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Page last updated at 11:32 GMT, Friday, 24 April 2009 12:32 UK

Disarray on Pakistan Taleban threat

Pakistan Taleban in Buner
The Taleban recently increased operations in Buner district

The Pakistani government and army seem incapable or unwilling to tackle the Taleban threat in the north-west, argues guest columnist Ahmed Rashid.

Unprecedented political and military disarray in Pakistan and a growing public feeling of helplessness is helping fuel the rapid expansion of the Taleban across northern Pakistan, bringing them closer to paralysing state institutions in their bid to seize total power.

Even though most Pakistanis agree that the Pakistani Taleban and their extremist allies now pose the biggest threat to the Pakistani state since its creation, both the army and the government appear to be in denial of reality and the facts.

Within weeks of concluding a deal with the government on the imposition of Islamic law in the strategically located Swat valley, the Taleban have already broken the agreement by refusing to disarm, taken control of the region's administration, police and education while spilling out into adjacent valleys.

'No need to worry'

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani persuaded parliament to pass the Sharia agreement into law, insisting the Taleban pose no threat to the state. Threats by the Taleban to abrogate the agreement forced President Asif Ali Zardari to hurriedly sign the bill, even though he had tried delaying tactics.

Only parliamentarians from the Sindh-based Muttahida Quami Movement courageously voted against the bill.


The refusal of either the government or the army to respond to its greatest threat since the country split apart with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 reflects a chronic failure of leadership

Even though the agreement ignores the constitution by setting up a new legal system in the valley, which is not genuine Islamic law but the Taleban's brutal interpretation of it, Mr Gilani reiterated on 18 April that ''whatever we have done is in accordance with the constitution and there is no need to worry".

In fact the majority of Pakistanis are desperately worried, asking how the state could concede so quickly.

The Swat Taleban added fuel to the fire by inviting Osama Bin Laden to settle in Swat, indicating their complete control of the valley.

On 20 April, Sufi Muhammad, a radical leader who the government and the army have termed as ''a moderate" and whose son in law Fazlullah is the leader of the Swat Taleban, said that democracy, the legal system of the country and civil society should be disbanded as they were all ''systems of infidels".

Pakistani troops
The army's rationale appears to be to do nothing

The Taleban have now infiltrated western and southern Punjab province with the help of Punjabi extremist groups, the second largest city of Lahore and the southern port city of Karachi.

Even more surprising has been the attitude of the army, which has declined all international and local pressure to curb the spread of the Taleban.

The army's only military response was when it bombed the tribal areas after 25 of its soldiers were killed in a suicide bomb attack near Hangu in North West Frontier Province on 18 April.

That dismayed many Pakistanis because it showed the army was willing to only attack the Taleban when its own soldiers had suffered.

Groups of militias who have resisted the Taleban in Swat and other places were left to fight on their own without the military's support for weeks on end.

With the Taleban taking control of Buner district - although they have now said they will withdraw - and Dir as well as moving north to take over the Karakoram Highway that links Pakistan to China, there is the fear that Pakistan will soon reach a tipping point.

With the Taleban having opened so many fronts, it will soon be impossible for the army to respond to the multiple threats it faces.

US and Nato

The army's rationale for doing nothing appears deeply irrational to many Pakistanis.

The army still insists that India remains the major threat, so 80% of its forces are still aligned on the Indian border instead of defending the country against Taleban expansion.

The army has also refused to respond to US and Nato demands to oust the Afghan Taleban leadership living on its soil.

School in Swat
The Taleban have destroyed many schools in Swat

And despite US President Barack Obama's plan to deepen the commitment to stabilise Afghanistan, the army insists that the Americans will soon leave Afghanistan and that Pakistan must be ready with a response to help install a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul.

That rationale is also motivated by India's friendship with the present Afghan government.

Meanwhile two of Pakistan's closest allies, China and Saudi Arabia, have strongly indicated to the government that its continuing tolerance of the Taleban and al-Qaeda on its soil is endangering the national security of these two countries.

With the entire international community now pointing out that the Taleban threat to Pakistan is dire, Islamabad finds itself diplomatically isolated as it continues to fail to respond.

For the Americans and Nato the situation is quickly reaching a crisis point.

With Washington sending 21,000 additional troops to southern Afghanistan, Nato sending another 5,000 to secure the Afghan elections in August and large numbers of Western civilian experts due to arrive to help rebuild the country, neither the US nor Nato can for long tolerate the stream of supplies and recruits that continue to pour into Afghanistan from Pakistan to support the Afghan Taleban offensive against Western forces.

The Pakistani Taleban, even while continuing their penetration of central Pakistan, are also mobilising fresh recruits from all over the country to go help their Afghan Taleban brothers resist the newly arriving Western troops.

For Pakistanis and the international community the refusal of either the government or the army to respond to its greatest threat since the country split apart with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 reflects a chronic failure of leadership, will and commitment to the people of Pakistan.

