Terrifying News from Pakistan

Earlier this month, Tony Karon wrote:

What’s more, if the Taliban’s goal were to seize state power rather than local control, it would have little hope of doing so. The insurgency is largely confined to ethnic Pashtuns, who comprise little more than 15% of the population. It is unlikely to find significant resonance in the major cities such as Islamabad and Lahore — though an influx into Karachi of people displaced by the fighting in the tribal areas has swelled that city’s Pashtun population, which has in turn raised communal tensions there. While the Taliban is reported to have made some inroads in southern Punjab and has linked up with small militant groups based in the province, it remains a minor presence in those parts of the country where the majority of Pakistanis live.

That was encouraging, particularly when taken together with encouraging news from Haider Mullick re: Pakistan’s counter-insurgency efforts.

But Frederick Kagan has brought some terrible news to our attention.

Hitherto, although experts have known of the prevalence of indigenous terror groups in Punjab and Sindh, most discussions about Pakistan’s militants have focused on Pashtun groups along the Durand Line demarcating the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Pakistani government has generally tried to insist that such groups are the ones responsible for disturbances, calling loudly (and oddly) for Afghanistan to close the border to contain the Pashtuns (though they are Pakistani). Although some senior Pakistani officials remain keen to deny the existence of a Punjabi threat, President Asif Ali Zardari seems more serious. He has formed a new cabinet-level national security committee to review Pakistan’s security situation and called for the recruitment of at least 100,000 more Pakistani police. If this marks the beginning of Islamabad’s recognition of the depth of Pakistan’s problems and Zardari’s own commitment to see the struggle through, then the United States might have a real opportunity here, if we can take advantage of it.

To his credit, Kagan ends on a positive note. But as Ahmed Rashid noted in the NYRB, Zardari is extremely isolated.

Apart from traveling to the airport by helicopter to take trips abroad, the President stays inside the palace; he fears threats to his life by the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, who in December 2007 killed his wife, the charismatic Benazir Bhutto, then perhaps the country’s only genuine national leader. Zardari’s isolation has only added to his growing unpopularity, his indecisiveness, and the public feeling that he is out of touch. Even as most Pakistanis have concluded that the Taliban now pose the greatest threat to the Pakistani state since its cre- ation, the president, the prime minister, and the army chief have, until recently, been in a state of denial of reality.

Perhaps the state of denial has ended, as Kagan suggests. But does he have the political astuteness necessary to prosecute the war against the Pakistani Taliban without causing a political explosion? I hope he does.