Click on map to enlarge.
Taliban presence in Pakistan, by area, as of April 24 2009.
Created by Bill Raymond for The Long War Journal
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. combat commander, has bluntly told the Obama Administration and Congressional leaders that the government of Pakistan could be only a couple of weeks away from collapse in the face of major Taliban advances that now threaten control of Peshawar, the major city in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, and even the nation's capital, Islamabad.
"The Pakistanis have run out of excuses" and are "finally getting serious" about combating the threat from Taliban and Al Qaeda extremists operating out of Northwest Pakistan, the general added.
But Petraeus also said wearily that "we've heard it all before" from the Pakistanis and he is looking to see concrete action by the government to destroy the Taliban in the next two weeks before determining the United States' next course of action, which is presently set on propping up the Pakistani government and military with counterinsurgency training and foreign aid.
It's not clear from this report what, if any, warnings or offers of help Petraeus or other U.S. officials have delivered to Pakistan's civilian government, led by Ali Zardari, or the Pakistani Army. However, Petreaus appears to believe that the Army will survive, even if the Zardari government falls before the Taliban offensive.
It is a lot less clear what that surviving Army will do. At the moment, the Army is supporting a government counter-offensive against the Taliban aimed at taking back the strategically and symbolically important Buner district. But the brunt of that fight is still be borne by the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), a lightly armed force. And while government forces succeeded in reestablishing control of a key town, the Taliban retaliated by seizing scores of FC hostages. In recent years, Pakistan's on-and-off battle with the Taliban has frequently turned on temporary deals, often involving negotiated release of such hostages.
Meanwhile, according to one of Pakistan's leading dailies, Bruce Riedel, the key coordinator of Obama's Pakistan-Afghanistan policies at the White House, expressed concern that the Pakistani Army might simply not be willing to fight and kill Taliban. Reportedly, Riedel said that "Pakistan Army officers are afraid that if they ask the rank and file to fire on the Taliban too much, the whole army might disintegrate."
Riedel probably knows whereof he speaks. Pakistan has never been a reliable ally. Indeed, it's likely that Usama bin Laden believed his back would be protected after 9/11 by a refusal by Pakistan to cooperate with the U.S., based on its history of strong support for the Taliban. We now know that Deputy Secretary of Stated Richard Armitage travelled to Pakistan right after 9/11 and delivered an ultimatum to then-President Musharraf: cooperate or be prepared to be bombed back into the Stone Age. Only under duress did Musharraf abandon his Taliban allies and their al Qaeda friends. But Pakistani assistance in the fight was always accompanied by foot dragging and very likely by continued covert help (critically including intelligence) to the Taliban.
It may turn out that the Taliban's threat to Pakistan, itself, will change all that -- but no one should hold his breath. The Army, its intelligence arm, ISI, and large segments of Pakistan's political leadership remain convinced that making concessions to the Taliban in terms of control of the Pashtun tribal areas will satisfy them, redirect the war in the west by the Afghan Taliban against the American infidels, and preserve what Pakistani leaders have believed fervently for decades is their country's vital interest in the "strategic depth" afforded by Afghanistan in any serious war with India and in preventing any potential Indian influence in Afghanistan.
The gravity of this crisis can't be underestimated. Our Taliban-al Qaeda enemies (no dummies) have, in effect, launched a major strategic offensive to their east, while the U.S. has been changing administrations and the incoming President has not yet had time to ramp up his policies, much less actually deliver additional troops, money or anything else to the Afghan or Pakistan side of the conflict. Obama (with smart advice from Petreaus, Riedel and others) has been conducting a wide-ranging review with an eye to developing a broader regional strategy. All well and good, but there may not be time. He may need to act decisively before all the pieces are in place, lest there no longer be a Pakistan worth dealing with.
Here's another pertinent question: given that the solid work the CIA's Clandestine Service has over the past 7 1/2 years has resulted in killing or capturing more al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and key operatives than all the other actions by the U.S. government combined -- and that work continues, right up to yesterday -- wouldn't it be smart for the President to ease himself away from the kind of gratuitous words and actions that are crippling the morale of these dedicated officers?
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UPDATES -- Heavy fighting between government and Taliban forces is reported to be raging for the third day in Pakistan's northwestern Buner district. In the nearby Dir district, the Taliban have kidnapped 10 paramilitary soldiers from their headquarters, adding to the 52 paramilitaries and police they already heald hostage. Meanwhile, the government faces yet another security challenge, as "ethnic violence" between the majority Urdu-speaking Mohajirs and Pashtuns raged in Karachi, claiming 34 lives in 24 hours and causing the government to send in troops. There are reports of Islamic extremists attempting to spur Pashtuns to rebellion.