A New Wave of Violence in Pakistan

Good Taliban, Bad Taliban

Following the recent attacks in Pakistan, the question arises once more: how serious is the Pakistani army about its break with the Taliban, bearing in mind that it was the Pakistani army and the secret service which built up the Taliban in the first place? By Thomas Bärthlein

Pakistan police (photo: AP)
There's been a massive increase in security following the Taliban attack on the Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi and the suicide attack in Shangla district near the Swat valley

​​In the last eight days, a series of major attacks have shown that the Pakistani Taliban and allied terrorist groups are still a force to be reckoned with. The militants have struck back following the army's spring offensive in Swat and the killing of the Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud by a US drone. And they've given a clear signal ahead of the expected ground offensive against the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan.

In spite of a recent boast by the Pakistani interior minister, the "backbone" of the Taliban has by no means been broken.

The army is certain to respond, and is now even more likely to march into South Waziristan. The fact that the military headquarters was the location for a hostage drama has made the military feel the threat they face all the more intimately.

This humiliation will have consequences. The new determination of the army to confront the Taliban is a welcome development. But there are enough reasons to worry about how the situation in Pakistan will develop from here.

Secret service without a plan?

For one thing, the attacks have made clear that the security risks have become greater. The secret service, which is usually so sure of itself, obviously did not have the slightest idea that the militants were planning these operations.

Pakistan soldiers (photo: AP)
The army has been engaging the Taliban in South Waziristan for months. The military says it has deployed 28,000 soldiers there, to confront an estimated 10,000 Taliban fighters

​​Furthermore, terrorism has moved from the tribal areas and the region near the Afghan border to the big cities and the country's largest province, the Punjab. Military offensives may succeed in occupying the extremists' refuges, but the main effect of such offensives will be to force the terrorists underground, while quite possibly encouraging new recruits.

But there are still question marks over the seriousness with which the army takes the Taliban, bearing in mind that it was the army and the secret service which built up the Taliban over a period of decades and which supported it in Afghanistan and against India.

Even now, the security forces still do not see the Afghan Taliban leaders who live around Quetta as a threat and they continue to take no action against them.

In the tribal areas, they prefer to try to play off the various extremists against each other. Their policy is that a Taliban on our side is a "good" Taliban, while a Taliban who fights against us is a "bad" Taliban. But such a policy merely postpones the day of reckoning.

Finally, there are few indications that the weak civil structures in Pakistan are being strengthened. They have withered in the shadow of the army's decades of dominance.

The failure to build up civil structures has had a disastrous effect in the current crisis: while the army has liberated the Swat valley from the militants in a spectacular campaign, the civil administration is out of its depth when it comes to trying to rebuild the region following the fighting. That's no way to win the trust of the population.

Resistance against US assistance

photo: AP
Increasing resistance to the military offensive in the Swat valley: supporters of Jamat i-Islami demonstrate in Peshawar with the slogan "Stop the bloodbath against the innocent"

​​Even more worrying is the involvement of the army in the current agitation against the US Senate's Kerry-Lugar bill, with which the US intends to pump billions of dollars into the Pakistan's civilian infrastructure.

The bill makes the aid conditional on Pakistan's engaging in the fight against militant extremists and acting against nuclear proliferation, and it requires the military to stay out of politics. The military leadership has positioned itself unusually firmly against the bill and has managed to convince large parts of the public that this kind of US aid endangers Pakistani sovereignty.

Pakistan has long been accustomed to blame foreign powers for its problems. But in fact, whatever foreigners may have done wrong, it was the Pakistani military and secret service leaders who decided to strengthen the Taliban – or at least to let them do what they wanted without interference.

As long as Pakistan refuses to recognise this fact and fails to learn any lessons from it there is little reason to be optimistic about the future for the country or the region.

Thomas Bärthlein

© Deutsche Welle 2009

Thomas Bärthlein is deputy head of Deutsche Welle's South Asian service.

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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