Goaded into action by mounting criticism from the U.S., the Pakistani military last week launched an offensive against the Taliban on its own soil. But it remains unclear whether the goals of the offensive are limited to containing the militants' most recent advances, rather than reversing their steady gains of the past year. The country's President, meanwhile, ahead of a trip to Washington, told foreign journalists that as far as his intelligence agencies were aware, Osama bin Laden was dead though he readily admitted that they had no proof. The rituals recalled the days when General turned President Pervez Musharraf habitually deflected the Bush Administration's demands for tougher action against extremists. And as President Barack Obama prepares to welcome President Asif Ali Zardari to Washington next week, it's plain to see that the two sides don't share the same view of the Taliban's challenge.
U.S. leaders began sounding the alarm last week when the militants, buoyed by a peace agreement that put them into effective control of the Swat Valley, extended their reach by taking control of Buner a province 60 miles from Pakistan's capital, as every media outlet hastened to explain. Pentagon leaders warned that the militants had become an "existential threat" to the Pakistani state. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the situation as a "mortal danger" to global security and bluntly demanded that the Pakistani military a recipient of more than $10 billion in U.S. aid over the past decade do a better job of earning that support. "We're wondering why they don't just get out there and deal with these people," Clinton said. "If you lose soldiers trying to retake part of your own country, it seems to me, that's the army's mission." (See pictures of the Taliban's move into Buner.)
Pakistan's generals got the message the message being that Washington expected them to push back. On April 27, Pakistani security forces launched an offensive to "eliminate and expel the militants from Buner," as army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas noted. Two weeks ago, Pakistan's parliament had endorsed a peace agreement that involved the imposition of Islamic Shari'a law in the Malakand Division, which includes Swat and Buner. The Taliban insist that it allowed them to maintain an armed presence; the military rejects that claim and made clear its intention to limit the Taliban from further advances. But the U.S. had deemed even the original Malakand deal, which was announced in mid-February, a dangerous concession to the militants, and Washington wants Pakistan's security forces to drive out the Taliban. It's not certain that such a rollback is on the military's agenda, although Monday's attack on a military convoy in the Swat Valley could prompt a stronger reaction from the army. Retaking the Swat Valley, however, would involve a protracted campaign with heavy casualties and thousands of displaced people, which would make it politically unpopular in Pakistan.
The Pakistani military saw the original Swat agreement and its concessions on Shari'a law as a way to pacify the bulk of the Taliban's popular support base, while isolating the more implacable jihadist element by denying them a key rallying issue. The generals don't share Clinton's view of the Taliban as some sort of external force invading territory the Pakistani military is obliged to protect; on the contrary, odious though it may be to the country's established political class and to the urban population that lives in the 21st century, the movement appears to be rooted in Pakistan's social fabric. The Taliban's recent advances have been accomplished in no small part through recruiting locals to its cause by exploiting long-standing resentment toward the venal local judicial and administrative authorities that prop up a feudal social order.
The military may also be more sanguine about the Taliban than Washington has been because the generals tend to view the country's political establishment, most directly challenged by the militants' gains, as corrupt and self-serving. The army, rather than the relatively weak political institutions, is the spine of the Pakistani state, and democracy has never been seen as a precondition to its survival. If the turmoil in civil society reaches a boiling point, the military, however reluctant its current leadership may be to seize power, can be reliably expected to take the political reins.
What's more, if the Taliban's goal were to seize state power rather than local control, it would have little hope of doing so. The insurgency is largely confined to ethnic Pashtuns, who comprise little more than 15% of the population. It is unlikely to find significant resonance in the major cities such as Islamabad and Lahore though an influx into Karachi of people displaced by the fighting in the tribal areas has swelled that city's Pashtun population, which has in turn raised communal tensions there. While the Taliban is reported to have made some inroads in southern Punjab and has linked up with small militant groups based in the province, it remains a minor presence in those parts of the country where the majority of Pakistanis live. Even in the most generous assessments of their fighting strength, they are very lightly armed and outnumbered by the army by a ratio of more than 50 to 1.
Still, the army is reluctant to launch an all-out campaign against the militants, not least because of a widely held perception in Pakistan that the Taliban's rise is a product of America's unpopular war in Afghanistan. There's little support in the public or within the ranks of the military for deploying the military in a sustained civil war against the militants. Many in Pakistan were convinced that the Taliban had exceeded their bounds in Buner and Swat and needed to be pushed back but not necessarily crushed. Whereas U.S. officials warn of the Taliban as an "existential" threat to Pakistan, the country's own military continues to reserve that status for India, against which the vast bulk of its armed forces remain arrayed.
This week, Obama will follow a path well worn by his predecessor, seeking to convince his Pakistani counterpart to do more against the Taliban. But the smart money says that, like Musharraf before him, Zardari and the power behind the throne, armed forces chief General Ashfaq Kiyani will be more inclined to simply do the minimum necessary to ease U.S. pressure, believing that their domestic insurgency will peter out when the U.S. ends its campaign in Afghanistan. That may explain Zardari's hopeful statement on bin Laden's current status.