Opinion

Op-Ed

The Taliban's War on Pakistan

Pakistani soldiers carry the coffin of comrade Mohammad Asif, killed in the ongoing operation against Taliban militants in South Waziristan, in Karachi on Oct. 27. (Photo: Rizwan Tabassum/ AFP-Getty Images)

The war between the Taliban and Pakistan continues to accelerate. Recently, Pakistan's army responded to a long string of Taliban attacks—suicide bombers and other types of attacks inside Pakistan's cities against its police and military forces—by launching a massive ground operation in Waziristan.

Many, myself included, warned that the Taliban's war on Pakistan's government and society would widen since the assassination of Prime Minister-elect Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. And so it is today.

It is unfortunate, but nevertheless true, that the most important events—the worst events—in this war have yet to happen. And analysts must focus on the lessons learned so far so that the worrying projections can be accompanied with parallel policy suggestions.

The jihadi campaign in Pakistan was planned years ago, but the electoral victory in 2007 of the secular Party of the People, headed traditionally by the Bhutto clan, triggered an acceleration of the Taliban general offensive. Initially the mullahs of the most radical Salafists on Earth—in partnership with al Qaeda—wanted to seize Pakistan gradually, with further infiltration. They were building their "emirate" sanctuary in Waziristan and beyond, while penetrating the intelligence agencies and other segments of the bureaucracy.

But since September 2008 when Benazir's widower Asif Ali Zardari was elected as the new president, pledging to fight terrorism, the Taliban leaped to preempt his designs. In one short year, they escalated their attacks, reaching a point 60 miles from Islamabad last April. That week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Zardari's government was "abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists."

When the jihadist forces entered the Swat Valley and began heading towards the capital's suburbs, the country's government was tested strategically. I told Fox News then that this was a "red line." Crossing it towards Islamabad meant a Taliban advance all over the country. But if the Army would cross it in reverse, it would mean a full-fledged war against the Taliban. It did in fact happen, as we can see today.

The Taliban and their jihadi allies have clearly shown that they have cells capable of conducting terror attacks way beyond their enclaves. Hence one needs to expect protracted violence in urban zones. The armed Islamists aren't a new force appearing only this year, but a network growing for decades. Now is their time to try to take out the secular government.

The attacks against the military headquarters and bases, never performed before, can be copycatted in attacks against more dangerous locations, including nuclear sites: storage locations, launching pads or delivery systems. It is a question of time before such a scenario could materialize.

Assassinations are still possible. As with the late Lady Benazir, the Taliban knows that achieving such goals can trigger even wider clashes inside the country.

The present Pakistani government, in fighting the Taliban, is trying to find a strategy that will dismantle the Taliban enclaves in the Northwest provinces. If this government fails, such an opportunity will not happen again soon. All of these factors indicate that this is the last card to be played, in this generation, against the jihadists of Pakistan.

The Taliban war on the secular government in Pakistan shows a determination to take over the country. It also shows that the notion of a "moderate Taliban" has no connection to reality. Otherwise the Pakistani Muslim government would have found these alleged "moderate Taliban" and mobilized them against the bad guys. It didn't happen and it won't.

As Pakistan's armed forces and its government are waging a counter-campaign on the Taliban, Washington must refrain from regurgitating the myth of "cutting deals with the good Taliban" as an exit strategy for Afghanistan. Such a hallucination would crumble the determination of anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan and would weaken the resolve of the Pakistanis engaged in their own national counter-terrorism campaign against the Taliban.

The Obama Administration must help Zardari's government discretely and at the demand of the latter. U.S. and Pakistani leaders should coordinate efforts without exposing this cooperation to jihadist propaganda.

The Obama administration must rapidly extend resources to General McCrystal in Afghanistan so that the pincer movement against the regional Taliban can happen at the same time. Now that the Pakistanis are on the offensive in Waziristan, NATO and Afghan forces must take the offensive on the other side of the border. The Taliban must not be enabled to fight one adversary at a time, by massing all their resources in two countries against one foe then moving to the next.

I am sure U.S. and NATO strategists and Pakistani decision makers have this in mind. But we need to make sure U.S. decision makers do not have other plans in mind. Otherwise, if the pincer strategy is not performed, we may lose not one but two countries in the region to the jihadists, one of them being already nuclear.

Dr Walid Phares is the co-secretary general of the Transatlantic Parliamentary Group on Counter Terrorism and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy.

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