Taliban Rising: Pakistan swaps mountain skiing for strict Sharia law
Once the “Switzerland of Pakistan,” which attracted tourists from all over the world, Swat Valley is now home to the Taliban and Sharia Law, forcing Washington to ponder its next move
Pakistan was forced to hang up its skis in the beautifully scenic Swat Valley, where mountains soar to a height of 2,000 meters, due largely to the fanatical work of Mullah Fazlullah, a high school dropout who eventually went on to establish a “Sharia emirate,” an no-nonsense Islamic state within a nuclear-armed state.
Today, Swat is a magnet for Taliban extremists who are using the outpost, a short drive from the capital of Islamabad, for making inroads in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Few would argue that the Taliban (most notorious, perhaps, for the destruction of ancient Buddhist statues carved into an Afghani mountainside in March, 2001, and its oppressive treatment of females) is not a loathsome social and political movement. Yet, for all of its repulsiveness, the Taliban had nothing to do with 9/11. Nevertheless, it was Afghanistan, the reluctant host of al-Qaeda militants, which got the irreversible ultimatum from George W. Bush to ‘hand over all terrorists, Osama bin Laden included.’ This impossible demand led to the scattering of the Taliban by US, NATO and the Afghan Alliance forces.
Unfortunately, the US military did not follow up on its early victories with a sensible strategy. And due to hubris and triumphalism, Washington ignored the Soviet Red Army’s brutal 9-year experience in Afghanistan, a land of tough tribes and fierce warriors.
In the insightful book, “The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Lost,” which documents the Soviet Union’s failure to properly prepare for its military misadventure in 1979, one paragraph adequately summarizes what US planners – banking too much on small forces and big technology – failed to heed .
“When the highest political leaders of the USSR sent its forces into war, they did not consider historic, religious, and national peculiarities of Afghanistan. After the entry these peculiarities proved the most important factors as they foreordained the long and very difficult nature of the armed conflict. Now it is completely clear that it was an impetuous decision to send Soviet forces into this land. It is now clear that the Afghans, whose history involves many centuries of warfare with various warring groups, could not see these armed strangers as anything but armed invaders. And since these strangers were not Muslims, a religious element was added to the national enmity. But of these factors were enough to trigger a large mass resistance among the people, which various warriors throughout history have been unable to overcome and which the Soviet forces met when they arrived in Afghanistan.”
The United States should have quickly cashed in on their hard-fought victories and helped Afghanistan make the tortuous transition from a crippled nation to a democracy; it should have met the enemy eye-to-eye on the battlefield instead of enraging friend and foe alike with the hit-and-miss gamble of ‘precision’ aerial strikes; it should have looked for other sources of economic growth besides poppy production, which has soared since the extremists were pushed out of power (much to the detriment of Russia, incidentally, which is grappling with a fresh wave of heroin addicts); it should have shepherded the Taliban to calmer pastures.
Instead, it opted for the worst strategy imaginable: On March 20, 2003 the impetuous Bush administration took its eye off the bouncing ball and made a foolhardy decision to lunge for Iraq. Perhaps the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein was simply too tempting a treat for the steel jaws of the Pentagon’s war machine to pass by. After all, there is far more money in oil than in poppy seed production, and it’s not like this was the first war in history that was fought for pecuniary considerations. Moreover, one cannot forget the simmering blood feud between George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein (“After all,” Bush told more than one audience, “this is the guy who tried to kill my dad.”), who allegedly attempted to assassinate Bush’s father, the former president, George H.W. Bush, during a visit to Kuwait in April, 1993.
Goodbye al-Qaida, Hello Taliban
A geopolitical pop quiz: The attacks against the US on Sept. 11, 2001 were orchestrated by:
a. al-Qaeda; b. the Taliban; c. Iraqi militants; d. North Korea; e. none of the above
If you failed to answer “a” please don’t be too hard on yourself. According to one American professor at a Midwestern US college, about 30 percent of his history students regularly fail to give the correct answer to this question as well.
