5 years, 5 months ago
Nick Schmidle has written an essay in Slate on How to Save Pakistan. Nick, with whom I have exchanged e-mail, is not only a first rate Pakistan and Taliban scholar (see his work on Next-Gen Taliban), but an all around nice guy (and if he sends me a copy of his new book, I would give it a great review). He deserves to be read by anyone interested in the future of Asia and its implications for our own security. Parts of his piece are reproduced below.
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.
… 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.
First of all, Nick is right that the province of Punjab is the next battle space. And in Karachi more than 100 Taliban fighters launched an attack on a Christian neighborhood, killing some, burning homes and brutalizing others. Nick is right to be concerned about the most central and important province in Pakistan.
But is his solution the right one? To say that the Islamist parties were drubbed in the last election misses the point, in my opinion. The elections were more about rejection of the old guard’s ability to govern rather than their view of the Taliban (who completely sat out and ignored the elections based on theological principle). But we may overlook this point since this is still in the provinces that Nick is recommending we abandon. His focus is on Punjab. His recommendation is basically geographic seclusion.
Will it work to isolate the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North West Frontier Province? My sense is that it won’t. Nick is smart and does mention right up front that there are dangers with this approach, such as the fact that the Taliban won’t be content with holding this terrain. Their goals have been both regional and global. He also mentions that the Taliban will continue to have sanctuary for attacks against NATO troops from these regions of Pakistan.
AM mentions that Dave Kilcullen also raised the question of logistical routes which flow from Karachi to either the Khyber pass or Chaman, yet another risk with this approach. So did I by telling you that the Taliban strategy included interdiction of logistical routes – more than one year ago (then also covering logistics issues for the last year). I also recommended an alternative route through the Caucasus, although as mentioned earlier, it might require hitting the “make my day” button with Russia rather than the more effeminate “reset” button.
Either way, Nick is interesting and compelling reading. He seems to have landed on the last option before I have, and unless we can project increased force into the near regions of Afghanistan (Helmand, Nuristan and Kunar Provinces) and convince the Pakistan Army to conduct counterinsurgency in Pakistan, Nick’s recommendations may indeed be our last and best option. I don’t think it is lost yet.