The turmoil in Pakistan continues, as the authorities seem unable reverse the momentum that has allowed groups associated with the Taliban to expand their power in the northwest of the country. The pace of the Taliban groups’ encroachment from their bastion in Swat (itself a relatively recent conquest) into the district of Buner, close to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, caused particular concern in Washington.
The capital itself may not have been immediately threatened, and Pakistani army action in the Lower Dir and Buner districts may now have halted the Taliban offensive for the moment; but at a moment when the first hundred days of Barack Obama’s presidency are bring marked, the crisis in Pakistan promises to deepen at the very time when United States policy in neighbouring Afghanistan is already in the balance (see "Afghanistan’s critical moment", 6 February 2009).
A tough reality
The United States president can draw a modicum of comfort from the announcement by British prime minister Gordon Brown on 28 April of his government’s increased involvement in the region: additional aid for counter-terror operations in Pakistan, more development assistance for Afghanistan, and 700 extra troops to be deployed to Afghanistan in the run-up to the presidential elections now scheduled for 20 August 2009 2009.
The British troop numbers will as a result rise to 9,000, the largest since the war began in October 2001. This is small in absolute terms in comparison to the US presence, though in relation to the size of the country’s armed forces it actually represents a larger military commitment.
Washington’s own policy under Barack Obama reflects a degree of continuity with his predecessor, as well as the commitment he made during the 2008 election campaign to send more troops to the country. The total increase in 2009 looks as if it will amount to 25,000 by the latter part of the year. A major difference, however, is that the Obama administration is prepared to negotiate with those elements of the Taliban regarded as actually or potentially "moderate". At the same time, it believes that any such negotiations will only work from a position of military strength - a position that is still far from engaging with the counter-belief that the very presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan provokes endemic paramilitary opposition (see "The AfPak war: Washington’s three options", 23 February 2009).
It is not clear yet whether or how long it will take for Washington to consider this tougher reality. In any event, the events in Swat and Buner in combination with the western policy initiatives confirm a lesson that has now been registered: that the fate of the Nato/International Security Assistance Force effort in Afghanistan is inextricably mixed with developments in Pakistan.
A rising force
What complicates this picture of neat "unification" is that Pakistan’s relevance within the wider field of conflict in the region has, in the perspective of Washington and London, changed. For a long period, their view was that the core Pakistani contribution to the military effort in Afghanistan was the existence of "safe havens" in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) - notably North Waziristan and South Waziristan.
These areas were held to serve two functions in the Afghan war. The first was to give Taliban elements a secure rear-base from which they could stage operations in Afghanistan; the second was to provide a refuge for al-Qaida, including its important leaders Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and senior colleagues.
The fact that Taliban paramilitaries were in many cases already secure in their control of rural districts in southern Afghanistan meant that the first function was less important than claimed; but in any case, such groups have in 2008-09 been much more open in their antagonism to the Pakistani government itself. This has extended a long way beyond attacks on Nato supply-lines to include numerous attacks on Pakistani government forces, especially the police, the army and the civil administration.
The operations have included fairly low-level assaults on security forces with suicide bomb-attacks and high-profile "spectaculars" such as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, and the attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team and a police academy in Lahore. The number killed may amount to 5,000 over the past year (see Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan: a country on fire", 24 September 2008).
The Taliban’s expansion beyond the FATA into North West Frontier Province districts such as the Swat valley has owed much to the militants’ own determination, something to the limitations of the Pakistani forces’ response, and a degree to the willingness of many people in the province to support the movement. Against their fear-inducing rigidity and violence, many people initially welcome the degree of stability and freedom from corruption they offer.
There is a certain parallel here with the Taliban’s takeover of much of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, when the group was seen as a preferred alternative to the brutal warlordism of the Northern Alliance. True, circumstances for the marginalised majority of people in western Pakistan are nothing like as bad as in an Afghanistan then disfigured by around seventeen years of war; but the dynamics of local sentiment are not so different.
