The Taliban’s Rising Tide
New York Times July 11, 2008
The swelling forces of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan’s border region pose a grave threat to American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. They also pose a grave threat to the Pakistani people. Pakistan’s Taliban militias, like their Afghan counterparts, are trying to impose their harsh medieval version of Islamic law. More than a thousand Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist attacks in the past year, mostly in the border areas where radical Islamic fighters are strongest.
Pakistan’s new military and civilian leaders, caught up in their own power struggles, have been dangerously derelict in acknowledging and confronting the threat. Instead, they have deluded themselves that they can negotiate a separate peace with fanatic Taliban leaders. Bitter experience has proved that will not work.
Sending United States troops into Pakistan’s border regions to try to clean out Taliban and Al Qaeda forces is also not the answer — and would provoke even fiercer anti-American furies across Pakistan. The poorly paid, ill-trained and uncertainly loyal Frontier Corps in Pakistan is not up to the job.
Pakistan’s civilian leaders and the new military commander, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, will need to commit to fighting the extremists — for the sake of their own country’s stability — and to sending in elite units specifically trained in counterinsurgency techniques. Local tribal leaders also need to be weaned away from the Taliban. That would only happen if Islamabad and Washington back their exhortations with substantial economic assistance.
The United States has showered Pakistan with more than $7 billion in military aid over the past six years, with little of it actually being used for counterinsurgency purposes. Over the same period, Washington has provided less than $3 billion in all other forms of assistance.
This month, Senators Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar plan to introduce sensible legislation that would provide up to $15 billion in aid to Pakistan over the next 10 years for economic development, health and education. Congress should move quickly to approve the aid.
The United States also needs to work with Pakistan’s new government to establish spending priorities and to ensure that any future aid is channeled in ways that would strengthen the civilian government and allow it to regain control over a military that has too often been a law unto itself and intelligence services that seem far more loyal to the extremists than their own government.
When Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, visits Washington later this month, President Bush should offer him strong political and economic backing in exchange for a firm commitment to support Afghanistan’s embattled government and fight Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorism in Pakistan.
Washington has made a lot of policy mistakes in Pakistan — most notably supporting Pervez Musharraf for far too long. It has forfeited most of its credibility with the Pakistani people and reinforced their belief that the fight against extremism is “Washington’s war” and not also their own.
Both countries have a common and increasingly urgent interest in rolling back the power of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and working together to promote democracy and development in Pakistan. President Bush needs to persuade Pakistan’s leaders of that — and he needs to do it now, before Al Qaeda and the Taliban get any stronger.