The Pakistani army's belated assault this week on Taliban insurgents in Buner district—just 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad—is more than merely welcome. If it reflects a new seriousness about the country's internal security, a new determination to confront and crush Islamist militants, then it could mark one of the most significant and promising developments in Pakistan's 62-year history.
Then again, significant and promising developments are not something that Pakistan's military is known for. So it's natural to doubt just how serious and determined its officers really are.
The problem, and the main reason for skepticism, is not simply that the Pakistani army has too little training in counterinsurgency and too much camaraderie with Islamist militants. It's that these discomfiting facts are built into the foundations of Pakistan's politics; they have long formed a central rationale for not only the officer corps' legitimacy but the nation's very existence.
From the beginning of the partition from India in 1947, Pakistan's leaders played the religion card to contrive a sense of national identity and arouse the population's loyalty. Most Pakistanis were Muslim; most Indians were Hindu; so claims of vast distinctions between the two nations were built on long-believed distinctions between the two religions. Religious extremism was encouraged in the interest of national chauvinism. The raging territorial dispute over Kashmir only whipped up this fervor, which was egged on further by the fact that, in the early years, India never really accepted the partition—or Pakistan's status as a nation-state. The awareness that India was far stronger than Pakistan, economically and militarily, turned this psycho-political drama into a tangible security threat.
In 1958, with the first of several coups, Pakistan's military leaders started playing the religion card harder still, bolstering their political power—and justifying their actions—by forming alliances with top Muslim clerics and, later, regional jihadists. As with Pakistan's first politicians, this alliance was initially opportunistic. But over time, as nationalist and religious propaganda themes were interwoven, a new generation of officers rose through the ranks as true believers.
The more secular officers were no less avid in pushing this agenda, believing that they could mobilize the fundamentalists when they were needed, then demobilize them when they weren't—like flicking a light switch on and off. By the turn of the century, it became clear that the fanatics could not be so easily controlled.
And so, this interlocking relationship "between mosque and military"—the title of an enlightening book by Husain Haqqani, a scholar and former journalist who is now Pakistan's ambassador to the United States—continues to shape, even dominate, Pakistani politics today.
It explains why Pakistan's military and intelligence apparatus have done so little to confront the Taliban in any serious way—because doing so would throw into question their commitment to Islam. (They have done battle against al-Qaida, which can be portrayed as a foreign threat.) It explains why they have refused to deploy many troops on the northwestern border with Afghanistan—because that would require withdrawing a lot of troops from the southeastern border with India. And it explains why they have never prepared for counterinsurgency campaigns—because that would distract attention from the political need for external threats.
The evidence is overwhelming. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has spent about $10 billion on assistance to Pakistan, mainly military assistance, on the assumption that it would be used to stamp out Taliban insurgents crossing border from Pakistan to Afghanistan. However, in recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, David Kilcullen—author of The Accidental Guerrilla and a top counterinsurgency adviser to several U.S. officers and officials—listed more than 20 instances when the Pakistani military or government has tolerated or overtly aided the Taliban and other terrorists.
The most notorious instance took place in February of this year, when the government struck a deal with Islamists in the Swat Valley, letting them set up an enclave of sharia law in exchange for an end to the fighting that had long persisted in the area. Officials justified the move as a way of co-opting the Taliban. However, many Pakistani citizens were outraged, seeing the move as surrender, the sign of a breakdown in the central government's authority.
Then, last week, the Taliban stepped up their activities in Buner, just to the southeast of Swat and one district closer to Islamabad. The military responded—with rockets fired from helicopter gunships, bombs dropped from fighter jets, and paratroopers sent in to fight on the ground. The fighting continues to be fierce.
What accounts for this sudden vigilance? Nobody seems to know for sure. (One specialist inside the U.S. government told me the situation is "too opaque." Not exactly reassuring.)
It may be that the generals—or certain factions of them—have finally decided enough is enough. It's one thing to whip up the Islamists in order to pursue the military's own interests; it's another thing to let them close in on, or threaten, the regime.
Or it may be that the generals are doing just enough to keep the Americans sending military assistance. Pervez Musharraf played this game when he was president, cracking down on the Taliban in a few high-profile gestures but fundamentally changing nothing. This may be more of the same—combined with what may be a genuinely forceful signal to the Taliban leaders not to push their own ambitions too far.
It is significant, in this respect, that the military has so far done nothing to dislodge the Taliban from Swat Valley. Maybe it's one step at a time, or maybe pushing them out of Buner is the only step the army plans to take.
To do much more could, after all, forebode, or unintentionally lead to, a dramatic shift in the nature of Pakistan, from—as Haqqani put it in his book—an ideological state to a functional one. That may be more than anyone could hope for. But it may be the only way that a lasting, tolerable peace can come about.