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Talibanisation of Pakistan

Maroof Raza

Posted: Apr 19, 2009 at 0026 hrs IST

: There is a sense of dťjŗ vu as one watches the sudden rise of Taliban across Pakistan. Over two decades ago, the Taliban emerged from the shadows of Pakistanís madrassas to storm the gates of Kandahar and Kabul. And now from a relatively dormant threat confined to Pakistanís frontier region until the other day, it has now re-emerged to take complete control of Pakistanís beautiful Swat Valley, and is now knocking at the gates of Islamabad and Punjab. But even that hasnít stopped Pakistanís legislators from formalising the harsh Islamic rule of the Taliban in Pakistan.

Pakistan is today facing the consequences of its unholy alliance with the US, struck during regime of the late Benazir Bhutto, who, at the advice of Washington, in the early 80ís created the Taliban. Its aim was to dominate Afghanistan following the failed Soviet occupation of that country, and to give Pakistan strategic depth against an Indian invasion. And for the US it was expected to give a secure gas pipeline from Central Asia via Afghanistan to Karachiís warm water port.

But eventually, the Taliban became an embarrassment to succeeding regimes at Islamabad, leading General Musharraf to abandon the Taliban ó at least publicly ó to satisfy the US and the world. However, President Obama has now announced that Washington could deal with the Ďgoodí Taliban while battling the bad Taliban. This is part of Americas exit strategy from Afghanistan, but is a clear strategic mistake. There are two Talibanís. One, that operates in Afghanistan and the other that is in Pakistan. They have a few linkages, but there is nothing such as a Ďgoodí Taliban. In Pakistan it is Baitullah Mahsood, who is their most notorious commander, while its two Afghan factions are primarily led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jallaluddin Haqqani.

Tackling the menace at home

However, the inability of Pakistanís armed forces to counter the menace of the Taliban is partly because the Pakistan army is still obsessed with the desire to have a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul (specially as President Karzai is seen as pro-India). More specifically though, Pakistanís military limitations could be summed as follows: One, that the Pakistan army is still obsessed with battling a possible invasion from India and therefore canít reorganise itself to channelise its military resources and energy to fight the battles within Pakistan. Secondly, the mood amongst Pakistanís local Islamic political parties is sympathetic towards the hardline Taliban and therefore the Pakistan army doesnít wish to challenge public sentiments. In fact, Pakistanís army has always responded to the public mood even when it has intervened in politics. Finally, the Pakistan Army doesnít have the numbers to take on increasingly assertive Taliban within Pakistan.

The total number of militants in Pakistanís frontier region are in excess of a hundred thousand. And they are now, armed, trained, experienced and highly motivated. In contrast, two thirds of the six hundred thousand strong, Pakistan army, is deployed on the Indian and Afghan borders. That leaves Pakistanís army with only a two to one superiority over the Taliban militants. And with that they can barely defend themselves; but do nothing more.

The fear therefore amongst experts is that the Taliban could one day take over Pakistan, and in turn Pakistanís nuclear weapons, although Americaís top military commander, Admiral Mike Mullen says that the US has invested in keeping Pakistanís nuclear weapons secure. But he also confirms that Pakistan army, specially the ISI, continues to have strong links with the Taliban militants, both on the Afghan border and to use them in furthering Pakistan agenda in Kashmir. In fact, Pakistanís army chief, General Kayani, an ex-ISI head, is known to have referred to the Taliban commander Haqqani as a strategic asset. Even the US has confirmed the ISIís links with the Taliban, and found it an insurmountable obstacle.

Moreover, Pakistanís military-intelligence is currently peeved with Washington as Americaís Af-Pak policy has no mention of the ĎKí word, ie, Kashmir. It therefore wishes to use the Talibanís presence on Indiaís borders to storm Kashmir ó with the Talibanís agenda to create a pan-Islamic empire running from Central Asia to Kashmir.

The India connection

But this would be dangerous gamble, because the Taliban cannot be trusted and if Pakistan falls to the Taliban, there could be a flow of refugees across Indiaís borders, as it happened in 1971 from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). And that could create a crisis with serious economic, demographic and security repercussions, with Pakistanis of all sorts floating around in Indiaís border region. Some of us do vividly recall the problems in Assam as a local response to Bangladeshi migrants in the 1980ís and thereafter.

Apart from the socio-political issues, this would have several economic implications too. Faced with a refugee problem, a violent Taliban and a traditionally unsympathetic Pakistan military, New Delhiís energies would be diverted from its economic challenges. For decades now, three- fourths of the Indian items that Pakistanis use or buy, are still routed through the black market, partly because of the political sensitivities in Pakistan, where a dependence on Indian goods is considered treason. But even this would stop once the Taliban is in control, as certainly would

cricket matches, Bollywood films, and also cultural exchanges.

South Asia, as an economic bloc has left a lot to be desired. And while, every country in the region has been politically unstable, Pakistanís desire to look westwards makes regional cooperation in the SAARC and SAPTA (itís economic initiative) a farce. It is only talked about and applauded in conference halls where political leaders make grand speeches and announcement. But this leads to nothing thereafter.

The strategic fallout however of collapse of Pakistan to Islamic extremists would make India Washingtonís and the worldís indispensable partner against Islamís latest volatile frontline. But is that such a good thing for India?

The writer is a Delhi-based strategic affairs analyst

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