The battle against Taliban militants in the tribal belt and North West Frontier province along the Afghan border has become a tipping-point for Pakistan’s internal security and stability. The news spread last week that nuclear-armed Pakistan is drifting towards disaster as the vast stretches of the country's rugged and wild northwest -- the heartland of the Taliban insurgency – was completely over-taken by Taliban militants. The brazen take-over of the strategically located Buner district in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) which followed the establishment of a mini state in the scenic Swat Valley not only rattled the confidence of the Pakistani people but also rang alarm bells in western capitals about the world’s only Islamic country with nuclear power.
Questions are being raised once again about whether the Pakistani government and its military lack the will or ability to stop the erstwhile-unabated march of the Taliban. Already reeling from intense criticism for signing a controversial peace deal with militants in the Swat Valley, the walking-style Taliban take-over of the Buner district in the NWFP is further intensified by a flurry of alarming headlines about the collapse of Pakistan into the waiting hands of the Taliban.
The threat of Talibanization is now a reality. Needless to say, the Pakistani Taliban led by Commander Baituallah Mehsud has over-run most parts of the seven tribal agencies known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In most parts of the tribal region, the existence of the government is in name only, as Taliban militants have virtually free rein, running parallel administrations and using the territory as a base from which to mount attacks inside Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan. What is worrisome, however, is that Taliban militants have expanded their influence in settled parts of the country, challenging state writ and establishing their own mini states. Over the past two years, Fazlullah's black-turbaned militant fighters established their own mini state amid the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush in the Swat valley, turning the picturesque valley into a battleground. The scenic valley was once known as "the Switzerland of Asia." Unlike the tribal areas, which are officially semiautonomous, and, in practice, have never been under the direct government's control, Swat is part of Pakistan's so-called settled areas. The government is supposed to rule there with full authority.
Given the situation, the big question now being raised in Washington more than anywhere else is whether or not Pakistan can survive the rising tide of its homegrown Taliban. There is ongoing debate about the future of Pakistan. Some “experts” have already predicted its break up. Even a map has been published depicting what a collapsed Pakistan would look like, showing parts of Pakistan’s territory merging with Afghanistan and illustrating a new free Baluchistan. Such conclusions, however, are inaccurate and misguided.
Out of a population of 170 million, the number of Taliban militants is just in the thousands. The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis vehemently oppose the Taliban and their version of Sharia. Coming from the NWFP myself, I have heard so many Pashtuns in my region cursing Taliban and their brutalities. “How come they are teaching Islam to us and imposing Sharia in our society-are we not Muslims?” is what I am hearing from many Pashtun elders.
The problem in fighting against the Taliban is throughout the tribal region and frontier province, the war against the Taliban insurgents is unpopular. The Pashtuns of the Northwest and many Pakistanis consider it America's war. The current regime has the daunting task to mould public opinion and convince local people that it’s actually Pakistan’s own war. There has been a sea change against Taliban among local people. Even many right-wing religious groups have started to resist the Taliban influence and are strongly encouraging military operations to flush out Taliban militants from their bases in Swat valley.
Today, Pakistan is facing a number of problems. Yet, there is no doubt that terrorism tops the list. That Pakistan has been passing through a critical state of its history has become a cliché. And what’s happening today in FATA and frontier province is a direct result of the continued failed policies of successive regimes. It’s needless to go to the distant past as the current quagmire is a post 9/11 phenomenon. First, it was the discredited military regime of former President Pervez Musharraf, and now it’s an un-popular democratic government of Pakistan People’s Party led by Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto. There is a general agreement among Pakistanis that both the former military dictator and the so-called current democratic regime went too far in supporting what local people deem as “America’s War.” People spoke unequivocally against Musharraf and his allies in the February 2008 elections. The secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party won a popular vote in the Frontier Province. The euphoria of the change of guard in the wake of general elections, however, proved just wishful thinking because one and half years down the road one can see that things have worsened rather than improved.
But all this does not mean that Pakistan is going to fall within a few months. That’s just a misguided conclusion of some so-called experts who have ignored other realities on the ground. What Pakistan is facing today is basically a “leadership crisis.” There are some big challenges for the country, but none of them are impossible to solve. Pakistani forces do have the ability to fight militants and flush them out. But the problem lies with leadership. Those who present a doomsday scenario for Pakistan should not forget the following three factors, largely ignored in the sensational headlines of the Taliban takeovers.
First and foremost, Pakistan has a very strong middle class which is pro-democracy and completely against the Taliban and their strict version of Islam. In the last general elections, this middle class unequivocally spoke in favor of secular parties like Pakistan People’s Party, Awami National Party, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.
Secondly, the emergence of a strong civil society is a pivotal movement in Pakistan’s history. The reinstatement of sacked Supreme Court chief justice, Chaudhar Iftikhar, for instance, was considered unbelievable. All this happened due to the iconic struggle by the middle class.
Last, but not the least, is the mushrooming independent media. Media has been playing a tremendous role in shaping Pakistan’s future. These three factors are very important recent developments which have, unfortunately, gone unnoticed by those experts predicting the collapse of Pakistan.
Today Pakistan has become the original front in the war against terrorism. International community headed by the United States must help Pakistan to counter and eliminate the scourge of terrorism. The future of Pakistan does not lie in the hands of Taliban militants. How can thousands of Taliban militants occupy a nation of more than 170 million people? Pakistan’s future will be shaped by the millions of middle class Pakistanis, a hyper-active civil society, and a vibrant and vigilant media. Pakistan badly needs a strong leadership to practically demonstrate the ability to lead the country out of its current crisis.
The views expressed here are the writer’s own, not necessarily those of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policies.