The following are some of your comments on Ahmed Rashid's article:

I agree with Ahmed Rashid! Why? Because 18,000 troops deployed in Swat for a year and a half deliberately avoided targeting the thugs. All the army did was base itself in pastures and forests populated only by wild animals and livestock. In a small ravine like that of Peuchar in Swat, the mega-thug could hide from our well-fed army. How is that an army of 18,000 - fully equipped and trained - could not fight only about 1,000 Taleban thugs? The maths is not right. Something fishy stinks though.
AK Swati, Swat, Pakistan

If we really want to get rid of the Taleban, we should invite the Chinese and Indian military in, give them a wide remit and let them use their own rules of engagement. It will not take long before the Taleban are no more
Iqbal, Islamabad

Ahmed Rashid is quite correct. The generals are frozen by their oath to defend Pakistan against Indian attack and the poorly paid soldiers see no reason to die fighting kith and kin. The biggest danger is the collapse of the state into four quadrants with the MQM defending Sindh and the Balochis choosing independence.
Pravin, USA

This is a really disturbing period in the history of Pakistan. It is on the verge of total capitulation. What strikes me as strange is why the people of Pakistan don't stand up? They marched nationally for a judge, but can't rise to oust the Taleban? Come on... I think it is a case of people being too stubborn. They still want to blame India... get over it! If Pakistan is taken over by the Taleban, India will have won anyway. I remember when Pakistan was close to war with India over Kashmir in 2003, one million troops were mobilised. Yet, yesterday 300 troops were sent to fight the Taleban. Furthermore, I feel that the US owes Pakistan as they have simply pushed the Taleban from Afghanistan to Pakistan. They kept pushing them back and back and eventually, they came in. The US has passed their problems onto a weak nation.
Z, UK

Pakistan is on course of self-destruction. Due to decades of corruption, divisive policies and injustice from the leadership; the people of Pakistan lack the pride and loyalty to fight for their homeland. As a Pakistani I find this very shameful.
Ali, Pakistan

The best propaganda is the one that's mixed with some half-truths. This article is a perfect example of this. How do you know what the majority of Pakistanis think about the Taleban? I'm a Pakistani and the vast majority of Pakistanis support the Taleban because they are fighting for a noble cause. The people don't support the government because it is corrupt from the top to the bottom. They don't support the army because the army doesn't care about anyone else. They don't support the West because they are the invaders.
Faris, Azad Kashmir

This is a classic example of democracy becoming demo-crazy. In Pakistan there is a serious shortage of sincere leaders and knowledgeable people. The only system that seems to work in Pakistan is the doctrine of "you scratch my back and I will scratch yours". The West should crack the whip now before it is too late. If anyone would like to help Pakistan, then they should impose a system which is based on three fundamentals; education, education and education.
H, Canada

If I had no outside contact except the news channels I would be able to get out of my house. For Pakistanis the greater threat is the American drone attacks on its soil which kill innocent people instead of the Taleban. As for the MQM "courageously voting against the bill" isn't that because they don't want a bigger bully in the playground?
Kanza Akhwand, Pakistan

Most people in the Fata/NWFP areas see the US drone attacks in very much the same light as Americans saw the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings in New York. So if the Americans want to encourage the public to support the Taleban, they are doing just the right thing.
Robert Steinhilber, USA

Whatever became of the idea, many years ago, of an independent "Pashtunistan"? The alternative seems to be endless war in Afghanistan-Pakistan and a gradual increase in militant Islamism in the area.
Jules Benjamin, USA

Western countries should stop meddling in the affairs of Pakistan, or rather all Islamic countries. It is downright stupid to send aid to Pakistan which will be used to further augment regiments of the Taleban.Stop dealing with all these people and let Saudi Arabia give all the aid. Don't create - by consistent use of the adjective "nuclear armed" - an unnecessary sense of fear. After all it is India which should be the most bothered about it. If the Pakistani army is strong enough to fight India it can tackle Taleban.
Raghunatha R Juvvadi, USA

Our president needs to be taken out of office before he looses our nuclear assets to the Taleban!!!
Umer Mumtaz, Pakistan

Please do not stop writing about this insanity. Finally people are realising the real threat to us and all of Pakistan. We need to push this incompetent government and army to do something about it. Does any one really think that in this time and day India will attack us?. Especially when the US and Nato are fighting in Afghanistan? And what would India really get out of it? India is far too occupied in its economic growth and new found position as a major global power. In fact, India will thank us once we get rid of this nightmare, as it is spilling in their country too.It is for the first time in the brief history of this country that we are really about to be wiped out. Our religion, our culture our history is under attack. Anyone sitting idle about what is going on needs to speak and take action.
Anosh Gill, USA

It might not be the right comparison in terms of ideology and motives, but as far as the military strategy is concerned, the Taleban are following pretty much the same tactics as Maoists and Naxalites in India. They mainly engage in guerrilla-style warfare with the focus is on remote rural areas where state control is minimum and where they can take control of such areas with the minimum possible fighting with state forces. So far their strategy is very successful as they started with remote tribal areas where the writ of the Pakistan government is limited. The Talebans never really faced any major resistance that could halt their advancement. They are slowly but steadily encircling the urban centres - and in the case of Sawat - they have already have full control on it. They are not in hurry because they know once they have control over rural areas, the urban centres will fall automatically.
Saleem Sheikh, New Zealand

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