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?
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.
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.
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.