No doubt Musharraf’s opponents will dismiss the new offensive as a temporary sop to the Americans. That’s too simple. It’s true that Musharraf has a history of making antiterrorist gestures at just around the time American diplomats come calling. Now that Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte has paid Musharraf a visit, the time seems right to try to please the Americans. Yet Pakistan’s offensive in Swat should not be written off so easily.
The fact that Musharraf is launching an assault on Swat in response to American pressure is hardly reason for complaint. The notion that some Pakistani leader is going to decide, purely on his own, to press a long-term assault against the Islamists in the northwest is a utopian fantasy. Americans are inclined to think that a truly enlightened Pakistani leader ought to recognize the deeper threat of the Islamists, and go after them consistently and with enthusiasm. But how can any Pakistani leader do this when the broader public, including sections of the army itself, see the Islamists as heroes, or at least not as enemies? Pakistan’s long-term interest may well lie with the West, rather than with the radical Islamists. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s broader public hasn’t yet caught up to that view.
There are also strategic reasons why no Pakistani leader is likely to push, unbidden, for the Taliban’s total destruction. Pakistan is in a continual state of military tension with India. With a large, nuclear-armed rival to its east, Pakistan can ill afford a hostile Afghanistan to its West. Yet Afghanistan’s current government is sympathetic to India, and largely shuts out the influence of the ethnic Pashtuns who populate southeast Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan. The Taliban, made up of Pashtuns, is Pakistan’s only lever for influencing Afghanistan should NATO and America pull out. So the strategic interest of any Pakistani leader will, at best, be to contain the Taliban, without totally routing them. That’s why Musharraf and his army have been more willing to go after the foreigners who make up al-Qaeda than after the Taliban itself.
The remarkable thing is that, since 9/11, and at our urging, Musharraf has at least periodically moved against the Islamists. True, a little over a year ago, Musharraf effectively capitulated to al Qaeda and the Taliban, granting them safe havens which have only expanded since then. But prior to that, the Pakistani army took heavy casualties in a long struggle against the Islamists, and it is highly doubtful that a reluctant army would have made the same effort under orders from Benazir Bhutto. Even when Bhutto was in office, she had no power over the army, which largely ran Pakistan’s military and foreign affairs on its own.
Given all this, Musharraf’s new offensive in Swat is a potentially significant affair. It’s certainly possible that the army will refuse to fight, in which case we will learn something of importance about the limits of any leader’s ability to forestall the Talibanization of Pakistan.
Not Window Dressing
Yet the current offensive in Swat looks to be more than a quick effort to placate a visiting American diplomat. For one thing, Musharraf has replaced local government militias with 15,000 regular army troops, supported by Cobra attack helicopters. This means the assault is much more likely to be effective. It also means that Musharraf is risking the potential disaster of a refusal to fight, or even open rebellion, by Islamist sympathizers within the regular army itself. The Pakistani army rarely briefs the media, yet has done so in this case. A rare press briefing could be dismissed as mere posturing for international consumption, and surely it is partly that. But by going public with plans for an assault on Swat, the army has put its prestige on the line. There is even a publicly announced goal of reopening Swat to tourism by the end of December. A politically risky assault on both the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies in full public glare, with a declared time-table for victory, should not be dismissed as window-dressing.
Given the broad-based hostility to the war on terror, emergency rule during the assault on Swat may not be as ill-timed and counter-productive as some think. Of course, the long-term outlook for Pakistan in the wake of emergency rule is decidedly poor. A politically isolated Musharraf is a bad long-term bet. Yet, sad to say, when it comes to the war on terror, Musharraf’s domestic opponents offer no better — and likely far worse.
A serious effort to peel back the Islamist takeover in Swat is a clever move on Musharraf’s part, because it gives him a lever against the United States. If the U.S. threatens to cut off military aid in the middle of a credible attack on Swat, Musharraf can simply call off his assault. It’s a dangerous game, especially given Musharraf’s long-term political weakness. Yet Musharraf’s opportunity to maintain American support by attacking the Islamists could be our best hope of making military progress in Pakistan. A stable and politically united Pakistan fully committed to America’s war on terror would be far better than the current situation. But that fantasy is unlikely ever to be fulfilled.
So it may be that half-a-loaf is the best we can hope for. Instead of chastising the administration for the trouble in Pakistan, we should reflect on the near-miracle of Musharraf’s post-9/11 turnaround. Given long-standing public sympathy for the Islamists, we’re lucky Pakistan has remained in our corner this long. If the most we ever get is on-again/off-again containment of the Islamists, that sadly, may be better than any alternative on offer.