Taliban closing in on Islamabad

April 30th, 2009

The Pakistani government launched a military operation against Taliban militants earlier this week. The effort is largely seen as a response to pressure from the Obama administration to take a firm stance against the growing insurgency in Pakistan.

The Taliban has been slowly making its way towards Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state. Last week, it took control of the district of Buner, located only 60 miles from Islamabad, with little resistance from government forces.

The ease in which the Taliban was able to overtake Buner has increased fears that the unstable Pakistani government is unable to control extremist groups such as the Taliban from gaining power.

Mona DeBaz, a political science professor at John Carroll University, said, “The Taliban has gained power through the use of force to get rid of any control in the area and could overrun Islamabad in the future.”

Earlier in the year, after a lengthy and bloody battle between Pakistani troops and Taliban insurgents in the district of Swat, the Pakistani government agreed to a peace deal with the Taliban. The deal called for the implementation of Islamic Shariah law in return for an end to Taliban aggression.

However, while the Taliban is now applying its strict interpretation of Shariah law throughout the area – resulting in a restriction of women’s rights, including a ban on education for girls – it has refused to lay down its arms until official Shariah courts are established by the government.

A Taliban spokesman also recently claimed that it is the right of every Muslim to be able to carry a weapon, making it doubtful that the Taliban will disarm even if the government follows through. As a result, the deal has been criticized as a sign of the impotence of the Pakistani government.

Echoing the sentiment of the Obama administration, DeBaz said, “The implementation of Shariah law in Swat was a big mistake. It was a form of appeasement that only made the Taliban stronger.”

Many fear that the Taliban takeovers in Swat and Buner will continue in other areas until all of Pakistan, including Islamabad, is under Taliban control. This “Talibanization” of Pakistan would not only threaten the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, but also pose a direct threat to U.S. domestic security.

DeBaz pointed out that although the Taliban has more of a domestic agenda that revolves around gaining power in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is “interconnected” with al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“The Taliban has been giving al-Qaeda both support and a safe haven,” said DeBaz.

Therefore, if the Taliban were to gain control of Pakistan, al-Qaeda would have access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

To prevent this scenario from occurring, the United States has given billions of dollars of both economic and military aid to Pakistan over the years to help the government improve the economy and fight insurgents.

However, these funds are often either wasted in government corruption or spent on bolstering Pakistan’s defense against India, its archenemy.

This has forced the Obama administration to formulate a new strategy in Pakistan that will hold it accountable for the use of future aid, which will likely increase to $5 billion within the next five years.

While military officials reported that their recent military operation against the Taliban has killed over 70 militants and forced hundreds more out of the area, this progress must continue if it is to be effective.

If the operation fails, the Taliban will be able to continue its march towards the capital.

DeBaz said that if conditions worsen to that point, “The United States should show power and force immediately, along with NATO and Europe.”

Although such a move would open up a third front in the ‘War on Terror,’ a military operation in Pakistan would be fundamentally different from those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whereas the United States invaded those countries to topple the government – Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan – a military operation in Pakistan would involve U.S. forces working with the government to drive out the Taliban and other extremist organizations.

However, Pakistan insists that it can handle the insurgents on its own.

In an interview with CNN, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, said, “Pakistan … has one of the largest armies in the world. The military is capable of dealing with the insurgency.”

But in order to defeat the militants, the Pakistani government and military must also have the will to do so, which it has lacked thus far.