Saturday, June 28, 2008

Pakistan, Afghanistan, And The Taliban

So the army has predictably launched a series of strikes against the Taliban and affiliated militants outside Peshawar. I suppose it qualifies as timely action when you do something once one of the country's biggest cities is under peril of being turned over, and when people from the area are saying things like "The situation is like water flowing into a field and until you have some obstruction to stop it, you will drown. We are drowning", and when militants are executing "spies", and distributing flyers to truckers prohibiting them from doing their job, and seizing a girls school and converting it into a madrassa because the "Western system of education is not good for girls." Come on, people. Give peace a chance! More talks! More deals! Our people! America's war!

In all seriousness, I've been thinking about this issue in some detail over the last few days, mainly because I've been commissioned to (and isn't thinking only tolerable when you're getting paid for it?). I do want to retract one set of assertions I've been making for quite a while on this blog, and that is that the Taliban want power and control over Pakistan along with Afghanistan. Now I'm more likely to think that while Afghanistan is still the endgame for the Taliban, Pakistan is more of a bargaining chip or signaling tool, relaying information about Taliban strength and resolve to its adversaries, namely the U.S. and the Pakistan governments.

Why do I think this? A couple of reasons. First, while I am cognizant of the usual warnings about taking public statements at face value, it is striking that the Taliban almost never mention gaining political power in Pakistan as a goal. Broadly speaking, they tend to mention two goals. First, they want an end to the alliance between Pakistan and the U.S. In that rare rendezvous with local, national, and international journalists a couple of months ago, Baitullah Mehsud had the following to say: "We do not want to fight Pakistan or the [Pakistan] army. But if they continue to be slaves to U.S. demands, then our hands will be forced." The Taliban's second goal is that hey want foreign forces allied to the U.S. and NATO to leave Afghanistan. Both Maulvi Umar and Jalaluddin Haqqani have emphasized that jihad will continue until international forces withdraw from Afghanistan. These two goals - and end to U.S.-Pakistan cooperation and the exit of international forces from Afghanistan - are essentially means to an end themselves, and the end, I suspect, is to regain control of Afghanistan. Only if there is a political and military vacuum in Afghanistan will the Taliban be able to wrest control as they did in the 1990s, and that is what they are seeking to bring about by ending the role of the U.S. and NATO in the region.

The second reason that I think the Taliban are not aiming for Pakistan is that it will be much harder for them to make political inroads in a country with admittedly underdeveloped but still vibrant political and civic dynamics. More importantly, the Taliban know this, and so will aim for only what they can get. Pakistan has surprisingly well-developed political parties, and a pretty deep-rooted bureaucracy. It is much harder for military-political organizations like the Taliban to penetrate established areas like say urban Punjab or Sindh than it was in Kabul in the 1990s or FATA over the last five or so years. Put another way, I think gaining political control over Pakistan is a task that the Taliban probably don't think is worth the costs and difficulties in doing so, so they won't bother trying.

So then why, one may legitimately ask, are we seeing the Taliban spread their wings into areas like Peshawar and Karachi? My answer is that the Taliban are trying to accomplish two aims with this series of assaults. One, they are sending a signal of their resolve and strength to both Pakistan and NATO. By conveying how difficult they can make life for a supremely important ally for the sake of Afghanistan's "success", the Taliban are essentially trying to warn the both Pakistan and the international community from interference in Afghanistan's affairs. They are saying: this is what we can do over here. Now back off over there.

The second goal of this offensive Taliban operation could conceivably be to goad the new government into a disproportionate response and win public sympathy. For a number of reasons, the fight against militancy when Musharraf was calling the shots was colored and portrayed as a trigger-happy general overstepping his bounds to do his patron's dirty work against "our people". The government, in other words, lost the PR war by not being able to brings its public along in the war against the militants.

So far, this government has stayed away from heavy-handed military tactics in their effort to quell the violence, and the Taliban could be forwarding this offensive to change that. A response that is perceived as disproportionately measured will once again cede the moral high ground to the militants for much of Pakistan's population, the way it did during the Lal Masjid crisis. Their place in the PR war could be leading the Taliban to try to provoke the new Pakistani government. Baituallah Mehsud has gone on record saying that the PR war is crucial to him and his organization (as their "media cell" tells it, they can soon be caught on YouTube). The Taliban certainly would not be the first militant or insurgent group that tried to draw its bigger rival in to a heavy-handed operation to gain public sympathy. This viewpoint is strengthened by the fact that the Taliban's approval ratings have dropped (three separate surveys here, here, and here) in the last few months. The Taliban know they are losing the PR war lately, and this could be an effort to redress that imbalance.


Anonymous said...

I think your first reason is right. This column by Syed Saleem Shehzad essentially says the same thing. The reason we're seeing these displays of aggression in Jandola and Peshawar are because they are responses to US pressure on Pakistan to join it in its "pincer movement" on Kandahar and Khost because NATO badly needs the help of the Pakistan army. Mehsud and the others know this and they are likewise putting pressure on the Pakistan government not to help NATO and deploy troops along the border.

Riaz Haq said...

Control of Afghanistan is only the short-term objective for the Taliban. The Taliban understand that they can not sustain themselves in Afghanistan unless they have strong influence in Islamabad. Eventually, their goal is for one unified Islamic Caliphate extending across the globe. It is hard to believe, but this rag tag band is highly ambitious, and prepared to make the ultimate sacrifices for it. Their victory over the Soviets has convinced them of their power, even though the defeat of the Soviet Union would not have been possible without strong US and Pakistani support.

changinguppakistan said...

Great analysis - I completely agree with your reasoning behind what the Taliban's "end goals" are.