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Why the Taliban Thrive in Pakistan

Taliban fighters in Zabul province, southern Afghanistan (VOA)

Taliban fighters in Zabul province, southern Afghanistan (VOA)

by Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Originally published in ABC News International, January 23, 2007

New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall, while investigating the resurgence of the Taliban along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, was beaten up in her hotel in the border city of Quetta last month by Pakistani men who claimed to be policemen. "One of the men told me that... it was forbidden to interview members of the Taliban," she later wrote. Afterwards, all her sources were tracked and interviewed by the Pakistan military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Even in as rugged a place as northwest Pakistan it is rare for a journalist from a major international media organization to face such physical intimidation. Her experience underlies the sensitivity of what she was investigating. "The most explosive question," she recently wrote from Quetta, is whether "Pakistani intelligence agencies have been promoting the Islamic insurgency."

What is certain is that the Taliban, in conjunction with elements of Al Qaeda, are entrenching themselves in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan. From here they are recruiting and training a new generation of Taliban fighters and suicide bombers to attack Western and Afghan military and government targets across the border. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of the definitive book on the original Taliban, cited US and British intelligence sources when he wrote, "The Taliban are back, able to mobilize 8,000 soldiers, in a resurgence overseen by fewer than 100 hardcore Arab Al Qaeda militants." Pakistani intelligence officials themselves upped the latter figure, admitting as many as 2,000 foreign militants were in the tribal areas.

Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, an army general who won elections by keeping the main democratic party leaders in exile, has argued his thinly-disguised military regime is the best bulwark against both the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

There are many who beg to differ. The Afghan government of Hamid Karzai has openly accused Musharraf of actively supporting the Taliban and plunging Afghanistan into the worst violence it has seen since the overthrow of the original Taliban regime.

Last September, a leaked assessment by a British defence ministry think tank said, "Indirectly, Pakistan, through the ISI, has been supporting terrorism and extremism whether in London on 7/7 or in Afghanistan or Iraq."

The only difference among independent observers is whether such support is passive or active. Even claims that mid-level ISI officers are working in defiance of their military superiors find increasingly few takers. "No army in the world functions like that, least of all the Pakistani one," says Frederic Grare, a Pakistani expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A more important debate, because it throws up important questions about the entire US policy towards Pakistan, are the motives underlying Musharraf’s allowing the Taliban to flourish. These seem to be several in number. But they all suggest that Islamabad’s generals believe that keeping Afghanistan on the boil is in their long-term interest.

First, Pakistan sees no reason to bolster the stability of the Karzai government. Pakistani officials complain privately that Karzai is cozying up to anyone who is hostile to their country. They point to the growing influence of India in the country – Afghanistan is the recipient of India’s largest-ever foreign aid programme. Most Western observers dismiss this as "paranoia". "India has less influence in Afghanistan than the Red Cross," says William Maley, an Afghan expert at Australia’s Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy. Karzai has exacerbated this by collecting around him a circle of Afghan advisors linked to the old Pakhtunistan movement that argued northwest Pakistan should rightly be part of their country.

Second, the Pakistan military believes the US to be overstretched by its military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many expect a US troop withdrawal from Iraq will be followed by a similar retreat from Afghanistan. If that were to happen, the sands would begin to run out for Karzai’s government. Islamabad traditionally sees Afghanistan as its "strategic backyard" and would want to fill the resulting power vacuum. The best instrument for such a hedge strategy? The Taliban. After all, in their first incarnation they were the most pro-Pakistani regime that ever ruled in Kabul.

Third, jihads are politically useful at home for Musharraf. Rashid argues that "after seven years of General Musharraf...people are tired of the army." The only political parties with strong links to the army are the Islamicist parties. One of the prices they demand for their support is the right to practice holy war, whether in Afghanistan, Kashmir or even Iraq.

Finally, letting the Taliban run rampant keeps the US occupied in Afghanistan and makes Washington reluctant to pressure Musharraf on the agenda he finds especially distasteful: restoring democracy to Pakistan. The Bush Admnistration, which once used to read the riot act to Musharraf about ballots over bullets, now merely says elections in Pakistan are "an internal affair." Grare argues the military uses what he calls the "myth of the Islamic peril" to keep both pressure to democratize at bay and force the West to treat the army as the dominant political force.

If the Pakistan military is itself the patron of the Taliban and other jihadi groups based in Pakistan, the present US policy is schizophrenic. Either democracy is the solution to the Islamic terror problem emanating from Pakistan or the military is the US’s best defence against such terror. Both arguments cannot be true. There is now a small mountain of evidence that the latter is clearly false. At which point it becomes obvious why Musharraf and his generals have so little incentive to bring the Taliban to heel.

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri is a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society.