- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 25, 2009


“The Swat Valley taken over … The Taliban is 60 miles outside of Islamabad … The whole Punjab could go.”

What are they talking about? What could it all mean?

Even as the Obama administration is admirably positioning itself elsewhere in the world, employing the president’s amazing grace, self-confidence and rationality, a major foreign policy region is swiftly falling apart. Just beneath the surface of every meeting here on Pakistan and Afghanistan (now known in bureaucratese as “AfPak,” or sometimes “PakAf”), there lurks the one horrifying new reality of this winter: Pakistan, with its 176 million people and its pivotal position in the region as a secular state inhabited by Muslims, is more than likely to collapse into a growing civil war waged by radical Islamic fundamentalists.

Even U.S. special envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke does not mince words: “If the situation with Pakistan continues to deteriorate, success [in the region] will be very elusive.” Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Curtis says, “What we see spreading in the northwest territories of Pakistan is something new for Pakistan, and it is beginning to consume the country.”

Even while the war continues on a kind of generally botched level across Afghanistan - which was considered “the” war we were fighting, once Iraq minimally stabilized itself - the center of gravity has moved to Pakistan. But now that “center” is being shaken to bits.

First, the surface events. The immediate “announcement” for this new age and new stage came in February when, faced with military outbreaks of Islamic fundamentalism in the Swat Valley northwest of the capital of Islamabad, the indecisive government of President Asif Ali Zardari allowed the fundamentalists to take power there and to apply the most radical form of Islamic Shariah law.

This means cutting off hands and heads, and women shrouded in veils and men shouting and killing for an international caliphate, among many other things not generally found attractive in Winnetka, Sioux City or Galveston.

The Pakistani government’s rationale was that this would bring peace to the troubled area, which abuts the separately run tribal territories where these kinds of practices have been more acceptable. But in fact, it did the exact opposite. The new, radical Swat “government” has, not surprisingly, used the tiny area as a staging ground for bringing the conflict into Pakistan proper and into the central Punjab region, where half of the population lives.

At the same time, by the conservative Wall Street Journal’s assessment, “thousands” of radical foreign militants have begun pouring into Swat, with militant training camps springing up all over, in much the same style as happened in Iraq after the American invasion there.

“Two things happened,” says Ahmed Rashid, arguably Pakistan’s finest journalist and author of many books on these crises. “One, they moved out of the tribal areas into the Swat Valley, where they have access to the Punjab. There, they linked up with radical groups who have been fighting the Indians in Kashmir. … Meanwhile, the Pakistani army is in some kind of denial. They say India is the greatest threat - but India is not about to capture the Punjab.”

The New York Times this week wrote, moreover, that the Taliban and its allies - “Taliban” having now become a catchall word for all Islamic radicals, including al Qaeda - are aiming at something far deeper than first imagined. They are “engineering a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants,” the Times writes. And that is what the Swat Valley story is really all about - with the Punjab next in Pakistan’s potential “Gone With the Wind” melodrama.

Barack Obama had the chance, when he became president, to gradually save face by withdrawing from these two wars that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld so cavalierly left him. Strangely enough, he is withdrawing from Iraq, but not from Afghanistan.

Indeed, he seems to have an unexpected militant streak in him, and even as the area exploded this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the Pakistani situation an “existential” threat to Pakistan and a “threat to American security.” Really?

Does no one remember why we are there at all, and why we are in the midst of sending at least 17,000 more men and women to fight in Afghanistan, now against people we never heard of before (anti-Indian Pakistani militants?) and at the same time “build up their agriculture” and “send their women to school” and who knows what else?

The respected military historian William S. Lind ruminated in his column recently about the “power of weakness” in these irregular conflicts that have become so common and dangerous in the modern world and about that power’s “intimate relationship with legitimacy.” Indeed, he says, by our military involvement in countries like these, we are making the weak into easy, instant heroes, while we are automatically stripping any state that we support of its legitimacy.

The fact is, most of the militants now fighting in Pakistan weren’t anywhere near Sept. 11. That series of attacks was planned and carried through by al Qaeda. In fact, the original Taliban was made up of the Afghans we supported with effectively lethal AK-47s in the 1980s against the Soviets. Excuse me, I need a drink.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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