Monday, April 20, 2009

Extremist Tide Rises in Pakistan

Excellent reporting from the WaPo's Pamela Constable. The Taliban are now essentially in charge in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Provinces, and a formerly jailed Islamist leader is now released and speaking out in the capital, Islamabad. Add to this that (1) elements of Pakistan's military intelligence (the ISI) have long supported the Taliban, (2) the Pakistani army has not been able to control them, (3) every US drone attack seems to recruit more angry young men to their cause, and (4) those drone attacks are also driving Taliban (and related groups') and al-Qaeda leadership into the more densely populated areas, including the city of Karachi - and you have the elements of an almost impossible situation. A real quandary.

And if the Pakistani government does fall, what about those nuclear weapons? How might relations with the Supreme Enemy - India - be affected?

Add to that as well, that US troops are fighting and dying in heavy engagements in Afghanistan, which will likely only get worse as the warmer season approaches.

Analogies with Vietnam - and the Cold War era in general - are starting to pop up. Constable's piece talks, for example, of the handing over of the Swat region to the Taliban as one more "domino" falling. Just as in the 1950s and 1960s, as the Vietnam war was heating up, we saw its potential loss as one more domino falling to what we saw then as worldwide Communism, observers will see Swat - and perhaps Pakistan as a whole - as dominoes falling to worldwide Islamism. We now know, of course, that Vietnam was more a civil war - a war of anti-colonialism - than anything else. The US suffered a major military defeat there, after years of backing the venal, corrupt Diem regime in South Vietnam; the Vietnamese suffered terribly during the war, at the hands of the US, the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese regular army; but today the US and Vietnam enjoy good relations.

If the Taliban do wind up taking over Pakistan - and Afghanistan - what then? In Afghanistan, the US is fighting on behalf of an admittedly corrupt Karzai government that, essentially, it installed, and that has been able to survive only on US-provided life-support. That in itself puts the US on the wrong side in the minds of many Afghans. Add to that the thousands of Afghans who have died as "collateral damage" after US raids and air strikes since 2001, and even more see the US as the enemy. Likewise, as the death tolls rise in Pakistan, many people there see the Zardari government as corrupt (don't forget that Zardari himself, as husband of the then prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was known commonly as "Mr. Ten-Percent" for the rake-offs he received while she was in power) and as doing the bidding of the US by sending its army against the Taliban. Do the urban middle class of Pakistan want to live under a Taliban regime? No. But to some extent what we're seeing is the product of decades of military dictatorship and foundering democracy that did little to alleviate rural poverty, and that preserved a social system dominated by a small, Westernizing landlord class that has lorded it over rural agricultural workers for centuries. To some extent, the Taliban are perhaps herding the chickens home to roost, offering a promise of social and economic justice rooted in what they preach as a "true" Islam.

Unfortunately, their "true" Islam entails amputations, floggings, and forced veilings, among many other practices that most of us find abhorrent. Historically, many - perhaps most - "revolutionary" regimes have employed violent, repressive tactics in the process of seizing power and then establishing themselves. Once in power, though, they have tended to moderate their behavior. Vietnam is a case in point. Iran is also, to some extent, a case in point - not that it has become a paragon of human rights or what many of us would regard as consistently "civilized" behavior (witness most recently the conviction of Roxana Saberi and the Holocaust denials by its president). But the Iranian revolution was led by a heavily ideologized element (both Islamist and leftist) against a brutal, corrupt, Westernizing regime; it went through a horribly bloody period initially, during which its leaders preached the oncoming universal Islamic revolution (people spoke then of the Green Tide as opposed to the Red Tide of global Communism); but over time, the Islamists' regime behavior has moderated significantly, and the US (after years of stupidly antagonistic behavior towards Iran) is now reaching out to Iran's leadership, elements of whom (as well as much of Iran's population) are eager to reach back.

Would a US military intervention into Iran in 1979 have stopped the revolution, or made things better? Doubtful. But if "Af-Pak" really starts to head down the tubes, we're likely to hear calls for a US intervention into Pakistan - and some of the right-wing whack-jobs may even call for destroying villages in order to save them (as indeed the Pakistani army has already done, according to a report broadcast on PBS last week). Will that solve anything?

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