- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009



Just before midnight on April 14, 1912, captain Edward Smith of the RMS Titanic faced the first of many life-or-death decisions he would confront over the next few hours.

An underwater spur of an iceberg had sliced open the starboard side of his giant passenger ship. As water poured into the Titanic’s boiler rooms, Smith ordered watertight doors closed. He made this decision uneasily.

The doors took just 25 seconds to slam shut, dooming the crewmen inside. It was an unfortunate, but necessary, decision to maintain hope for keeping the Titanic afloat.

Almost a century later, the captain of Pakistan’s ship of state, Asif Ali Zardari, faced a similar life-or-death decision in trying to keep democracy afloat in his country. In February, after two years of war, he signed a truce with the Taliban, deciding to sacrifice residents of the Swat Valley in hopes of stemming the floodwaters of Islamic extremism.

Mr. Zardari agreed to the Taliban’s occupation of Swat and the imposition of Shariah law. Swat residents’ freedom was sacrificed, and their vote in the country’s democratic process eight months earlier was discarded in hopes of saving democracy for the rest of Pakistan. Mr. Zardari effectively shut the watertight door on Swat residents, dooming them to Taliban control.

Like Smith’s decision, Mr. Zardari’s actions only provided a false sense of security, as he too was unable to prevent flooding - only in this case by Taliban forces into neighboring areas.

The truce had required the Taliban to lay down arms in exchange for Islamabad’s surrender of Swat.

Mr. Zardari’s mistake was to trust the Taliban. Those who have dealt with them fully understand their negotiating mind-set - make whatever promises necessary solely to gain ground from which to expand their Islamic extremist reach. Retired Pakistani Gen. Talat Masood understands this. Negotiating with them, he says, is “a waste of time. [They] do not accept constitution of Pakistan, democracy of Pakistan. How can one talk with them?”

Having surrendered Swat, Mr. Zardari’s ship of state is taking on water. Staying afloat requires recognition of, and action upon, certain factors.

c The Taliban will never:

(1) Surrender, for they seek to impose Islamic law over as much of the region as possible.

(2) Adhere to any peace treaty, especially one mandating a surrender of arms.

(3) Abide by terms of any agreement they negotiate from a position of strength. This last was the case in February as they imposed Islamic law over Swat even before Mr. Zardari could approve it. Shariah judges began hearing cases and doling out punishment (shown on video of a young woman being flogged for refusing to marry a Taliban leader).

c The Taliban, while appearing to abide by truce terms, will never do so, based on their interpretation of the Koran as empowering them to deceive Muslims or non-Muslims opposing Islamism. (They revere the Prophet Muhammad for his skills as a deceiver.)

c The Taliban - Pakistan’s greatest threat - must be deterred by a wall of domestic unity. That was not the case when Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani claimed when legislative debate over the Swat resolution began, “The whole nation is united in its support of the Swat regulation and wants the president to approve it.”

It was a sad commentary on the willingness of a free society’s political leadership to throw members under a bus driven by Islamic extremists.

Unity is important in defeating the Taliban - but it cannot be selective. A willingness to sacrifice some is only perceived by the Taliban as weakness.

Swat’s neighbors in Buner, invaded last month by the Taliban, undoubtedly would not now voice “united” support for the Swat regulation - nor would hundreds of thousands of Swat residents migrating elsewhere to escape Taliban’s brutality.

c Pakistan must recognize the real threat to its existence lies within, not without, its borders. It is futile to maintain the majority of its military might along the border with India, leaving the balance to confront the Taliban threat. Failing to understand this, Mr. Zardari eventually may find his army confronted by militants casting an ever-expanding shadow over more and more territory within Pakistan’s borders.

c Even if Pakistan accepts India as non-threatening, Islamabad’s army is of little use against the Taliban in a fight where there is little fight in the army. Repeated Taliban violations of the three-month-old Swat truce recently caused the Pakistani army to attack 7,000 insurgents entrenched there.

While this is a test of the army’s will to fight a determined enemy, concerns arise that it lacks the commitment of the enemy it fights. While lack of firepower is one reason, tribal and Taliban loyalties are another.

Mr. Zardari needs to get his army singularly focused - the success of militants means the subjugation of their families and tribes. Perhaps showing the army the flogging video would help drive this point home. U.S. aid will help arm Mr. Zardari’s military, but he needs to instill within it a fighting spirit.

Unlike the fate of the Titanic in the early moments of its collision, Pakistan’s fate is not yet sealed. For Mr. Zardari, however, some titanic decisions lie ahead. It will take enormous focus to prevent a similar disaster for this struggling democracy.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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