Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Inside the Pakistani Handling of the Swat Valley

The irascible Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate this week, believes the Pakistani truce with the Taliban in the Northwestern region of Swat is just one part of the eventual unraveling of the state.

Instead of purchasing peace, the Pakistani government has surrendered part of its heartland without a fight to those who can and will convert it into a base for further and more exorbitant demands. This is not even a postponement of the coming nightmare, which is the utter disintegration of Pakistan as a state. It is a stage in that disintegration.

Though his stark assessment of a failed state in its infancy is quite candid, the notion that the Pakistani government ceded a modernized former tourist outpost to a Taliban faction that never had any roots in the region has been problematic to many in the Obama administration. They worry that fundamentalist sanctuary was created in one sweep of the pen following the truce.

The seeds of the rise of the Taliban in the Swat Valley did not materialize overnight, but had been brewing since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 and in part a sidebar to decades-long conflict between Pakistan and India.

Author Ahmed Rashid, whose book on the Taliban stood as the sole text on the then-obscure fundamentalist Muslim sect after 9/11, told Democracy Now! in June that the conflicts between tribal groups and Pakistanis on the border became a religious and family affair fused with an institutional fear by the Pakistanis of Indian dominance.

The tribes are divided by an artificial border created by the British. And the Pashtuns are the main recruiting base for the Taliban, and they’re also the main recruiting base for these paramilitary forces. So you had cousin fighting cousin, cousin on the Taliban side, another cousin on the Pakistan army side.

And their failure to deal with this, largely because of their refusal to retrain and rearm as a counterinsurgency force, because they go in as this army used to fighting on the plains of Punjab against Indian tanks rather than, you know, re-equipping and retraining as counterinsurgency forces, these heavy casualties they’ve taken have led to then these very dubious kinds of peace deals, which are essentially a surrender document by the Pakistan army to say, “Well, as long as you Taliban don’t attack us, the Pakistan army, we’ll let you stay where you are.”

This is what ultimately occurred last month. In addition, Rashid said earlier in the interview, the Pakistani government portrays the specter of India as a "bogey man" to the people. He says, for example, that the government continues to offer up a scenario of a huge Indian presence up north in Afghanistan seemingly ready to pounce on Pakistan. In essence, it illustrates that Pakistan has its eye primarily on India, with which it has fought three wars and still disputes the region of Kashmir.

How does the new American president handle Central Asia? President Obama has already vowed to escalate the war in Afghanistan at the expense of withdrawing troops from Iraq. Rashid believes Obama must look at the region as one giant geopolitical puzzle. "The first thing I would recommend very much for the new president is that you have to look at this region as a whole," said Rashid, "You cannot resolve the crisis in Afghanistan without ending the sanctuaries in Pakistan. You cannot persuade the Pakistan army to end those sanctuaries, unless you persuade the Indians to do something about Kashmir."

Lately, the President has showed a willingness to heed Rashid's advice. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently said that the U.S. is open to interacting with the Iranians and their role in the region, and one of President Obama's first executive decisions was to send drones to bomb the tribal regions of Pakistan along with making talks with the Pakistanis a prime campaign talking point.

With special envoy Richard Holbrooke now in the region and the work of Clinton already in the works the days of "either you're with us or against us" have now led to a return of complex diplomatic maneuvering that is hopefully in good hands

Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban and Descent into Chaos, will discuss the multi-faceted problems the United States faces in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India at The Commonwealth Club of California Wednesday at noon. Click here for more information.


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