alternative but to push the elected government aside to impose martial law.  Pakistan’s armed forces are the only institution with the experience, means and possibly the will to save Pakistan from Islamic extremists.

The U.S. should go ahead with promised economic and military aid whether the government finds the courage to resist or the military steps in.  We should also offer to embed counterinsurgency advisors with the Pakistani army and increase cooperation along the Afghan border to corrall the Taliban.  

Our diplomats should ask India’s leaders to reduce the pressure on Pakistan’s eastern front giving Islamabad freedom to shift forces to the Taliban infested areas.  Other Central Asian states – Iran, Russia, China – should help to address the conflict as well.

Pakistan must be saved from the grips of Islamic extremists who would destabilize the region, use that country to train terrorists and stage terror operations, and harness atomic weapons that would pose a mortal threat to world security.  And while it’s unusual for a democracy to advocate for a military takeover of a country, given the history of Pakistan and the sheer madness of doing nothing, there appears to be no other viable option.