The Pakistani military is currently engaged in an offensive in the country’s northwestern region, pursuing Taliban militants who had infiltrated into the adjoining areas from their stronghold in the Swat Valley about 100 kilometers from Islamabad. The expansion of Taliban-held territory provoked sharp criticism from top U.S. officials last week.
Pakistan’s military says attack helicopters and fighter jets have been pounding militants in the Buner District, one of three districts in the Malakand Division of the North-West Frontier Province where groups of Taliban militants had advanced despite an agreement to disarm and to remain within their Swat Valley stronghold. In exchange for the disarmament, the government had pledged to establish Islamic courts in the Swat Valley. But Taliban expansion in the region and the Pakistani military’s reaction to it have put the peace deal in jeopardy.
A Pakistani Perspective
American University Professor Akbar Ahmad describes the situation as “fluid.” An anthropologist, journalist, diplomat, and Pakistan’s former Senior Civilian Representative to the tribal area of Waziristan, Professor Ahmed was also Commissioner in the Baluchistan Province. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA’s International Press Club, he suggests the government of Pakistan may not have done enough to quell the insurgency.
Akbar Ahmed says there needs to be a permanent solution – “a solution that brings in the majority of people in Pakistan, who are fed up with this constant breakdown of law and order, who are fed up with the high prices, with being locked in their homes, one day being exposed to the fire coming from the Taliban and the next day from the army.”
Although there has been much criticism in the international media of Pakistan’s unwillingness to take on the militants, Akbar Ahmed says Pakistanis themselves are divided on the best course. Among Pakistanis there is “great concern,” especially in cities such as Karachi and Lahore, “at what they see as Taliban encroachment into Pakistan.” However, among rural and tribal people, he observes, “there is an innate sympathy with the Taliban.” Professor Ahmed says, “People want to have normal prices, education for their kids, roads that can take their goods to market, and stability and security in their lives.” But, he adds, the government has not provided for those basic needs.
In retrospect, Akbar Ahmed says, the peace deal the government signed with a banned extremist religious organization said to have Taliban backing was probably flawed. Professor Ahmed describes that deal as “literally patched together as a face-saving device by the government, although they are putting on a brave face now and providing some spin by saying they did this deliberately to checkmate the Taliban.” He emphasizes that no government can compromise the authority of the state. “That is what must be reestablished by the government of Pakistan, even though the majority of people in Swat may want Sharia [Islamic law] because 100 percent of them are Muslims,” Professor Ahmed says.
An Afghan Perspective
Afghan journalist Nabi Misdaq strongly criticizes the Pakistani government for “allowing the practice of Sharia in the Swat Valley.” When the Taliban tried to “extend themselves to Buner, which is in the same division, it alarmed the Afghan government in Kabul,” he says. Misdaq explains that’s because the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan are in close contact. Furthermore, he says, “it was apparently understood that Sharia law would also be extended to Buner and Malakand.”
An Indian Perspective
Indian journalist Jehangir Pocha, director of INX News in New Delhi, calls the current conflict in Pakistan “very worrying.” Moreover, the threat of terrorism in India has spiraled because of the instability in neighboring Pakistan. “The real fear is that there are elements in the Pakistani military and in the intelligence services that don’t want to stop the Taliban,” he says.
But Pocha praises the independent media in Pakistan for their coverage of the current conflict. He says he thinks “the private media have been extremely responsible and brave in their reporting on both the problems with India and with the Taliban in the North-West Frontier Province.” Nonetheless, Pocha says, “There is still a lot of propaganda in Pakistan on street corners and in mosques and in village centers that blames India for Pakistan’s problems.”
A Global Problem
Professor Akbar Ahmed says the current instability is “not only a problem for Pakistan but also for the United States and the rest of the world.” There are many things the United States can do to help, he points out. For example, President Barack Obama has committed $5 billion dollars in aid each year for the next five years to Pakistan. Professor Ahmed says, “President Obama should make sure that the emphasis he is putting on education and health is implemented on the ground in Pakistan, and also that the money doesn’t disappear as it did over the last few years when former President Pervez Musharraf was in power.”
In addition, Professor Ahmed says, “There should be a diplomatic offensive from Washington to create good will among Pakistanis.” He says it is unfortunate that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saw fit to “publicly slam Pakistan” over its failure to contain the Taliban insurgency. “That of course created a backlash, because Pakistanis felt they were being humiliated in public, whereas we are doing everything possible to maintain stability in a very difficult situation,” Akbar Ahmed explains.
Earlier this week President Asif Ali Zardari made the case that Pakistan’s fight against terrorism is critical to international security saying, “If we lose, the world loses.” Washington, which had been pushing for stronger action against the Taliban, has welcomed Pakistan’s new military offensive. The action has prompted U.S. officials to consider a new aid package aimed at boosting the Pakistani military’s counterinsurgency capability and improving local governance.