How to save Pakistan.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 27 2009 11:44 AM

How To Save Pakistan

Forget the tribal areas and regions already under Taliban control and focus on the "real" Pakistan.

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If left alone, the Taliban are their own worst enemy. When a video circulated in early April showing Swat Valley members of the Taliban flogging a 17-year-girl who refused a marriage proposal, the Pakistani street erupted in anger. Guests on popular talk shows suspended their criticisms of U.S. drone attacks and Washington's policies in South Asia to express their outrage over the flogging. As a Lahore-based member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan told the Christian Science Monitor, "The government has gone too far in issuing concessions to religious extremists but has gotten nothing in return. This incident is an indication of the type of society the Taliban have in mind for the rest of the country."

Leaving the FATA and NWFP to the Taliban comes with many risks, not the least of which is that attacks on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan would probably increase—after "peace treaties" with the Pakistan Taliban in the past, U.S. military commanders reported a spike in cross-border activity. More important, the Taliban won't be content with just FATA and NWFP. If Maulana Abdul Aziz and his followers have their way, Taliban-style government will soon reach cities and towns across Punjab—and the rest of the country.

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But there is a critical ethnic difference between these areas under already Taliban control and Punjab: The NWFP and FATA are mostly Pashtun, while Punjab is populated mostly by Punjabis. The Taliban have succeeded in part by marrying their religious and political program with an ethnic and nationalist agenda. While not every Pashtun belongs to the Taliban, nearly every member of the Taliban is a Pashtun. Punjabis, on the other hand, are one of the only ethnic groups that identify first and foremost as Pakistanis. Besides the ethnic distinctions, there are physical ones, too: The Indus River divides the two provinces.

If there's any hope of containing the insurgency, it's by building a wall along the Indus River. Not a physical wall, like the one Musharraf proposed constructing along the Pakistani-Afghanistan border, but an imaginary barrier that the Taliban wouldn't be able to breach. How would you go about building such a thing? First of all, the United States would immediately divert much of the $1.5 billion it is planning to spend annually in FATA and NWFP to Punjab. While development projects in South Waziristan are futile at this point in terms of building confidence in the state, they may still accomplish that goal in the villages and towns of Punjab, and even down in Karachi. Since these places are the next battlegrounds between the Taliban and the Pakistani state, U.S. funds could also be diverted to train the Punjab police, who will probably become embroiled in the insurgency over the coming months. Moreover, U.S. military advisers may be able to secure a more prominent role working with the Punjab police than with, say, the units stationed along the Afghan border, where some suspect that the Pakistani intelligence agencies are still backing certain aspects of the insurgency.

When a Pakistani politician recently visited Washington, I asked him about adopting a containment strategy toward the Taliban. He assured me they were working on such a plan. But his very vague idea of "containment" sounded to me like a passive pursuit of the status quo. Meanwhile, the Taliban are doing everything they can to overthrow the status quo. In late 2006, when George W. Bush's popularity rate was well below 50 percent, Maulana Abdul Aziz asked me why Americans didn't take to the streets and overthrow him. His brother, Ghazi, chuckled at Abdul Aziz's naivete back then. But with Abdul Aziz back at the helm of the Red Mosque, the Obama administration should take him more seriously. Though the tribal areas may be lost, Pakistan isn't. At least not yet.

Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of To Live or to Perish Forever. He is a 2010 International Reporting Project fellow in Russia.

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