Leadership: Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

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May 2, 2007: Benazir Bhutto, who was the prime minister of Pakistan that that allowed her intelligence service (the ISI) to organize and support the Taliban, admitted publicly that this was not, in retrospect, a wise decision. It wasn't an easy decision, either. When Bhutto was confronted, in 1993, with seemingly endless war in neighboring Afghanistan, the proposal to arm and organize Afghan religious school students in Pakistani refugee camps, and send them home to do a little preaching and peacekeeping, it seemed like a reasonable idea. There seemed to be no other viable solutions. For a while, the Taliban strategy, but eventually the Taliban went over the edge with their holier-than-thou attitude. For example, they believed Bhutto, as a woman, had no right to be prime minister of Pakistan (Bhutto came from a powerful political family, and she certainly had the chops to take the top job, and run with it.)

But there are still Pakistani generals and intelligence officials who believe that the Taliban can be played. Some of these generals think that way simply because they are pious Moslems and believe that the Taliban will do the right thing. Others are just cynical in their belief that they can somehow control the Taliban.

The problem is that the Taliban are not some monolithic organization. They are more like the mafia. That is, a coalition of people with similar goals, who have shared cultural attitudes and willingness to cooperate with each other. Some of the time. The Taliban come from many tribes, most of them Pushtun, but some of them Baluchi (the tribes that dominate southwest Pakistan.) Tribal politics, especially feuds (recent and ancient) complicate relations between Taliban groups. As long as the Taliban are under pressure, as they are in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they stick together and put their differences aside. But as was seen in the late 1990s, once they are in power, the old disputes come to the fore, and things get nasty.

People from the more populous parts of Pakistan (Sind and Punjab) have long tried to manipulate the Pushtun and Baluchi tribes up in the hills. Now that the armed forces have lots of aircraft and helicopters, plus the tanks and artillery, they feel they are in a better bargaining position. This attitude is reinforced by the large number of educated and ambitious Pashtuns and Baluchi officers in the army and intelligence services. These guys do have influence with their tribal kinfolk. They do have the backing of the massive firepower the military possesses. But so far, these attempts to play the Taliban have not succeeded. And most of the player seemed more interested in keeping the game going, than in actually accomplishing anything.

 


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