President Obama sat down yesterday with the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan to seek a way out of the existential crisis now facing those two nations. As reported by the press, Obama secured commitments from them for greater cooperation in the struggle against the “common threat,” as well as assurances that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would be secure — in other words, the same promises and commitments that every White House meeting with Pakistan’s leaders since 9/11 has invariably delivered. One thing that almost certainly was not discussed is the real nature of the problem facing the three countries and Washington’s decisive contribution to it. As a result, whatever putative solutions were agreed upon will remain putative; and, even if the Pakistani army makes temporary headway against the Taliban in Swat and elsewhere, the problem will continue to fester and undermine the viability of Pakistan and Afghanistan alike.
Put simply, the Taliban, murderous as it is, is not the problem. The problem is the Pakistani military and the stubborn refusal of Washington to comprehend this basic reality. We need to remind ourselves that Pakistan is not a sovereign state with a military, but a sovereign military with a state at its disposal to use as it sees fit. And it has been that way almost from the beginning of Pakistan’s existence, despite an occasional short interlude of civilian rule. To maintain its undisputed dominance and its claims to a huge chunk of the national treasure, the military needed the specter of a powerful enemy and an ideology capable of mobilizing the largely illiterate masses behind its self-image as savior of the nation. It found the former in India, the latter in radical Islam.
Implacable hostility to India (and to civilian politicians suspected of seeking a modus vivendi with it) and a de facto alliance with radical Islam thus became the hallmarks of the Pakistani military ethos and its institutional self-interest. This led to active military involvement in the setting up of jihadist and terrorist groups to be used as proxies against India and Afghanistan, the creation of the Taliban, and the creeping Islamization of Pakistan under military auspices beginning in the late 1970s. One early outcome was the emergence of the extremist Deobandi school of Islam as the dominant Islamic idiom in the country, aided and abetted by a huge network of jihadist madrassas funded generously by Saudi Arabia. How far this process has progressed in the military itself is not known, but it is worth noting that several top generals and heads of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military’s main organ for jihadist outreach, were revealed upon retirement to have been zealous Islamists. What is known is that the ISI aided and abetted Taliban anti-Indian terrorists in Kabul just a few months ago.
Faced with this reality, the Bush administration sought, after 9/11, to secure a modicum of logistical cooperation from Pakistan’s military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in return for billions in aid to our new “strategic ally” — while turning a blind eye to General Musharraf’s duplicitous policies. It is easily forgotten now that it was Musharraf who allowed both the Taliban and al-Qaeda to find sanctuaries in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) tribal belt after they were routed by American troops, and then claimed publicly that he had been able to solve a “critical situation . . . without any damage to Afghanistan and the Taliban.” It is further forgotten that it was this same “strategic ally” who made possible the 2002 electoral victory of the NWFP’s religious fanatics, who in turn provided political cover and essential support for the revival of the Taliban.
Which brings us back to President Obama. Pakistan, some may remember, was the one foreign-policy issue on which Obama took a tougher stand than McCain in the election campaign — complete with threats to invade Pakistan, and go to the gates of hell to find Osama bin Laden and defeat the Taliban. None of this is much in evidence any more. Instead, President Obama now tells us that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates thinks that Islamabad’s capitulation to the Taliban in Swat — a deal conceived and executed by the military — is an acceptable compromise. Further in the same line of enlightened analysis, Obama’s key political appointee at the Pentagon, Michele Flournoy, opined that 70 percent of the Taliban were “reconcilables,” only to be contradicted by Vice President Biden, who sees only 5 percent of the fanatics as “incorrigible.” Lastly, as if to provide some comic relief, Secretary Gates shuttled to Riyadh to plead with the Taliban’s long-time Wahhabi supporters and paymasters for help against the Taliban.
Instead of such wishful thinking, what needs to be done without delay is to start the process of transforming the Pakistani military back into an instrument of the state from its current status as a state within the state. The military must be denied once and for all the role of political kingmaker it has long exercised, as well as the inordinate influence it has in the economy. Further, the ISI must be either closed down or put under strict civilian control. Islamabad must also seriously consider doing away with the special status of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which has contributed to the prevailing lawlessness that the Taliban has exploited. A reconciliation with India is an essential precondition to the success of all of these measures and is very doable; a reconciliation with the Islamist thugs is not. This is the only kind of Washington agenda that would offer real hope of stabilization in Pakistan and the eventual defeat of the Taliban across the border. Unless some progress is made along these lines, Congress should refuse to provide even one more penny in aid, regardless of what Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari promises.
But time is of the essence. The Taliban may not be at the gates of Islamabad yet but the ongoing radical Islamization of the country may be reaching the tipping point. The North-West Frontier Province is, for the most part, no longer controlled by the government. The greatest immediate danger lies in the huge inroads made by the fanatics in the Punjab heartland, especially southern Punjab and the key urban areas (Lahore, Multan, and Karachi). If the Punjab becomes ungovernable, Pakistan will not survive long as a unitary state.
– Alex Alexiev is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.