Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Pakistan's Nightmare

In this post, referencing the increased tempo of airstrikes into Pakistan by U.S. forces, I said that Pakistan plays a dangerous game in their relations with the Taliban in their country. Last night Frontline aired a special called "The War Briefing" on the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which suggests that the Pakistan Taliban has finally morphed into a danger to Pakistan as a whole. I recommend watching the special to get a real sense of the danger the Taliban pose in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but excerpts of this interview with Steve Coll are illustrative. On the danger the Taliban pose to Pakistan:

Q: Let's talk about the tribal areas. What are we looking at there?

A: A new group has claimed control of the tribal areas in Pakistan: the Pakistani Taliban. They announced themselves to the world in the autumn of 2007, and a year on, they're trying to build themselves as a force in national Pakistani life. They're more wish than fact as a national movement, but they are gathering strength, and they control territory.

The Pakistani Taliban effectively control South Waziristan, one of the tribal agencies; North Waziristan, a second large one; Bajaur; and parts of other agencies as well. They have a leadership shura that is constructed in the image of Mullah Omar's Afghan Taliban, and they have stitched together a coalition of local leaders who are willing to fly under the Taliban flag in Pakistan.

They have gradually come down from the hills, as it were, into settled territory in Pakistan and now menace the city of Peshawar in the North-West Frontier Province and a number of significant towns around Peshawar. They control territory, not just in a military sense, [but] in a sense that they control the roads, tax transport, intimidate outsiders.

They also are administering territory. They mete out justice in mosques. They substitute themselves for the Pakistan state, for its court system. They decide who lives and dies, as judges. But they also settle more ordinary disputes about boundary walls and land and grazing rights.

They are displaying the characteristics of a classic insurgency, and I think this is a new feature in Pakistani national life. Pakistan has endured much political violence. It has endured a number of separatist insurgencies in the past. It has never experienced a religious insurgency of the Taliban's character so advanced that it is actually substituting itself for the state in important parts of Pakistan's west.

Q: So how do we connect the events that we saw in the Shikai Valley in 2004, for instance, with the events of the peace deal in '06 and coming forward?

A: Since 2004, the Taliban in Pakistan ... have been contesting each other to control territory, and then, as they won that territory, gradually building a larger organization that could sustain conflict with the Pakistani government.

So characters like Nek Mohammed and Baitullah Mehsud started out essentially in control of their valley or their region or a section of their tribal agency. Today, Baitullah Mehsud is operating in a comfortable alliance with other Taliban leaders in a broader cause, in a bigger cause, than his valley and his region.

In other words, the Pakistani Taliban is no longer an offshoot of the Afghanistan Taliban; in a sense, both organizations are one, or at least a rough unification under Mullah Mohammad Omar of Afghans with their targets set on Karzai and the NATO (men such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaludin Haqqani, who share an affiliation more than anything else), and Pakistanis largely under Baitullah Mehsud, who has his sights set on overturning the government of Pakistan. This latter development probably explains things like Pakistan's recent announcment that they would arm traditional tribal militais in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, in an effort to counter-balance the ambitions of the Pakistan Taliban.

Coll also has some interesting things to say about the rumors of talks with Afghanistan, and the desire to duplicate the Awakenings movement among the Taliban:

An Awakening is an interesting analogy. … Are there reliable tribes that are already ideologically opposed to Al Qaeda and the Taliban and who can be strengthened, as part of a local approach to counterinsurgency? Possibly. But there is no broad, easy play available to turn some extant tribal structure against the Taliban.

The tribal structure in Afghanistan has been scrambled by 25 years of war. It is not as solid or coherent a social structure as the tribes in Iraq, particularly Sunni Iraq, were. The tribes in Iraq had been instruments of statecraft, continuously, right back to the colonial period. They were an extant entity. So when they turned, they turned with strength.

On differences between Iraq and Afghanistan in general:

First of all, it's a much larger geographical territory. It's a much more difficult terrain. The enemy is more dispersed. The enemy is of a different character. The Afghan state is much weaker than the Iraqi state. It doesn't possess the oil revenue and national traditions that have allowed the Iraqi state, although it's weak, to nonetheless play a rising role in the war. ... Additionally, in Afghanistan, the national forces, the army and the police, are far behind where the Iraqi army looks to be at the moment.

And the nature of the war is quite different. You have insurgency that is rooted in 20 or 30 years of continuous conflict, that takes succor from a sanctuary across the border in Pakistan, and that has a call upon rural populations and an ability to intimidate rural populations that is distinct. It's not unique, but it's different from the Iraqi insurgency. ...

The idea that you can walk over to Afghanistan and try to arm the tribes against Al Qaeda or against the Taliban is a fallacy. … All counterinsurgencies are born from local conditions and local challenges and local problems. You're going to have to relearn, from the ground up, in Afghanistan how to change security conditions there.

So there's no easy way to short-circuit the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and the Pakistan Taliban has grown to the extent that it feels strong enough to challenge the Pakistani state. More troops are badly needed, but clearly they won't be enough. This is the situation on the ground that the next President will inherit, and it doesn't look good at all.

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