by ARYN BAKER
April 23rd, 2009
The move by Taliban-backed militants into the Buner district of northwestern Pakistan, closer than ever to Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad, have prompted concerns both within the country and abroad that the nuclear-armed nation of 165 million is on the verge of inexorable collapse.
On Wednesday a local Taliban militia crossed from the Swat Valley – where a February cease-fire allowed the implementation of strict Islamic, or Shari’a, law – into the neighboring Buner district, which is just a few hours drive from Islamabad (65 miles, separated by a mountain range, as the crow flies). ((See pictures on the frontlines in the battle against the Taliban.)
Residents streaming from Buner, home to nearly a million people, told local newspapers that armed militants are patrolling the streets. Pakistani television stations aired footage of Taliban soldiers looting government offices and capturing vehicles belonging to aid organizations and development projects. The police, say residents, are nowhere to be seen. The shrine of a local Muslim saint, venerated across the country, was closed. The Taliban, which adheres to a stricter version of Islam than is practiced in most of Pakistan, hold that worship at such shrines goes against the teachings of Islam.
Meanwhile courts throughout the Malakand division, of which Swat and Buner are a part, have closed in deference to the new agreement calling for the implementation Shari’a, law. “If the Taliban continue to move at this pace they will soon be knocking at the doors of Islamabad,” Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of one of the country’s Islamic political parties, warned in Parliament Wednesday. Rehman said the Margalla Hills, a small mountain range north of the capital that separates it from Buner, appears to be “the only hurdle in their march toward the federal capital,” The only solution, he said, was for the entire nation to accept Shari’a law in order to deprive the Taliban of their principal cause.
The fall of Buner is raising international alarm. Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized the situation was a danger to Pakistan, the U.S. and the world. “We cannot underscore the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by continuing advances, now within hours of Islamabad, that are being made by a loosely confederated group of terrorists and others who are seeking the overthrow of the Pakistani state,” Clinton said. She also accused Pakistan’s leaders of “basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists” by signing the cease-fire agreement. (Read “Will Pakistan Toughen Up on the Taliban?”)
Even before the fall of Buner, the capital was in a state of panic. Private schools were closed for two weeks for fear that militants would attempt a siege, along the lines of the Taliban attack on a police academy in Lahore last month. And an unspecified threat against foreigners two weeks ago resulted in the closure of the U.S. embassy and the British High Commission for a day.
On Sunday, just a week after Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari signed a provision allowing for the implementation of Islamic law in Malakand, Sufi Mohammad, the local religious leader who negotiated the accord (and who is father-in-law to the local Taliban leader), announced that he would not recognize the Supreme Court of Pakistan, even in cases of appeal. He also said that while the Taliban fighters would adhere to the peace agreement, they would not give up their arms.
Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, defended the government’s concession to the Taliban, denying in an interview with CNN that the cease-fire agreement amounted to capitulation. He justified the action by comparing it to the 2006 U.S.-led Anbar Awakening in Iraq in which U.S. military commanders struck agreements with moderate jihadists. “We are open to criticism of that strategy, but to think that that strategy somehow represents an abdication of our responsibility toward our people and toward the security of our country and the region is incorrect,” Haqqani said.
Also on Wednesday, a top adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani made an explosive announcement accusing a long-simmering separatist movement in the province of Baluchistan of being sponsored by archenemy India and Afghanistan. The mysterious deaths of several Baluch leaders over the past few weeks have renewed demands for Baluch independence from the nation of Pakistan.
The implication by Rehman Malik, Gilani’s Interior Affairs adviser, that neighboring countries were fomenting instability in Pakistan will only heighten regional tensions at a moment when the country is least equipped to deal with them. Already columnists in several Pakistani newspapers are warning of a return to 1971, when a separatist movement in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, ended with a civil war that split the nation.
David Kilcullen, a counter-terrorism expert for both the Bush and the Obama administrations, warned that Pakistan is on the brink of collapse. “Afghanistan doesn’t worry me,” Kilcullen said in an April 12 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “Pakistan does. We have to face the fact that if Pakistan collapses it will dwarf anything we have seen so far in whatever we’re calling the war on terror now.”
During an April 16 conference in Tokyo to raise donations for his beleaguered nation, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari warned that terrorists operating in the country posed a global threat. At that conference, countries including the U.S. and Japan pledged more than $5 billion to improve health, education and governance in Pakistan.
But with security and stability increasingly in doubt, it’s becoming clear that more urgent action is needed beyond financial donations aimed at institution-building. Neither Zardari nor opposition leaders have been able to come up with answers to the insurgency. Columnist Kamila Hyat, writing in The News, called for an overhaul of current strategies, including reaching out to Pakistan’s old foe, India. If Pakistan doesn’t have to worry about protecting its eastern flank, she argued, it can concentrate on solving its internal problems. “The only option for Pakistan is to break free of the militant grip, focus on building a new relationship with India and realize the only hope for a brighter future lies in building regional harmony rather than waging war.” It’s a sound proposal for the long term, but with the Taliban already taking advantage of the peace deal in Swat to expand their reach, Pakistan may be forced into negotiating with militants first.