The Taliban rolls relentlessly into the heart of Pakistan; the ominous suspicion that the events in the Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan was only a beginning seems to be coming true. Efforts by President Asif Ali Zardari and Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani have come to nothing. An emboldened Taliban continues its surge further south toward Islamabad – a prospect that fuels deep discomfort in the region and around the world.
The fundamentalist jihadis retain little but unbridled ambition after their forced removal from Afghanistan. Removed from the relative safety of the sovereignty defense and no longer of strategic value to the United States, these extremists have taken it upon themselves to insidiously wreak havoc on an area often cited as “the Switzerland of Pakistan” due to its natural beauty.
Unlike Waziristan on the border of Afghanistan, the princedom of Swat was known during the British Raj as a spot for affluent tourists to holiday. It was never supposed to be an area of anything but relaxed calm – a secluded mountain oasis just near enough, but also far away enough, from teeming Islamabad.
Its transformation began in the early 1990s along the Swat River. Maulana Fazlullah, known as a simple man while at school in Mingora, the valley’s largest city, built a madrasa in the small town of Imam Deri. From this outpost he built himself into a myth. From his story, one begins to understand how from the power of folklore a high school dropout became the infamous Mullah spoken of as one with a brutal, inhuman face, always seen astride a black horse.
The mere fact that we can know this much about local conceptions of what it means to be under the thumb of the Taliban makes it all the more concerning that Zardari and Kayani are either too ineffective or too cowardly to act. A recent picture of the president showed him beaming in his office, described as “the very picture of ease.” While pieces of his country are lost to the ruthless villains, his actions remain in the political realm. His actions so far have sought to avoid responsibility. How long this dance can continue is directly proportional to the pace of Taliban encroachment; and this concurrence is no coincidence.
And so, as the world gives up on this slick charmer of a president, hopes lie on the army chief of staff. We saw during the relative calm of retired Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s reign that freedom, water and electricity matter more than the vote. The stability his dictatorship brought to the country was welcome not only in Pakistan, but abroad, too. While democracy promotion seemed to be the bastion of Western foreign policy, Musharraf’s Pakistan was an embarrassing but necessary counterpoint. Given the friendship between Adm. Michael Mullen and Kayani, we may be in for an encore.
Whether or not we want more of Pakistani military dictatorship may no longer be an issue. This week the Taliban swept southward, toward the Punjab – toward Islamabad – through the Buner district. What makes this all the more distressing is that the names of all the towns, cities, valleys and regions are entirely unfamiliar to us. To hear about the fall of the Buner district seems utterly irrelevant until one more point is made; the army did nothing.
This action by the Taliban did not just literally and figuratively cross a line, but brought the Pakistani army face to face with them.
Armed resistance had been mounted time and time again by the local population in private armies. It all came to nothing this week as the Taliban established its new frontier, a brisk walk away from Highway 5, a centuries-old route established during the 16th century from the city of the Taj Mahal – Agra, India – and during the Mughal empire reaching Kabul, Afghanistan. Now a four-lane highway, it feeds through the cultural capital – Lahore – and the military capital – Rawalpindi – before ending at the financial capital – Karachi.
With ineptitude at the helm of civilian governance, one hopes that the army’s decision in Buner to not leave the barracks was a tactical choice as Kayani waits for the opportune moment to strike back. In handing over the Swat to the Taliban, and in enacting Sharia law earlier this month, Zardari acted against the democratic will shown one year ago, when Taliban control was rejected by voters. The immediate future of Pakistan requires a military purging of the Taliban. Beyond that, we should hope that Kayani’s army, despite what history tells us, is fond of nation-building, civil society, rule of law and liberalism.
Udayan Tripathi is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at tripathithehoya.com. This is the semester’s final installment of History Never Repeats Itself.
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