Defeating the Taliban is a pipe dream

SF Gate
May 17, 2009

A friend called from Lahore, Pakistan, and asked if I could put up his family in my home in the Washington suburbs.

“Most welcome!” I said. “When are you all coming?”

“As soon as Pakistan begins to collapse!” replied Abdul Wahid Qureshi, a retired college professor.

Qureshi was responding, facetiously, to David Kilcullen‘s forecast that Pakistan would “collapse” within “one to six months” from an “extremist takeover” of its institutions. Kilcullen served as the top adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, chief of the U.S. Central Command.

You can’t blame Pakistanis, beset with myriad problems, for having a little diversion over Americans’ curious words and deeds about their country. I bet many of them were amused by the outcry in Washington for a military “defeat “of the Taliban, which has driven Islamabad into war against the guerrilla movement. That war has cost more than 700 lives, according to the Pakistani government, and driven 834,000 people out of their homes, according to a U.N. report.

The Pakistani army already had tried but couldn’t defeat the Taliban. And Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani is promising to “flush [them] out” of their Swat area stronghold, not defeat them. Most Pakistanis know why their government, which had helped create the Taliban and has been ambivalent about their recent activities, went to war against them and when it did. The government of President Asif Ali Zardari initiated the anti-Taliban offensive on the eve of his visit to the United States. And his trip was timed to coincide with the consideration of a substantial Pakistan aid package by the Obama administration and Congress.

With Zardari at his side, President Obama announced his plans to “meet the threat of extremism [in Pakistan] with a positive program of growth and opportunity.” The House Appropriations Committee approved $1 billion in emergency aid to Pakistan, more than half of it economic. A five-year, $7.5 billion Pakistan aid package was subsequently introduced in Congress, a big chunk of it would fund programs for public good.

Since 9/11, Pakistan has received $12 billion in U.S. assistance. Most of it has gone to the military, and Obama aides say the Bush administration aid couldn’t halt the Taliban march because it was focused exclusively on the use of the stick. They believe their use of the carrot would do the trick by winning Pakistanis’ hearts and minds and thus alienating them from the marauding guerrillas.

This reminds me of a Pakistani student’s prognosis of Islamism. I had been invited to Karachi University to give a talk. I had asked the student why Islamists had not done well in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections, despite their huge public rallies and strong organizations. “Islam inspires Muslims on the big issues,” she said, “religious issues, social suppression, foreign invasion … issues over which people die and kill. Elections are about building schools, lowering prices, etc., for which people turn to practical politicians.”

I had heard the argument before, and concur with it to an extent. I don’t think the administration’s goodies for Pakistan and courtship of the notoriously corrupt Zardari (with a 19 percent approval rating) would derail the Taliban movement. Many Pakistanis abhor the Taliban’s xenophobia and cruelty in their implementation of Islamic law. Yet, as I found out during my two latest trips to Pakistan, most Pakistanis support the Islamists’ struggle to rid Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO forces. It’s a “big issue” for them.

Islamism has been a feature of Pakistan, which will not “collapse” from a spike in the Taliban Islamist ferment. If anything could destabilize Pakistan now, it would be this internecine war. Yet the feckless Zardari government may want to continue the conflict as long as the U.S. aid money keeps flowing. To spare the troubled nation further instability – and me the trouble of putting up the Qureshis! – the Obama administration should explore a new Pakistan strategy, beginning perhaps with an exit strategy from Afghanistan.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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