Winning: Pakistan Turns On Its Islamic Radicals

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January 10, 2008: Pakistan may not be winning its war with Islamic radicalism, but at least it is now fighting harder. In 2007, the security forces (army, police and tribal paramilitaries) made a major effort to deal with the Taliban and al Qaeda groups operating along the Afghan border. The main reason for this was that the Pakistanis had run out of options.

The Taliban are a transnational organization, having been created in Pakistan, but achieving their greatest success when they took control of Afghanistan in the 1990s. More than that, the Taliban are but one part of a collection of religious, ethnic and tribal disputes that have been around in Pakistan for a long time. Islamic radicalism first became a major problem in the 1970s. The military government back then sought to use Islamic fundamentalism as a political tool against internal and external enemies. It hasn't worked out very well. Both politicians and generals (when they periodically took over) thought they could negotiate with the radicals. That proved to be disappointing as well. Last July, a ten month old truce with the Taliban came apart. It was the usual problem. The radicals saw the truce not as an agreement, but an opportunity. While the government kept their word, the radicals continued terrorizing tribal leaders who did not agree with them. That is one of the major problems in the tribal areas along the border. There are always power struggles among various factions, as well as feuds between tribes and clans. But since the Taliban came along, the younger, and more religious tribesmen have been trying to take control from the more traditionalist tribal elders. This has caused a major upheaval in the tribal areas. The Taliban were basically organized around this cult of religious fanaticism and youth. The old-timers have cut deals with the government in an effort to defeat their Islamic radical foes.

If we take the fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a whole, about a third of the violence in 2007 took place in Pakistan. That means 3,500 dead in Pakistan, most of it along the Afghan border. The tempo of combat is slower in Pakistan, because the Pakistani military is full of troops who sympathize with the Islamic radicals. But the troops will fight, albeit slowly. In Afghanistan, the government has fast moving, hard hitting NATO troops to smash the Taliban fighters. But those bad guys have formidable allies in the form of wealthy drug gangs, who also want to keep the government out of areas where poppies are grown, and opium and heroin processed from that crop. The main connection between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban is the large amount of cash available to Pakistani tribesmen who are willing to go fight in Afghanistan.

While most of the fighting in Pakistan is along the border, there is still tribal violence to the south in Baluchistan, which left 452 dead in 2007. While the Baluchi tribes are pro-Taliban, they are mainly fighting for more autonomy, and a larger share of the money earned from local natural gas fields. The Baluchis are getting beaten, partly because they are only 3.6 percent of the population, while the Pushtun tribes up north are fifteen percent. These two tribal groups comprise the poorest and least educated Pakistanis, but the most heavily armed and willing to fight.

Elsewhere in the country, 201 people died in sectarian violence (different ethnic or religious factions going at each other.) Much of the violence involving the Taliban is basically sectarian, with the non-Taliban tribesmen resisting the lifestyle rules (no music, video, booze, shaving and so on) the Taliban insist on imposing. The Taliban are seen, by most tribesmen, as a bunch of sanctimonious bullies. The government agrees with that, and is eager to arrange a coalition of tribes that are willing to shut the Taliban down. This is difficult to do, what with the current popularity of the Islamic radicals. But as has happened many times in the past, the Islamic radicals eventually turn too many people against them with their violence, and failure to accomplish anything useful. That's what's happening to the Islamic radicals in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While the Afghan group has drug money to keep them going, the Pakistani bunch are running out of options and local support.

 


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