But if anything, the attacks of 9/11 – which alienated the peaceful Islamic core from the more radical fringe elements in their ranks – proved to be al-Qaeda’s eventual undoing. Today, the radical movement appears to be a mere shadow of its former self.
“At present, al-Qaeda consists of a few hundred people running around in Pakistan, seeking to avoid detection and helping the Taliban when possible. It also has a disjointed network of fellow travelers around the globe who communicate over the Internet,” writes Professor John Mueller in this month’s issue of Foreign Affairs.
More surprisingly, “No convincing evidence has been offered publicly to show that al-Qaeda Central has put together a single full operation anywhere in the world since 9/11…” Mueller argues.
Today, the greatest obstacle to peace in Central Asia is not the scattered, elusive and allegedly Internet-savvy al-Qaeda, which may or may not have lost its terror mastermind, Osama bin Laden. Today, the greatest threat to peace in the region, where the Holy Grail seems to be nuclear weapons, is the Taliban [Note: In a recent think-tank study of the situation in Pakistan, US experts concluded, despite heavy fighting near the capital of Islamabad, that there was no imminent danger of Taliban forces gaining control of Pakistan’s nuclear missile arsenal; the simple fact that the question has been raised, however, is nothing less than disconcerting].
Now, with US forces being stretched to the breaking point physically, morally and financially, and the public starting to question the sanity of American soldiers dying in foreign sand for increasingly tenuous reasons, Obama has been forced to announce (ala George W. Bush in Iraq) a “surge” of 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan for the annual springtime peak in hostilities.
A Taliban Peace?
Following two years of brutal fighting in Pakistan’s Swat valley between the Pakistani army and the Taliban, a peace treaty was hammered out last week that gives the fundamentalist Islamic movement authority in seven northwestern districts, including Swat, Buner and Dir. The announcement infuriated Washington, which views the decision as an “abdication to terrorists.”
This negative reception to the news by Barack Obama – who attracted the wrath of the US Republicans during his campaign for the presidency by saying he would be willing “to sit down and talk to enemies” – would be inexplicable save for one glaring footnote: Pakistan has the bomb. This puts US forces at a tremendous disadvantage for confronting the Taliban in and around the Swat valley. It is even tempting to conjecture if there are blueprints tacked up on a wall in the Pentagon somewhere that envisages a reconnaissance mission to relieve Islamabad of their nukes. Or maybe I’ve just read too many Tom Clancy adventure stories.
To date, the US military has been relying mostly on Predator drone missions to attack targets inside of Pakistan, which has naturally attracted heated criticism from Islamabad. Not only do these missions breach Pakistan’s airspace, not to mention its sovereignty, they are exasperating the political situation in the country, where President Asif Ali Zardari (the widower of Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in Dec. 2007 by suicide bombers following a heroic return to her country) is going to great pains to keep all of the diverse occupants of the Pakistani house moderately content.
But the ongoing drone attacks, which enjoy a very shaky success rate (for example, in January, and on the watch of Barack Obama, dual missile attacks from suspected US drones destroyed at least one house in the town of Mirali on the Afghan-Pakistan border. The attack, which killed 14 people, “actually hit the house of a pro-government tribal leader, killing him and four members of his family, including a five-year-old child,” the BBC reported, quoting Pakistani officials) seem to only intensify anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, at a time when the US military will certainly need reliable contacts on the ground.
The fresh call troops on the way into Afghanistan will be in the unenviable position of fighting the fierce Taliban, which has spent many years concealing and fortifying its position inside of caves, tunnels and entire tribal villages in the zigzagging 1,600-mile mountain frontier that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan. And much more than the political fate of President Barack Obama, or skiing in Swat, is at stake.
In the latest news out of Swat Valley, Pakistani officials said up to 500,000 people are expected to flee the region in coming days, adding to the hundreds of thousands of existing refugees that have been driven from their homes by fighting between government forces and the insurgents.
The deteriorating situation comes on the eve of talks in Washington between Presidents Barack Obama and Asif Azari, who will be looking for ways to stem the violence. Hopefully, the leaders will have brushed up on their Soviet history before their talks.