Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Crisis in Pakistan: Limitations of the United States in Pakistan and of the Pakistani Government

Part 3 of a 6 part essay on the growing threat of the Taliban in Pakistan and how to combat it

The events of the first half of 2009 seem to follow the pattern of the Taliban expansion cycle, with the Taliban transgression into Swat, the truce, and the subsequent Taliban incursion into Buner. But the swiftness and forcefulness of this latest Taliban offensive, as well as its proximity to the Pakistani capital, are troubling even by Pakistani standards. President Obama, to his credit, has acknowledged the gravity of the worsening situation in Pakistan and has realized that someone somewhere must do something to stop the advance of Taliban militants, lest they reach Islamabad by year’s end.

However, President Obama is also beginning to realize that the United States has very limited options with which to influence the situation in Pakistan, none of which have worked well lately. U.S. drone aircraft strikes in Northwestern Pakistan and NATO raids across the Afghan border – either of which could be considered an overstepping of U.S. authority and a violation of Pakistan’s territorial integrity – have done little more than anger the locals and encourage the Taliban to advance into the heart of Pakistan.[1] There has been almost no way for the United States to monitor or control billions of dollars in aid it has sent to Pakistan,[2] and neither money nor harsh words have been able to compel the Pakistani government into sustained or predictable action.

The lack of cohesion between the different wings of Pakistani authority has made it very difficult for Pakistan to carry out any such sustained or predictable action against the Taliban. The Pakistani government, headed by President Zardari, would very much like to prevent the Taliban from reaching the seat of government in Islamabad. However, unlike General Musharraf’s previous administration, the current government does not have the unquestioned loyalty of the Pakistani Army,[3] which makes it very difficult for the government to force the army to take action against the Taliban. Unfortunately for the government, the Pakistani Army would rather not launch operations against the Taliban, being more concerned with India to the east, particularly in light of heightened tensions with India after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008. Indeed, it seems unclear if the army would defend the current government if it came close to being overthrown as long as the likely successor was not pro-Indian.[4]

In addition to the government and the army, the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) (incidentally the agency which originally supported the Taliban)[5] has its own agenda, specifically concentrating on undermining the Indian-ruled portion of Kashmir.[6] To this end, the ISI has covertly supported militant Punjabi groups operating in Kashmir. Such groups have been hard to control, though. The group responsible for the Mumbai attacks, Lashkar-e-Taiba, was one such group.[7] Others are suspected to have links to the Taliban.[8]

With so many different branches of government working at cross-purposes, it is no wonder that the money and rhetoric of the United States have had little success in compelling Pakistan to counter the Taliban.

As grim and as frustrating the situation is, there have been some encouraging signs as of late. The Taliban seems to have moved too fast and too forcefully in its latest push, as it has generated a lot of public backlash recently. A video of a woman getting publicly flogged for a minor crime has sparked particular anger among Pakistanis this past year.[9] In addition, the Pakistani government, alarmed at the proximity of the Taliban to the capital and embarrassed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s assertion that it was “basically abdicating to the Taliban,”[10] has gone off on every limb available to get the army to retaliate against the Taliban. For the moment, whatever the government did seems to be working: for nearly a month the Pakistani Army has carried out operations in the Swat Valley against the Taliban, including in Mingora,[11] Swat’s largest city.

It is unclear how long the current Pakistani counteroffensive will last, though, as the Pakistani Army has never sustained a campaign against the Taliban for more than a few months. Indeed, much of the fighting has been done by Pakistani paramilitary forces, which is a sign that the Pakistani Army may not be ready or willing to commit to a long fight. Moreover, the fighting in Swat has caused over 2 million people to become refugees,[12] and if the government does not adequately accommodate such people, then they could become the Taliban’s newest recruitment pool.

It is critical, then, for the United States to try to compel Pakistan to not let this window of opportunity close as previous ones have but rather to take advantage of such opportunity to turn the tide against the Taliban.

[1] http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_TNVGGJDT
[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/feb/27/pakistan.usa
[3] http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/pakistan/army.htm
[4] http://spectator.org/archives/2009/05/12/the-pakistan-army-reluctant-wa
[5] http://www.cfr.org/publication/10551/
[6] http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/kashmir.htm
[7]http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/08/world/asia/08terror.html
[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/14/world/asia/14punjab.html?pagewanted=all
[9] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/02/taliban-pakistan-justice-women-flogging
[10]http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/23/us/politics/23clinton.html
[11] http://www.rfi.fr/actuen/articles/113/article_3894.asp
[12] http://www.rfi.fr/actuen/articles/113/article_3894.asp

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