A Pakistani axis
More deeply, assessments of potential support for the Taliban in western Pakistan almost invariably miss the nature of a deeply divided society. The main source of power in most of Pakistan lies in two areas: a fairly small number of very wealthy families that may often be in competition with one other but also compose an elite that sees itself as born to rule; and (guaranteeing the elite’s social and political power) the Pakistani army that has ruled the country directly for much of the country’s sixty-one years of the time since independence, and acted as a power behind the throne on other occasions (see Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state", 12 April 2007).
The army’s officer class is drawn partly from the elite families; but it has its own power-base that stems both from its troops and sheer firepower, and from the large economic enterprises it controls (see Ayesha Siddiqa, Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy [Pluto Press, 2007]). The army’s strategic outlook makes it in key respects more focused than the civilian elite on the perceived threat to Pakistan from India, as well as more determined to maintain maximum influence in Afghanistan, not least by promoting Islamist movements.
This axis between Pakistan’s elite families and army may never be completely stable. But the power they together wield and the wealth they represent are part of Pakistan’s deep socio-economic divisions. Beneath them are smaller landowners and members of the business and middle class, and far lower on the social scale a huge majority of the population survives with meagre resources or access to state services. It is from these families that millions of boys are sent to the thousands of madrasas that provide their only source of education (see Nadeem Ul Haque, "How to solve Pakistan’s problem", 24 April 2009).
Many army recruits are former madrasa students who are deeply imbued with a fairly unbending version of Islamic teachings. This experience becomes part of the institutional dissemination of an Islamic identity that many senior army officers also see as a necessary ideological counterweight in the rivalry with India.
The army and Pakistan’s elite share a further characteristic: neither is in the business of emancipation. The result is that there is little sign of any real economic progress for the majority in Pakistan - and the potential for a surge in support for radical alternatives.
A dangerous combination
Some commentators see Pakistan as a potential rerun of Iran in the 1970s, when avid support for radical Islam by a suppressed majority led to a revolution in 1978-79 that was unanticipated by an appalled United States (see Arnaud de Borchgrave, "Is Pakistan Another Iran?", UPI, 27 April 2009). The situation is in fact more complex; but it is certainly true that there is indeed great potential for radical responses.
A report from the Netherlands Institute of International Relations puts this in persuasive sociological terms:
"The legitimacy vacuum left by an elite that is completely unresponsive to the needs of the majority of the population, threatens to be filled by actors and ideologies that can mobilise masses very effectively, though not necessarily along a progressive path. The current surge of religious extremism in the country needs to be understood in this context" (see Marco Mezzera & Safiya Aftab, "Pakistan State-Society Analysis", Initiative for Peacebuilding [Netherlands Institute of International Relations / NIIR], January 2009).
Pakistan is neither another Iran (1979) nor another Afghanistan (1986), but two immediate factors do make highly likely an increase in support for an Islamist alternative. The first is the global economic recession, whose impact - felt in almost every country - is severe in Pakistan too. The rich will continue to protect their interests, while the tens of millions on the margins bear the brunt of the slump, making them even more susceptible to a radical offering.
The second factor is the extra dimensions the war has acquired in Pakistan. The occasional Pakistani army incursions into Taliban-dominated areas are one aspect, but more destructive of lives and more productive of enemies are the frequent United States air raids (see "Drone Wars", 16 April 2009). These raids can all too easily be used in propaganda to depict Islam in Pakistan being under attack from the "far enemy", with Islamabad’s elites as willing accomplices.
In the 2007-09 period, the focus of US military action against its opponents has moved back eastwards from Iraq to Afghanistan - an unexpected return to 2001-02. Now it is moving even further eastwards into Pakistan.
The use of increased military force may seem to be one of the only ways forward left to the western coalition. In reality, the strategy being pursued is provoking bitter opposition among many local people. This is problematic enough for the western states. In combination with a deepening of the severe inequalities in the region, the result could be a destabilising of large parts of Pakistan amid continued war in Afghanistan. The "war on terror" may have disappeared from the lexicon, but a conflict that approaches its ninth year continues to mutate.