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Talibanistan in Pakistan

Posted by robert dreyfuss on April 21st, 2009

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The real crisis in central and south Asia — the one in Pakistan — is going from really bad to much, much worse.

Let’s review some of the more recent reports from Pakistan.

Earlier this month, in a terrifying analysis of the situation in Pakistan, the New York Times reported:

Some analysts here and in Washington are already putting forward apocalyptic timetables for the country. “We are running out of time to help Pakistan change its present course toward increasing economic and political instability, and even ultimate failure,” said a recent report by a task force of the Atlantic Council that was led by former Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The report, released in February, gave the Pakistani government 6 to 12 months before things went from bad to dangerous.A specialist in guerrilla warfare, David Kilcullen, who advised Gen. David H. Petraeus when General Petraeus was the American commander in Iraq, offered a more dire assessment. Pakistan could be facing internal collapse within six months, he said.

An even more frightening and graphic description of the spreading Islamist movement there was provided last week by the Wall Street Journal:

Thousands of Islamist militants are pouring into Pakistan’s Swat Valley and setting up training camps here, quickly making it one of the main bases for Taliban fighters and raising their threat to the government in the wake of a controversial peace deal.The number of militants in the valley swelled in the months before the deal with the Taliban was struck, and they continue to move in, say Pakistani and U.S. officials. They now estimate there are between 6,000 and 8,000 fighters in Swat, nearly double the number at the end of last year.

The Taliban fighters are spreading from the ungoverned tribal areas (the seven agencies of FATA) to the settled areas, starting with the Swat Valley, a key part of the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan proper. And from there, they are spreading into neighboring districts, even as they carry out terrorist attacks in key cities, such as Lahore and Islamabad. They are butchering people, beheading police officers, and terrorizing the citizens, who have no way to fight back. The Journal notes that in Swat, one central plaza “has become known among residents as ‘Slaughter Square’ because the Taliban have begun using it to dump bodies after executions.”

Adds the Journal:

Swat now offers a glimpse of the Taliban’s vision for Pakistan. They have taken control of the local government and the police, who have been ordered to shed their uniforms in favor of the traditional Shalwar Kameez, an outfit comprising a long shirt and loose trousers. They also have seized Swat’s emerald mines, which extract millions of dollars a year in gemstones.At barbershops, notices warn men not to shave their beards. Women are no longer allowed to leave their homes without their husbands or male blood relatives. Girls’ schools have been reopened after initially being closed but the students must be covered from head to toe, and Taliban officials routinely inspect classrooms for violators.

In an April 14 piece entitled “United Militants Threaten Pakistan’s Populous Heart,” the Times describes the spreading Taliban cancer in Pakistan thus:

Taliban insurgents are teaming up with local militant groups to make inroads in Punjab, the province that is home to more than half of Pakistanis, reinvigorating an alliance that Pakistani and American authorities say poses a serious risk to the stability of the country. …Telltale signs of creeping militancy abound in a belt of towns and villages near here that a reporter visited last week. Militants have gained strength considerably in the district of Dera Ghazi Khan, which is a gateway both to Taliban-controlled areas and the heart of Punjab, the police and local residents say. Many were terrified.

Some villages, just north of here, are so deeply infiltrated by militants that they are already considered no-go zones by their neighbors.

In at least five towns in southern and western Punjab, including the midsize hub of Multan, barber shops, music stores and Internet cafes offensive to the militants’ strict interpretation of Islam have received threats. Traditional ceremonies that include drumming and dancing have been halted in some areas. Hard-line ideologues have addressed large crowds to push their idea of Islamic revolution. Sectarian attacks, dormant here since the 1990s, have erupted once again.

Yesterday, the Washington Post carried a brilliant piece by Pamela Constable that reported on the results so far of Pakistan’s deal to cede power in Swat to the Taliban and its allies:

A potentially troubling era dawned Sunday in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, where a top Islamist militant leader, emboldened by a peace agreement with the federal government, laid out an ambitious plan to bring a “complete Islamic system” to the surrounding northwest region and the entire country.Speaking to thousands of followers in an address aired live from Swat on national news channels, cleric Sufi Mohammed bluntly defied the constitution and federal judiciary, saying he would not allow any appeals to state courts under the system of sharia, or Islamic law, that will prevail there as a result of the peace accord signed by the president Tuesday.

The Post also reported the release of Maulana Abdel Aziz, the fiery, pro-Taliban leader of the Red Mosque in Islamabad that was invaded and shut down last year. He’s back home, and preaching to thousands of fanatics. The Post added:

Together, these rallying cries seemed to create an arc of radical religious energy between the turbulent, Taliban-plagued northwest region and the increasingly vulnerable federal capital, less than 100 miles to the east. They also appeared to pose a direct, unprecedented religious challenge to modern state authority in the Muslim nation of 176 million.

So President Obama is beefing up US forces next door in Afghanistan. By doing so, he’s pushing some Taliban militants back across the border into Pakistan. (Unlike Afghanistan, which has no strategic value to anyone except some pipeline builders, Pakistan is a vastly important nation with nuclear weapons.) By catapulting drone attacks on FATA villages, he’s pushing militants further east into Pakistan proper, and the US escalation has so far had the effect of uniting the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban, and various pro-Taliban militias into a unified fighting force. We’re also providing recruiting posters for Pakistani fundamentalists.

A year ago, I would have said that the idea that Muslim fundamentalists could seize control of Pakistan, a relatively modern and urbane country, was laughable. No more. I’m not sure that I agree with Kilcullen that Pakistan could collapse in six months, but it’s not impossible.

Make no mistake, though: this is the most dangerous problem in the world.

(Also on The Nation)

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