As the U.S. administration and its allies are devising a new strategy for the next steps in Afghanistan, the jihadists have already begun their next move — but this time it’s inside Pakistan. As I’ve written over the past few months, we need to look at Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as one regional battlefield where the “other side” is coordinating strategically, acting methodically and for sure beating the international coalition in speed. If Washington and its allies fail to see the big picture in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which unfortunately may be the case now, the rapidly deteriorating situation will soon exceed the northwestern provinces of Pakistan to spill over to both Afghanistan and India, if not beyond. That’s how I suggest “reading” the recent worrisome leaps achieved by the Taliban from the SWAT valley into the neighboring district of Buner. So what’s the story and why should we consider it as a crossing of the red lines?
For over two years both the past government of General Musharraf and the current democratically elected government of President Asif Ali Zardari have been advised to “engage” the Taliban, or rather what they perceived as “reconcilable” leaders of the Jihadi militia in control of large areas in Waziristan and the adjacent districts. Despite the fact that the Taliban protects Al Qaeda (openly), obstruct the army from bringing legal order along the borders with Afghanistan, controls training camps for international terrorists, wages attacks against security forces and have been involved in car bombs, suicide attacks and assassinations for years now, advice was given to high authorities in Islamabad (both from inside and outside the country) that “accommodating” some of the Taliban’s basic requirements will bring stability, at least for a while. Musharraf, whose intelligence services had kept good relations and friendships with the Jihadists of “AfPak” (Afghanistan and Pakistan combined), attempted to calm down some of the radical war lords even though he accused the Taliban at large of attempting to kill him and “Talibanize” the country. This dual and contradictive approach between shouting at them and engaging them at the same time allowed the jihadi militias to survive across Waziristan and other locations between 2001 and 2008.
The missing link has always been the failure in winning the war of ideas against the radical networks. As long as the jihadi madrassas are operational, droves of “graduates” enlarge the ranks of the Taliban and their other associates such as Laskar Taibah (accused of masterminding the Mumbai attacks), Jaish e Muhammed and other armed Islamist factions. In short, the strength of the Jihadi machine in Pakistan today is a direct result of the non-action by the Musharraf government against the network, particularly along the western borders for eight years.
The reasons for this restraint are numerous and aren’t all the product of presidential inaction. Rather they are embedded in an international consensus not to “touch” the ideology of the radicals. That is an overarching problem hovering over many other areas of crises including Iraq, the Horn of Africa, Sudan, and even within Western countries. This is another discussion.
With the election of a new president of Pakistan, the widower of the late Benazir Bhutto assassinated by the Taliban, and the formation of a new cabinet dominated by the secular “Party of the People,” conventional wisdom would project that Islamabad would mobilize wider and stronger against the creeping militias. Although during the election campaign and for the first few months of its tenure government figures blasted the “extremists” and pledged for shutting down the ideological madrassas across the country, the “engagement policy” persisted and ironically went farther than under Musharraf. Over the past few months, Pakistan’s government authorized governors in the Northwest part of the country to sign agreements with the leaders of the “Sharia Movement” in the Swat valley, a Jihadi front, to apply their interpretation of religious laws. The founder of the movement, Sufi Mohammad accepted the terms of the settlement with Islamabad. But his son in law Maulana Qazi Fazlullah the chief of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi organization (TNSM), who since 2007 has deployed his 5,000 militiamen in 60 villages forming a “parallel emirate,” is now on the march to expand Taliban influence beyond the “authorized” district. In short, the cohort of jihadists is not stopping, not reconciling, not de-radicalizing but seeking to eventually reach the capital.
First in Waziristan, then as of last year in Swat, and now seizing the district of Buner, the Taliban are conquering Pakistani land. Their technique is simple: Give us Sharia implementation or endure terror. Authorities have been choosing the morphine option: let them apply Sharia if they seize fire. But as soon as an area is “granted” to the jihadists, a new “jihad” begins towards the adjacent district. The “forced Sharia” gives the Taliban more than just catechism: full control, broadcast, courts, training facilities, and money. It just cedes territory and people to a highly ideological force. Their Sharia-based “Talibanization” grants them harsh show of severity and intimidation: girls and women punished, opponents eliminated, civil society repressed, a copycat of pre-2001 Afghanistan.
But the strategic consequences of the last “offensives” inside Pakistan are boundless. By reaching a distance of 70 miles or so of the capital the Taliban are putting the government under their direct menace. Pushes elsewhere are expected southbound and northeast bound. The army is deploying around public buildings; that is a bad sign. I’d also project a Jihadi push along the Kashmir borders with India. The hydra is expanding gradually, preparing for a massive squeeze.
We should be concerned about two titanic effects on international security: Obviously, the nukes of Pakistan are on the minds of the Al Qaeda leadership, hidden comfortably in the belly of the Taliban. But also the US-led coming campaign in Afghanistan. The Taliban are attempting to change the landscape inside Pakistan and along its northwestern borders so that when the new push begins in Afghanistan, the Taliban would already have a deep hinterland east of the borders and so that the Pakistani Army busy is protecting the government, not in encircling the jihadists. The war room of the terror forces has begun fighting America’s new terrorism strategy before the latter starts. I can only characterize it as a “jihadi preemptive war.”