To my mind, there is no more important journalistic source on the Taliban in Pakistan than Syed Saleem Shahzad, South Asia correspondent for the Asia Times.
Shahzad recently posted on a four-part report, On The Militant Trail, on a visit to western Pakistan that took him to Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, and–under Taliban auspices–to the valley of Swat. The series provides a sobering look at a government counter-insurgency campaign that is going very, very badly. It should also provide considerable food for thought for American strategists expecting that skillful coordination of NATO, U.S., and Pakistani military action–and the occasional Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone–are going to deny the Pakistan hinterland to the Afghan Taliban.
Briefly, the Taliban heirs to the Pashtun Islamicist militants who did the Western dirty work against the Soviets have returned to the traditional safe havens of the Pakistani tribal belt, this time with the strategic guidance and assistance of al Qaeda. They have responded to military attacks on their strongholds in the tribal areas by dispersing and embedding themselves in the settled regions of the North West Frontier Province (one of Pakistan’s four provinces, with responsibility for the largely autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA lining its western border) and infiltrating Peshawar.
The Pakistan Taliban has been strikingly successful in creating an identity for itself beyond a militarized jihadist force, establishing itself as the face of a conservative Islamic movement beyond the tribal areas and in the relatively developed non-urban areas of the NWFP, using its military muscle to promote sharia law, enforce puritanical social norms, advance Islamist ideas of equity and social justice, and even flirting with populism in attacks on the secularized Pakistani political and economic elite, their local adherents, the feudal lords or “khans”, and the armed forces that seek to protect them.
Shahzad paints a grim image of Peshawar waiting for the axe–a high profile outrage in the city center–to fall. Hotels are deserted, the citizens apprehensive, and the military filled with empty bluster. Swat, a jewel-like valley filled with green meadows and crystalline lakes, has made an alarming swing from Pakistan’s premier tourist destination to a Taliban stronghold.
At the heart of the problem appears to be a Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps counter-insurgency campaign remarkable for its ineffectiveness, demoralization, and dishonesty.
When it is, according to Shahzad, necessary to motivate government troops to do their bloody business against their fellow citizens by promoting the canard that the enemy–bearded Islamic fundamentalists intent upon instituting sharia law and energized by secularized Pakistan’s kowtowing to the United States and the lack of progress on Kashmir–are proxies for India’s intelligence agency (the Research and Analysis Wing or RAW), that’s a sign of a military effort in deep trouble.
A concrete expression of the dire straits of the Pakistani campaign can be found in the question of how the Taliban obtains its arms.
Shahzad interviewed a Taliban spokesman in Swat:
ATol: That gun of your’s, it’s not locally made, and it is not the kind used by the Pakistan army. Where did you get it?
MK: These are the fruits of jihad, which are in the hands of the mujahideen today. This is manufactured in Austria. Those infidels gave them to our army to use against our mujahideen. There is a police station called Dewale in Swat. We snatch them from there from the Pakistani security forces. I am surprised when people ask us from where we get modern weaponry. These are the fruits of jihad. Whoever manufactured this and for whatever cause, now it is in our hands and for our cause.
Apart from this, our army used a spiritual guide [pir], a religious leader, to fight against us. We not only killed that pir, but recovered 20 best-quality light machine guns, besides 20 other guns that had been supplied to that pir by the Pakistan army. Now these guns are in our possession.
That reminded me of something I read in David Halberstam’s book about the Korean War, The Coldest Winter (New York: Hyperion, 2007), describing the success of the Chinese Communists in the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek [pg. 235]:
[George Marshall] told [Wellington] Koo that Chiang “was the worst advised military commander in history.” That did not stop Koo from asking for more weapons. “He is losing about 40 ercent of his supplies to the enemy,” Marshall told Koo and added sardonically, “If the percentage should reach 50 percent he will have to decide whether it is wise to continue to supply his troops.” Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao would later comment laconically, “was our supply officer.” When Weifang and Jinan fell in 1948, David Barr, the last American senior military adviser to Chiang’s army, added, “The Communists had more of our equipment than the Nationalists did.”
Shahzad anticipates a major battle in Pakistan “before the annual spring offensive even begins in Afghanistan this year”.
I chatted with a senior al-Qaeda member who told me that the group considered NWFP and southwestern Balochistan province as already wiped off the map of Pakistani as they were now militant country. Although not entirely accurate, it portends a chilling turn in the “war on terror” in which Washington will be more concerned over the stability and security of Pakistan rather than that of Afghanistan.
As I wrote in New Hope for Pakistan?, I found some encouraging signs that the Obama administration is taking a second look at South Asia policy and perhaps pondering whether its short-term focus should shift from a dramatic, surge-powered turnaround in Afghanistan–an objective that is by no means guaranteed–to ensuring that Islamabad’s forced participation in an unpopular, ineffectual, and highly destabilizing counter-insurgency campaign doesn’t tear Pakistan apart.
Pakistan’s President Zardari is clearly looking to decouple the challenge to government authority in FATA and the NWFP from the NATO and U.S.-led assault on the Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan and obtain enough political and military breathing space to re-establish a modus vivendi with the tribal leaders and Taliban in western Pakistan.
However, the disturbing message of Shahzad’s report is that the time for a return to the status quo ante, or any other easy solution, may be long past. With the Taliban entrenched, emboldened, and determined to substitute its rule for the government writ that has traditionally run in Pashtun affairs, it will be very difficult for the United States and the central government of Pakistan–two disliked and discredited antagonists–to dislodge them.