“Pakistan is in a struggle for its survival,” acknowledges President Asif Ali Zardari. He is not exaggerating. Earlier this month, the country suffered three suicide bombings in 24 hours and the Pakistan Taliban has vowed to maintain that murderous pace if the government does not halt its support for U.S. missile strikes against Taliban forces in Pakistan. Giving in would be a mistake: The Taliban shows no interest in peaceful coexistence. It is determined to extend its reach no matter what the means or what the cost.
The recent series of suicide attacks in Pakistan claimed at least 40 lives. The bombers hit a mosque in Chakwal, a town with close ties to the Pakistani Army, an upper-class neighborhood in Islamabad and a group of civilians in a village in North Waziristan. Those attacks followed a commando-style assault on a police training school in Lahore that claimed 25 lives and wounded more than 100 others. Lahore was the scene of another attack weeks before when terrorists attacked a visiting Sri Lankan cricket team on its way to a match, killing seven people and wounding eight others. Yet another terrorist blew himself up in a mosque near the Afghan border, killing at least 50 people.
Mr. Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, has claimed responsibility for many of the suicide attacks and has promised to increase them to two a week if the government in Islamabad does not end its support for U.S. missile attacks on Pakistan’s soil. Mr. Mehsud said that the Islamabad bombing was in retaliation for an attack on him that missed its target, but took 10 lives.
The United States has stepped up attacks from drones, remotely-piloted aircraft, against al-Qaida operatives that have taken sanctuary in Pakistan frontier areas just across the border with Afghanistan. The attacks have been extremely successful, killing about a dozen top al-Qaida members. But they have also killed bystanders and this has created significant problems for the Pakistani government.
Officially, Islamabad protests the attacks, denouncing them as a violation of the country’s sovereignty. Unofficially, the government is reported to have given the U.S. a green light, a tacit acknowledgment of its inability to clean the border regions of Taliban and their supporters. Mr. Mehsud aims to end that policy of quiet acquiescence.
Giving in to blackmail would be a mistake. The Taliban may have been prepared to declare a truce, but it would only be temporary, until the next time Islamabad dares defy the group. Then the violence would resume. The Pakistani government recognizes as much. In the aftermath of the bombings, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani ordered an increase in security, and lawmakers from his party are preparing a policy that will curb the influence of extremism in Pakistan, focusing on the Islamic schools that many blame for radicalizing youth in the country.
The Islamabad government is right to note that an effective strategy against extremism must go beyond the military response. It is not enough to declare war on the Taliban and their supporters. “Draining the swamp” that breeds extremism means giving young Pakistanis more choices. That means finding ways to help develop the frontier regions. The U.S. has offered $7.5 billion in aid over five years to make those changes possible. Japan has been helping with aid of its own: In addition to offering $5 million to help displaced persons in Pakistan, Japan and the World Bank are hosting a Pakistan donors conference in Tokyo on April 17 that is expected to raise another $4 billion.
Money matters, but just as important is changing the security mind-set in Pakistan. For many Pakistanis, and even those within the security forces, the Taliban poses a secondary threat to the country’s security. The main problem continues to be India, a rival since Pakistan’s birth and possessor of the Muslim-populated region of Kashmir. For this group, support for the Taliban makes sense if it prevents the consolidation of Indian influence in Afghanistan. Moreover, Islamic extremists have long pressured the government in Delhi to change policy toward Kashmir, a goal that Islamabad shares. From this perspective, the Taliban and its allies are an instrument of Pakistan’s foreign and national security policy, not enemies of the state.
The question Pakistan must face is which relationship is more important: that with Islamic extremists or that with the U.S. Many Pakistanis do not believe that the insurgency is truly their problem. Rather, they feel that they are being forced into America’s war. By this logic, if they refused to fight, the terrorists would leave them alone. It is a seductive thought, but it is also false. Mr. Zardari is right. The failure to take on the Taliban could undermine Pakistan itself.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.