Pakistan’s American problem

Anatol Lieven
8 May 2009

The war that has resumed between the Pakistani army and the Taliban in the northern mountains of Pakistan is not between two clearly defined sides, with clearly defined victory and defeat. It is, instead, a very complicated mixture of war and politics, in which episodes of extreme violence alternate with periods of negotiation. Anatol Lieven is a professor in the department of war studies at King's College, London. Among his books are The Baltic Revolution (Yale University Press, 1993), Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (Yale University Press, 1998), and America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism  (Oxford University Press, 2004). His latest book (co-written with John Hulsman) is Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World (Pantheon, 2006). He is currently writing a book about Pakistan

This article was published in the (London) Times         
Also by Anatol Lieven in openDemocracy:

"Missionaries and marines: Bush, Blair and democratisation" (18 September 2002)

"America right or wrong?" (8 September 2004)

"Israel and the American antithesis" (19 October 2004)

"Israel, the United States, and truth" (20 October 2004)

"Bush's choice: messianism or pragmatism?" (22 February 2005)

"Democratic failure: festering lilies smell worse than weeds" (27 October 2005)

"Israel and the Arabs: peace, not diktats" (24 July 2006)

"The Iran we have" (5 December 2006)

"At the Red Mosque in Islamadad" (4 June 2007)

One of those violent periods is resuming now. Barely two months after a peace deal with the Taliban was reached in mid-February 2009 to create a sharia system in the Swat district, the army is back on the offensive. The Taliban overstepped an unwritten mark when it tried to extend its control into the district of Buner, barely eighty kilometres northwest of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. The army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, stated clearly that a challenge to the existence of the Pakistani state would not be tolerated.

What will be tolerated is Taliban strength in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. As I discovered during a visit to the region in September 2008, the level of support for them there is such that crushing them completely would require a huge campaign of repression (see "For America, the problem is Pakistan", Financial Times, 7 April 2009).

As long as this conflict remains restricted to the mountains, in many ways the most important prize is not control of territory as such, but the support of the local population (see Ayesha Khanna & Parag Khanna, "How Pakistan Can Fix Itself, Foreign Policy, May 2009).

There are many reasons why this is so, and why even many Pakistanis who deeply oppose Taliban rule are also opposed to a tough military campaign against them. Three are worth noting. The first is (at least to judge by my interviews on the streets and in the bazaars) that the jihad of the Afghan Taliban against the United States "occupation" of Afghanistan enjoys overwhelming public approval in northern Pakistan; and the Pakistani Taliban gain a great measure of prestige from their alliance with this jihad (see Patrick Cockburn, "Where the Taliban roam", Independent, 6 May 2009)

The second is that, with the exception of some of the higher courts, the Pakistani judicial system is such a corrupt, slow, impenetrable shambles that the Taliban's programme of sharia enjoys a great deal of public support, at least in the Pashtun areas that I have visited. The third is that the security establishment is determined to prevent Afghanistan becoming an ally of India, and continues to shelter parts of the Afghan Taliban as a long-term "strategic asset" against this threat.

The real danger

In a way, however, you really have to know only one fact to understand what is happening: and that, to judge by my meetings with hundreds of Pakistanis from all walks of life over the past nine months, is that the vast majority of people believe that the 9/11 attacks were not an act of terrorism by al-Qaida, but a plot by the George W Bush administration or Israel to provide an excuse to invade Afghanistan and dominate the Muslim world.

It goes without saying that this belief is a piece of malignant cretinism, based on a farrago of invented "evidence" and hopelessly warped reasoning. But that is not the point. The point is that most of the Pakistani population genuinely believe it, even in Sindh where I have been travelling for the past week; and the people who believe it include the communities from which the army's soldiers, NCOs and junior officers are drawn (see Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: sources of turmoil", 28 April 2009). Understand this, and much else falls into place.

After all, if British soldiers strongly believed that the war in Afghanistan was the product of a monstrous American lie, involving the deliberate slaughter of thousands of America's own citizens, would they be willing for one moment to risk their lives fighting the Taliban?

All the same, it is important not to exaggerate the extent of Taliban power. Whatever Hillary Clinton, the United States secretary of state, may say about Pakistan being a "mortal threat", there is no possibility at present of the Taliban seizing Islamabad and bringing down the state. In Punjab, the province with a majority of the country's population, there has been a number of serious terrorist attacks and a growth of Taliban influence, but as yet, nothing like the insurgency occurring among the Pashtun tribes. In the interior of Sindh, support for the Taliban is virtually non-existent.

In Karachi, Pakistan's greatest city by far, the situation is more complicated. The vast majority of Karachi's Pashtuns support the Awami National Party (ANP), the moderate secular nationalist party now ruling in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). However, a small degree of Taliban infiltration has helped to reignite simmering tensions between the Pashtuns and the Mohajir majority, made up of people whose families migrated from India at the time of independence, who are represented by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM).

In clashes between the MQM and Pashtuns in Karachi on 29 April 2009, thirty-two people were killed - the great majority of them Pashtuns. The city fears that a return of inter-ethnic rivalry could cause great economic disruption and tie down yet more Pakistani soldiers who are desperately needed to fight the Taliban in the north.

The danger to Pakistan is not of a Taliban revolution, but rather of creeping destabilisation and terrorism. Even as Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari meets Barack Obama in the White House on 6 May, this reality makes any Pakistani help to Washington against the Afghan Taliban even less likely than it is at present.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan:

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan on edge" (25 September 2006)

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan"  (24 July 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)

Irfan Husain. "Pervez Musharraf: the commando who couldn't" (19 August 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan's political turmoil: Musharraf and beyond" (26 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: the new frontline" (18 September 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "The Pakistani army and the Afghanistan war" (25 November 2008)

Paul Rogers, "The AfPak war: three options" (25 February 2009)

Paul Rogers, "A three-front war: Iraq, AfPak...Washington" (20 March 2009)

Nadeem Ul Haque, "How to solve Pakistan's problem" (24 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: sources of turmoil" (30 April 2009)

Also - regular reports and comment on the region in openIndia

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