Tribal Areas and Terrorists The Battle for Control of Pakistan

The Taliban's advances into the heartland of Pakistan have alarmed the West. How close are the extremists to acquiring nuclear warheads? The Americans have urged the Pakistanis to put aside their differences with India and pursue militant Islamists on their own soil.

By and Gabor Steingart

Is it worth returning home, now that there is perhaps peace, but no longer freedom? Building contractor Mahmud Khan wanted to know the answer. A few days after an agreement was made allowing the Taliban to instate Islamic law, or Sharia, in return for finally consenting to "a permanent cease-fire," Khan jumped into his Jeep and headed for northwestern Pakistan's Swat Valley. This region was once a popular tourist destination known for its picturesque mountain landscapes and the cosmopolitan outlook of its inhabitants, who often hosted honeymooners from Islamabad. Now the Swat Valley is a key stronghold for the militant Islamists who are threatening all of Pakistan.

On the valley road, past the large city of Mingora -- beyond the tobacco fields, the buzzing beehives of the honey producers and the sparse forests -- Khan was stopped by a group of armed men. One of them was his former servant, Ahmed.

Until last year, the young man had brought tea and firewood to the affluent building contractor every day. Now he wore a black turban and carried a Kalashnikov, the barrel of which he pressed against the rolled-down window of the vehicle. "Brother, have you returned? Allahu Akbar! Do you want to live with us now according to the laws of the holy Prophet?" he asked with a sneer. Like so many other simple Pakistanis, the domestic servant had followed the call of the Taliban to send their masters packing and join the Islamic warriors.

Following this encounter, Khan realized that it had become impossible to return to the Swat Valley. His family had lived there for five generations. Now he decided to flee for good. Over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced by fighting in the region.

The onslaught of the Taliban is threatening the stability of Pakistan -- a nuclear power that at the same time holds the key to the tragedy in Afghanistan. The conflict on the other side of the border cannot be contained as long as the Taliban militants can gather in the Pakistani frontier region, and use it as a haven to launch attacks.

This explains why Pakistan, at least according to the Americans, is so crucial -- why this country, where the Taliban and al-Qaida work hand-in-hand, will determine not only its neighboring country's future, but also its own, along with the fate of the entire Western world.

US President Barack Obama has made safeguarding the tense region between Kabul and Islamabad the top priority of his foreign policy. The extremely weak civilian government in Islamabad and its lack of resolve is cause for "grave concern," the commander in chief said a few days before Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to Washington, where Obama will receive him together with Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a mini-summit on Wednesday.

Borderline Panic

The mood is one of borderline panic in Washington these days when conversation turns to Pakistan. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the possibly crumbling state poses "a mortal threat" to the world: "I think that the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists." These fears were echoed by her special representative to the region, Richard Holbrooke: "Pakistan is in an emergency situation." And the "collapse of the state" is likely to happen within six months, warns David Kilcullen, an influential counter-terrorism advisor to the US military.

On Tuesday of last week the US National Security Council held an unscheduled meeting under the leadership of its chairman, General James Jones. The only topic on the agenda was the situation in Pakistan.

The border regions

The border regions

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, has made a number of trips to Pakistan to get a first-hand impression of the situation, which he says has "steadily deteriorated" over the past few months. Mullen says Pakistan needs to be "more aggressive" in confronting the danger. In other words, the US wants the Taliban not only to be driven back, but defeated.

But that's out of the question. The peace agreement with the militant Islamists in the Swat Valley -- an attempt by a powerless government to buy itself a little time -- has failed to stem the process of Talibanization in the country. On the contrary, the extremists continue to expand their area of influence. They are pushing their way into the heartland of Pakistan and infiltrating large cities like Karachi and Lahore with their terror. And the Pakistani army still appears to be astonishingly reserved in its efforts to combat the Taliban.

An ostensibly broad offensive with artillery and helicopter gunships was launched last week, aimed at driving the Taliban from the Buner and Lower Dir districts. But the men in black turbans often merely evade such operations, only to return shortly thereafter. Their cronies stay behind to recruit supporters and report when the time is right for a new offensive.

The police and the army in Swat, if they are present at all, rarely dare to venture beyond their precinct buildings. The Taliban patrol the streets.

What the state fails to deliver, the religious hard-liners can rapidly organize -- based on a frighteningly efficient system. The valley is divided into a large number of small commando and administrative zones. Every village has a radio-equipped commander, with two dozen Taliban under his command. A network of informers assures a continuous flow of reconnaissance.

The Taliban are arresting and interrogating at will, apparently without any real criteria. "It's pure chance whether you're released or killed," says a resident of the settlement of Charbagh. And the commander of Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, has even extended an invitation to Osama bin Laden. "We will protect him," was the message he told his spokesman to disseminate.

The Nuclear Threat

Will the assailants who launch the next attack on America or Europe be trained in the former ski paradise of Swat? Is it possible that the Taliban will advance on the capital and thus gain access to nuclear weapons?

The politicians and generals in Islamabad view this as a ridiculous notion. They see the West as hysterical, or cynical, or both. Aocalyptic rhetoric from Washington is only intended to increase pressure on Afghanistan, says the government in Islamabad.

"We are reacting adequately and understand the situation in our country better than the rest of the world," President Zardari told SPIEGEL last week. But he didn't say how he intends to stop the advance of the Islamic warriors. Like his predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf, Zardari has largely failed to produce successes in the fight against the Islamists.

There may be a simple and astonishing explanation for this. A British regional expert with top intelligence agency connections recently told an exclusive circle of members of parliament in London: "The ally Pakistan does not share our interests." He said Islamabad "is antipathic to Karzai's government and to any administration in Afghanistan which is indulgent of Indian influence. Pakistan thus wants the end of Karzai, a pro-Pakistani Pashtun government in Afghanistan and wants the British, the Americans and NATO out of Afghanistan."


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