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.

Red Mosque chief cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz. Click image to expand.
Red Mosque chief cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz

To understand the history and future of Pakistan's Taliban insurgency, you've got to think pink. The July 2007 uprising at the Red Mosque in Islamabad, named for its Pepto-Bismol-inspired hue, attracted a buffet line of Pakistani jihadist groups: sectarian, Kashmiri, organizations that predated al-Qaida, tribesmen from the Afghan border, and university students radicalized by the two brothers in charge, Abdul Rashid Ghazi and Maulana Abdul Aziz. "We want an Islamic revolution," Ghazi once told me. "If the government does it, it will be peaceful. If the people do it, it will be bloody." He continued, "And if we are killed, it will only give more momentum to our movement." Since army commandos gunned down Ghazi on the final day of the siege, militants have assassinated Benazir Bhutto, taken over much of the tribal areas and the North-West Frontier Province, forced embarrassing concessions from the government, and sabotaged Pakistan's plan to co-host the 2011 Cricket World Cup.

Now the Red Mosque, located less than a mile from the National Assembly, is back under its old leadership. Maulana Abdul Aziz was recently released after being held almost two years on terrorism charges; he was arrested in July 2007 while trying to escape from the mosque disguised in a burqa. On April 17, for the first time since the building was overrun by commandos, Abdul Aziz preached at the Red Mosque, flanked by masked gunmen. "The struggle for the enforcement of Islamic law in Pakistan will continue," he said before a congregation of thousands. "The sacrifices of the martyrs of the Red Mosque and Jamia Hafsa"—the women's madrasah adjacent to the mosque, where hundreds more died in July 2007—"will not be in vain." Can the Pakistani government do anything to stop Ghazi's prophesy from being fulfilled?

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Let's first assess the state of the insurgency. After being flushed across the border in the fall of 2001 by advancing U.S. troops, key Taliban and al-Qaida leaders set up camp in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The Pakistani army has launched sporadic military offensives against them, but with little success. Originally, the Taliban controlled just two of FATA's seven agencies, North and South Waziristan. They now control all of FATA along with many of the "settled" districts of the North-West Frontier Province, including Swat. Operating out of these sanctuaries, militants have recently staged Mumbai-style attacks in Lahore, first on the Sri Lankan cricket team and then on a police training center just outside the city. The Taliban have also increased their presence along the border with Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province. Punjab is the country's breadbasket and cultural heartland. Then, last week, the Taliban pushed out of Swat, conquered the neighboring district of Buner, and moved within 70 miles of Islamabad, the capital.

The United States has, until now, focused primarily on trying to root the Taliban and al-Qaida out of the tribal areas. Intelligence officials have said they believe this is where the next attack against the United States is being planned. So there's plenty to worry about there. But the wider stability of Pakistan is at stake, and the Obama administration would do well to forget FATA and think seriously about saving Pakistan. The thought of nukes falling into the hands of Osama Bin Laden and his men is frightful enough, but what's almost as disturbing is the loss of a natural ally: the Pakistani people.

This is the only country in the Islamic world where tens of thousands protest in the streets for the rule of law. Sure, there's some support for the Taliban and their ilk, but as last year's election, in which the Islamist parties were drubbed, showed, the Islamists don't enjoy as much grass-roots support as their American-flag-burning rallies would suggest. (Unfortunately, the civilian government that took power last spring has squandered much of its goodwill and is, like Pervez Musharraf's government before it, increasingly seen as toadying to the Americans.) So what can Washington do to save Pakistan?

For starters, it can ignore the tribal areas, NWFP, and regions already under Taliban control. The Taliban cannot be defeated militarily, as the Americans have learned in Afghanistan. You kill one of them and immediately create 10 or 20 or 50 more. Bombing their strongholds merely breathes life into the insurgency. It is not just that ordinary Pakistanis tend to sympathize with the Taliban when they are under attack but also that the Taliban ably turn each bombardment into propaganda, play themselves up as victims, and attract more foot soldiers. Moreover, the Pakistani army usually, if not always, loses. Groomed to battle columns of Indian tanks, the army is untrained to wage a counterinsurgency against a bunch of rebel bumpkins.

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