Saturday, January 19, 2008

Talibanistan, Part 1

Below is a map of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which are located along the border with Afghanistan:

Following is an article from March 22nd, 2007, entitled The Truth About Talibanistan by Aryn Baker, Kabul, Afghanistan. Beginning in this post, it is reproduced in its entirety, with minor editing of one part that appeared garbled. It is important to keep in mind that the information is nearly a year old.

The residents of Dara Adam Khel, a gunsmiths' village 30 miles south of Peshawar, Pakistan, awoke one morning last month to find their streets littered with pamphlets demanding that they observe Islamic law. Women were instructed to wear all-enveloping burqas and men to grow their beards. Music and television were banned. Then the jihadists really got serious. These days, dawn is often accompanied by the wailing of women as another beheaded corpse is found by the side of the road, a note pinned to the chest claiming that the victim was a spy for either the Americans or the Pakistani government. Beheadings are recorded and sold on DVD in the area's bazaars. "It's the knife that terrifies me," says Hafizullah, 40, a local arms smith. "Before they kill you, they sharpen the knife in front of you. They are worse than butchers."

Stories like these are being repeated across the tribal region of Pakistan, a rugged no-man's-land that forms the country's border with Afghanistan--and that is rapidly becoming home base for a new generation of potential terrorists. Fueled by zealotry and hardened by war, young religious extremists have overrun scores of towns and villages in the border areas, with the intention of imposing their strict interpretation of Islam on a population unable to fight back. Like the Taliban in the late 1990s in Afghanistan, the jihadists are believed to be providing leaders of al-Qaeda with the protection they need to regroup and train new operatives. U.S. intelligence officials think that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may have found refuge in these environs. And though 49,000 U.S. and NATO troops are stationed just across the border in Afghanistan, they aren't authorized to operate on the Pakistani side. Remote, tribal and deeply conservative, the border region is less a part of either country than a world unto itself, a lawless frontier so beyond the control of the West and its allies that it has earned a name of its own: Talibanistan.

As I am establishing in the series entitled Genesis (see sidebar), the Taliban got their start with support from the Pakistani side of the border. Many of their recruits came from madrasas in Pakistan.

This area along the border now allows the Taliban a safe haven, much as the mujahideen enjoyed in the 1980's when battling the Soviets. The big difference is that in that jihad, Pakistan and the United States were both supporting the mujahideen. Consequently, outside support from the ISI and the CIA was accepted. This time, however, the dynamics of an international border plus a region that has historically been fiercely independent work against Islamabad and Washington, and against the local people, as well.

Since Sept. 11, the strategic hinge in the U.S.'s campaign against al-Qaeda has been Pakistan, handmaiden to the Taliban movement that turned Afghanistan into a sanctuary for bin Laden and his lieutenants. While members of Pakistan's intelligence services have long been suspected of being in league with the Taliban, the Bush Administration has consistently praised Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for his cooperation in rooting out and apprehending members of bin Laden's network. But the Talibanization of the borderlands--and their role in arming and financing insurgents in Afghanistan--has renewed doubts about whether Musharraf still possesses the will to face down the jihadists.

Herein lies a major factor of this issue: elements of Pakistan's government, including the ISI, are in league with the Taliban.

Those doubts are surfacing at a time when Musharraf confronts his biggest political crisis since grabbing power eight years ago. Since March 12, Pakistani streets have been the scene of clashes between police and thousands of lawyers and opposition activists outraged by Musharraf's decision to suspend the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, for alleged abuse of office. Musharraf's critics say the President is attempting to rig the system to ensure he stays in power. Their ire boiled over when Pakistani police raided a television station to prevent it from covering protests outside the Supreme Court. Some Pakistanis who have excused Musharraf's authoritarianism in the past now portray him as a jackbooted dictator. "I think he has ruined himself," says retired Lieut. General Hamid Gul, former director general of the Pakistani intelligence organization Inter-Services Intelligence. "He's not going to be able to placate the forces he has unleashed."

Again, this article is from March of last year. The more things change...?

There are various factions and interests in Pakistan, and, like any leader, Musharraf needs adequate support to stay in power. That means he needs the right mix of these elements to support him. But, these elements are volatile, and don't always mix well; in fact, they can react quite explosively.

Because Musharraf also heads Pakistan's army, it's unlikely that he will be forced from office. But a loss of support from his moderate base could deepen his dependence on fundamentalist parties, which are staunch supporters of the Taliban. If the protests against Musharraf continue, he will be even less inclined to crack down on the militants holding sway in Talibanistan--grim news for the U.S. and its allies and good news for their foes throughout the region. Says a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan: "The bottom line is that the Taliban can do what they want in the tribal areas because the [Pakistani] army is not going to come after them."

Musharraf has since stepped down as the head of Pakistan's army. But, he still needs the support of the military, and of others, lest he himself lose power the same way he gained it -- in a military coup d'etat.

Musharraf could align himself with the extremists, but that would be dangerous. He would undoubtedly wind up getting roasted over his own fire.

The moderate elements in Pakistani society are a key component, and upon them may hinge the situation.

Courting support of the moderates, however, means he needs to open up his government to opposition leaders -- former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto. This was apparently somebody's strategy last year.

Should a successful coalition emerge -- now more difficult with Bhutto's assassination -- Musharraf would have to share power, and this may unleash a chain of events that results in him losing power. Assuming he is willing to go peacefully, might the events still result in instability, which ultimately leads to power being seized by militant/extremist elements?

Otherwise, might trouble between Musharraf and these opposition forces result in those opposed to the militants and extremists being so divided up and thus weak that the militants and extremists come out on top?

Or, might instability result in a new military coup d'etat, now against Musharraf, as the army steps in to restore order? If so, might the new strongman be aligned with the militant extremists?

Assuming Musharraf is only doing what he sees as his duty to Pakistan, the situation is complicated, indeed.

Then, Washington has to factor in a calculation as to what kinds of forces are pulling and tugging on Musharraf.

Then, there are corrupt undercurrents in Washington who want the instability and radicalization to continue for a variety of reasons, one of which is the loyalty of some Washington VIPs to narcotics cartels -- the instability greatly benefits the production of opiates, which is now a USD $1,000,000,000,000-per-year industry, of which 90% now comes from Afghanistan.

In fact, the territory at the heart of Talibanistan--a heavily forested band of mountains that is officially called North and South Waziristan--has never fully submitted to the rule of any country. The colonial British were unable to conquer the region's Pashtun tribes and allowed them to run their own affairs according to local custom. In exchange, the tribesmen protected the subcontinental empire from northern invaders. Following independence in 1947, Pakistan continued the arrangement.

Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where North Waziristan and South Waziristan are located, still have a powerful aversion to outside domination. This is why Islamabad's authority has been so weak in these areas, allowing the Taliban to move in and take over.

This has thus been a weakness of ours in this War on Terror.

This FATA aversion to outside domination is also perhaps the major exploitable weakness of the Taliban in this war.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we continue reviewing The Truth About Talibanistan by Aryn Baker.

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