Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 February - 4 March 2009
Issue No. 936
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Honey, I shrunk Pakistan!

The Taliban are coming, shouts Muqtedar Khan*

The Pakistani government has now made a deal with a Taliban group called Tahrik-e- Nafiz Shariat Mohamedi (Movement for the Establishment of Mohamed's Sharia) that ends military conflict between them and the Pakistani army and brings "Islamic law" to the region called Swat and its neighbouring districts.

The Swat area is in the northeastern part of Pakistan's troubled North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), a region where both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have according to US intelligence sources reconstituted.

The government of Pakistan is spinning this deal as a smart move to combat extremism. By giving the extremist what they demand -- Sharia law -- it hopes to deprive them of a cause that gives them legitimacy, purpose and public support.

The rest of the world on the other hand is profoundly disquieted. Western powers see the ceasefire and peace settlement as a misguided initiative that will provide Al-Qaeda and the Taliban the opportunity and freedom to regroup and retrench itself further.

The Taliban style insurgency is recent to Swat. Though the Tahrik has existed since the 1990s the insurgency has engaged Pakistani military and terrorised civilians only since 2007.

In the past few months alone, the Taliban have banned education for girls, burned and blown up over 30 schools, beheaded over 30 people, attacked and destroyed the public library and State Museum in Mingora (Swat's capital). Pakistan already has very low literacy levels and this campaign against education is a shortcut to underdevelopment. Realising their dire predicament, many of the residents of Swat have already fled from the area.

Even though the Pakistani government is projecting its latest move as a victory, in reality it is a complete surrender to the Taliban. The Pakistani government has both de jure and de facto conceded sovereignty over part of its territory to them.

Successive Pakistani governments are making a habit of surrendering territory and sovereignty to the Taliban in exchange for nothing. General Pervez Musharraf lost North and South Waziristan in a similar deal a few years ago and now President Asif Ali Zardari has provided the Taliban with a foothold within striking distance of Islamabad. Pakistan is slowly shriveling up. I guess the next time Benazir Bhutto's ghost visits her dear husband President Zardari, his one line report will say, "Honey, I shrunk Pakistan!"

Deals such as this one that the Pakistani government made with the Taliban are comprehensive strategic victories for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

One, they ensure that the over 100,000 Pakistani troops in the region are no more a threat to them or to their goals. By securing their eastern front through peace deals with Pakistan, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are free to focus their entire firepower on American and NATO forces.

Two, the deals give the Taliban and Al-Qaeda safe havens where they can train, recruit and fundraise. These provinces give them a strategic depth against Western forces. Now they have safe homes in Pakistan to retreat and resuscitate in and return to fight another day in Afghanistan.

But the most dangerous consequence is the loss of land. The Taliban now control vast territories in the southeast of Afghanistan and north and west of Pakistan. They are steadily carving out a Talibanistan -- a state perpetually at war -- that will nestle between Afghanistan and Pakistan and prey on both of them for territory, for fighters and for resources.

Pakistan has now become a strange and complex entity in which contradictions not only endure, but also seem to thrive. Parts of it are stable and rich (like Punjab) while others like the NWFP are in complete chaos. It has recently returned to democracy and civilian rule and yet parts of it are in the hands of authoritarian anti- democracy militias. It is an American ally and yet many of its citizens are at war with America. These contradictions are fault lines that will eventually lead to an implosion.

Unless the Pakistani government and the military, with the help of the US and regional powers like India and Iran, can find a way to reintegrate Pakistan into a cohesive modern state, it will become the epicentre of a violent storm that will engulf South Asia with global repercussions.

* The writer is director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

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