The Pakistani army’s operation in the Swat Valley is the most serious in five years of selective counterinsurgency against the local Taliban. The scale of the campaign, and of the humanitarian catastrophe it has unleashed, is immense. In two weeks, more than a million civilians have fled the fighting, with tens of thousands in tent cities on torrid plains. Some 15,000 soldiers–including commandos–are battling 5,000 guerrillas in mountain redoubts or in heavily mined cities like Mingora.
The war is the fruit of a failed peace process, backed by the army and civilian government but decried by the United States as an “abdication” that allowed insurgents to move within sixty-two miles of Islamabad. But is it a change? Or is it a continuation of old Pakistani-US strategies that have failed in the past?
President Barack Obama says it’s a change. “Over the last several weeks we’ve seen a decided shift in the Pakistan army’s recognition that the threat from extremism is a much more immediate and serious one than the threat from India that they’ve traditionally focused on,” he told Newsweek on May 13. Obama has skillfully convinced Congress that guerrillas on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border pose a “mortal threat” to the homeland, to America’s losing war in Afghanistan and to its precarious, nuclear-tipped “ally” in Islamabad. On May 14 the House approved $1.9 billion in aid to Pakistan, $591 million more than requested–most of which was tagged to civilian governance rather than military hardware. Coupled with the May 19 pledge of $110 million in emergency relief, the bill triples civilian aid to Pakistan, supplying ballast to a government Washington knows is keeling from several storms.
The aid comes despite reports that Pakistan is expanding its nuclear arsenal and that its intelligence agency is “playing both sides” in Afghanistan. It also feeds a growing misperception in the Western media and among policy analysts that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are about to topple a nuclear state.
Yet it is incoherent. For Obama is also killing Pakistanis at a faster rate than Bush did. Sixteen Predator strikes on alleged Al Qaeda fugitives have crashed into the tribal areas this year, the latest on May 16 killing thirty people, including tribal militants, women and children. The relentless drone attacks have wiped out whatever good will Obama hoped to gain with the aid.
Refugees–caught between Taliban snipers and army choppers–say “dozens” of corpses lie unburied in fields or piled up in canals. A steady stream of soldiers are flown to military hospitals in Peshawar every day. “It’s our war. It was imposed on us. That’s why we have to fight it,” said 23-year-old commando Nadir Khan, hit by sniper fire within four hours of his first skirmish.
This sentiment is new. Pakistanis have historically been hostile to military campaigns against the Taliban, casting them as “America’s war.” But most support the Swat offensive. More remarkably, so does Pakistan’s main opposition party, electronic media and many Islamic leaders. For this “shift in recognition” Obama can thank the Taliban.
The clerics’ savage rule in Swat was epitomized by the widely distributed video showing a 17-year-old girl being whipped for alleged “illicit relations.” But it was compounded by their statements denouncing democracy and an independent judiciary as “infidel” systems that would be replaced by their vision of Sharia, or Islamic law. For a people who have spent large parts of the Islamic Republic’s sixty-one-year existence struggling for democracy and an independent judiciary against US-backed dictatorships, this was a bit much.
But opinion is fickle. In the teeming refugee camps, support for the military operation is highest among those who suffered most from the Taliban: educated women and the urban middle class. “The Taliban shattered my hopes of becoming a doctor,” spat Rukhsana, whose school in Mingora was bombed as part of the Taliban’s drive against girls’ education. But among the rural poor–the vast majority–the mood is ambivalent. “I don’t know if this war is for us or to destroy us,” said Sirajuddin, a village teacher. “I only know peace will come with Sharia. And only the Taliban can bring Sharia, not the army.”
Also, many have seen this movie before. Twice in the past eighteen months the army has ousted the Taliban from Mingora, only to see them return. The Taliban not only outfought a derelict local government; they out-administered it, establishing “Islamic” courts, governors and militia. Even if the army vanquishes the Taliban in Swat, their leaders will likely find sanctuary in South Waziristan or other parts of the tribal belt along the border, or in Afghanistan. The powerhouse of the Pakistani Taliban would stay intact, along with the fear of their revival.
The army says “this time” it will hold recaptured territory until the civilian administration is robust enough to govern. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has said that after Swat, the army will take the war to South Waziristan. But that is hyperbole. The overstretched army has about 150,000 men fighting on five fronts. Holding these territories and extending the fight to South Waziristan would be possible only if reinforcements came from the 250,000 men stationed on the eastern border with India. And that’s not going to happen.
Ever since the Pakistani jihadi group Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked Mumbai in November, Islamabad and Delhi have been at war–cold, defused, but war nonetheless. Half of India’s million-strong strike forces are near the Pakistan border or on the armistice line that divides Kashmir, the perennially disputed Himalayan territory claimed by both countries. Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani has reportedly told Washington he would move troops from the border if India did the same. Delhi’s response was to mount three days of “war games.” On May 15 Kayani told Parliament there would be no movement of troops from east to west, even though Washington had given “guarantees” against any Indian “misadventure.” Parliament applauded.
In other words–Obama’s comments notwithstanding–Pakistan’s “threat recognition” hasn’t changed. The tactical foe is the Pakistani Taliban, but the strategic adversary remains India. The Pakistani army will act ruthlessly against those who challenge the state, such as the Taliban in Swat and Al Qaeda-linked militants elsewhere. But it will not act against those who, like the Afghan Taliban, seek only a haven from which to fight America and NATO in Afghanistan. On the contrary, should the cold war on the eastern border become hot, such militants could again be proxies to hurt India’s interests in Afghanistan or Kashmir.
Obama knows that resolving Kashmir is a critical piece of the “Af-Pak” strategy; he even mooted a renewed push for negotiations during his campaign for president. But in office he has been faced with a massive Indian lobbying effort warning that his special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, would be shunned by Delhi if his brief included Kashmir. It has worked; Holbrooke hasn’t mentioned Kashmir. And the Pakistani army is convinced that America and India form an axis against it.
There is a hole at the heart of Af-Pak. It’s called peace between Pakistan and India. And no amount of aid, “decided shifts” or apocalyptic warnings will fill it.