Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Crisis in Pakistan: The Rise of the Taliban

Part 2 of a 6 part essay on the growing threat of the Taliban in Pakistan and how to combat it

Although the Taliban had no presence in Pakistan before 2001, the radical Muslim Pashtun group did have several advantages upon arriving in Pakistan that would make it easier for the group to reorganize and spread within the country. It had a much better knowledge of the mountainous terrain than did NATO forces or Pakistani forces and officials, most of who came from Punjab or Sindh, far from the northwest. It also had the support of local Pashtuns, who lived on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. Such knowledge and support was crucial in enabling the Taliban to escape into Pakistan and find relative security and support upon arriving.[1]

After settling down and regrouping, the Taliban set about expanding ever deeper into Pakistan. With over a decade of experience in building grassroots support and in governing gained through their rise and time in power in Afghanistan and with nearly two decades of experience in guerilla warfare gained fighting the Soviets and other Afghans during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Afghan Civil War, respectively, Taliban militants were skilled at taking over a country from the bottom up.[2]

In addition to using their stringent religious doctrine to appeal to die-hard Muslims, members of the Taliban have been able to prey off growing popular dissatisfaction with the corruption and incompetence of local and national Pakistani officials, the inefficiency of domestic institutions like the judicial system, and the gap between the rich and the poor, among other things, by offering themselves and their law as suitable alternatives to the current structure of Pakistani government and society.

Although the Taliban’s rule seems iron-fisted and strict, it at least seems efficient and consistent with some sort of doctrine (albeit a radical one). By contrast, the Pakistani government seems inefficient and corrupt, and its primary purpose seems to be to serve the interests of those in power; the two most powerful politicians in Pakistan, President Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, as well as Zardari’s famous widow (and claim to fame) Benazir Bhutto, were all indicted on corruption charges at some point in their lives.[3] Considering that the two most powerful parties in Pakistan – the PPP and the PML-N – have been headed since their inception by the Bhuttos (from Sindh) and the Sharifs (from Punjab),[4] respectively, Pakistani elections seem more like instruments of dynastic rivalry than a mechanism of popular sovereignty.

The inefficient and biased local and national judiciary systems are just a couple of examples of Pakistan’s domestic institutions being hampered and distorted by the rampant favoritism and corruption in the Pakistani government. Indeed, most proponents of a Sharia Law system are not in favor of the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam but rather view such Islam-based courts as a practical alternative to the current judicial mess.[5]

The same families that control the political parties control most of the wealth and land of Pakistan as well.[6] The Sharifs, for instance, were some of the first and are now some of the richest industrial magnates in Pakistan, owning the large Ittefaq conglomerate based in Lahore.[7] Most of the other Pakistanis live in poverty in the poor rural areas or the slums. The corrupt political system seems to perpetuate the dominance and wealth of the semi-aristocratic families at the expense of everyone else.[8]

The great many poor and dissatisfied people in Pakistan have provided fertile ground for Taliban recruitment and expansion for the past seven years, to the point that the Taliban now poses a serious challenge to the existence of the Pakistani state. The degree of Pakistani discontent and the ruthlessness with which the Taliban has exploited such dissatisfaction have been matched by Pakistan’s inability to definitively roll back or crush the Taliban at any stage of its expansion. The Pakistani Army, more concerned with India and unwilling to commit troops to a thorough counterinsurgency campaign, has only sporadically fought the Taliban.[9] Left with little muscle to resist the Taliban, local and national officials have had to resort to making truces with the Taliban in order avoid total capitulation.[10]

Such a cyclical process of Taliban aggression, brief Pakistani retaliation, and truce has been immensely frustrating for the United States, as it has undermined the true front line of the U.S. “war on terror.” Out of each cycle, the Taliban has emerged stronger, with more land, more recruits, and more confidence.

[1] http://www.cfr.org/publication/14905/troubled_afghanpakistani_border.html
[2] http://www.cfr.org/publication/10551/
[3] http://www.newstatesman.com/200206030017
[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/05/magazine/05zardari-t.html?_r=1&ref=magazine
[5] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/09/AR2009050902518.html
[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/world/asia/17pstan.html?pagewanted=1
[7] http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/pakistan/sharif.htm
[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/world/asia/17pstan.html?pagewanted=1
[9] http://spectator.org/archives/2009/05/12/the-pakistan-army-reluctant-wa
[10] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/16/AR2009021601063.html

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