AfPak is the most dangerous place in the world. Here’s why:
The Taliban created by Pakistan to colonise Afghanistan has become, to quote the head of Barack Obama’s Afghan policy review Bruce Riedel, “a jihadist Frankenstein monster… trying to take over the laboratory”. Afpak 2025?
The monster has two heads. First is the Afghan Taliban, centred around Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, which wishes to reconquer Kabul. By some accounts, this Taliban operates in as much as two-thirds of Afghanistan. Second is the Pakistan Taliban, whose most daring commander is Baitullah Mehsud. Their target, as shown by the recent attack on a Lahore police academy, is western Punjab. Nightmare scenario
The other reason why it’s Danger Land is the feebleness of Pakistani resistance. Washington and Kabul both say the two Talibans share the same primary recruitment and sanctuary area: northwest Pakistan. Islamabad seems unwilling to deny the Afghan Taliban sanctuary. And against the Pakistan Taliban, the military prefers to sign ceasefires rather than fight.
There is much debate as to why. One view is that the military sees the Afghan Taliban as a way to put a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul. US intercepts of General Ashfaq Kiyani’s conversations have recorded him describe Haqqani as a “strategic asset”. “There are internal divisions within the army about fighting ‘America’s war’,” says Shaun Gregory of the University of Bradford’s Pakistan Research Unit.
Giving the Afghan Taliban a free hand, however, gives a similar freedom to the Pakistan Taliban. As Brajesh Mishra has said, “Islamabad doesn’t want to control the Taliban in Afghanistan and can’t control the Taliban in Pakistan – this is the contradiction in their policy.”
Another view, expressed succinctly by India’s former envoy to Pakistan, G. Parthasarathy, is that “the Pakistani Punjabi has lost the will and ability to fight the Pashtuns”. Pakistan’s historical failure has been its failure to create a middle class. A stunted nationalism makes it difficult to find an ideology to mobilize resistance — if anything, Islamicist parties claim to represent “true Pakistan”. Islamabad finds it difficult to respond to the Taliban threat, says Walter Andersen, South Asia expert at Johns Hopkins University, “because the notion of Pakistan as Muslim is so strongly ingrained”.
A stunted political system — largely because of Western and military interference — means there is no one to take up the banner anyway. “The tragedy of Pakistan is that not one of its political leaders gives a damn for its people,” said a former senior US official who has visited the country over many years. “It is not unlikely that the Taliban will take Afghanistan, that the Pashtun areas of Pakistan will be lost to Islamabad, and that the fight for Pakistan will really be a fight to save the Punjab and Sindh,” says Gregory. Taliban east of the Indus, says Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal of the Combat Land Army Warfare School, “would raise the imminent danger of jihadis capturing nuclear warheads. ”
For the better
Things could change. Crisis and democracy, combined, can have a rejuvenating effect. The surrender of Swat to the Taliban and the Lahore attacks have shaken many heartland Pakistanis. “Pakistani nationalism is stronger than people believe,” says a European diplomat.