The refugee problem in Pakistan's troubled border regions has been widely under-reported
Over the last eighteen months I’ve been less worried about Iraq than Afghanistan… and worried about Afghanistan because of Pakistan.Friends who travel there say Pakistan is a lovely place, with many gracious people. That said, it is also an unstable nuclear power, governed by a series of authoritarian governments, engaged in a hot border dispute with the pluralistic democracy (India) next door. The father of its nuclear program, A.Q. Khan, long ran a “bazaar” distributing technical knowledge to countries including North Korea and Iran. Its intelligence service has been riddled with Islamists who have a too-close relationship to a variety of violent extremist movements, including the al Qaeda-hosting Taliban. Its politicians, even its reform politicians, spring from a feudal system that still underpins their power base. The knee-jerk reaction of its intellectual class is post-colonial-grievance argument. (Instance: the brilliant young novelist Kamila Shamsie wrote in the Guardian shortly after 9/11 that America shared a portion of the blame for that tragedy since the US had disengaged from Afghanistan following the anti-Soviet jihad there; in fact Pakistan had prevented the US from any direct engagement with Afghanistan for the previous two decades, while the US had nevertheless been the largest supplier of aid to the country through the 1990s.)
Westerners sometimes misread the so-called “strongman” President Pervez Musharraf, who stepped down this, and they may have misread his reform instincts. Admittedly his habit of arresting judges didn’t help, but for a contrary view of his thinking read a précis of his graduate thesis at King’s College of Defense Studies… it’s describes exactly the path reformers recommend now, decades after he wrote it. Of course, when Musharraf signed an armistice with leaders in Pakistan’s independent tribal areas in the north and west of the country, westerners justifiably called into question how stalwart an ally he was in pursuit of the violent extremists taking refuge there. For his part, Senator Barack Obama earlier this year thundered dramatically and alarmingly that if Pakistan did not show itself more useful in confronting violent extremists in its country the US might need to bomb and invade it. (Presumably he meant the restive tribal areas in that country rather than Islamabad, but perhaps the Senator should reflect on his counsel about the utility of soft power.)
A civilian government is now fully in power in the country. One wonders: without Musharraf there to unite them in angry opposition, will the governing coalition hold. One would like to be hopeful, but given a history of alternating military dictatorships and crumbling democratic coalitions it is not easy. Certainly, one would not expect this government to be militarily more assertive against Islamic extremism than the recently departed general.
In the meantime, resurgent extremists have been destroying girls’ schools, eighty-seven schools in total, with another sixty-two schools closed by frightened teachers. Maulana Fazlullah, the chief of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, based in the Swat Valley, called female education “a source of obscenity,” and ordered girls to go home and don the burka. In the past two weeks alone extremists reduced twenty-eight girls’ schools to rubble.
Yet at this moment something very different and notable is also happening. What’s more, the activity is concentrated near Bajaur, cited as the most likely place for Osama bin Laden to have taken refuge. Let me say first that any instance of displaced populations is itself a tragedy, likely an indication of many untold tragedies; but in this instance it is likely also the first sign of a government pushback. The Australian reports this:
“ISLAMABAD: A human tide of more than 300,000 civilians has fled the al-Qa’ida badlands, amid indications that the fighting there has reached unprecedented levels, with the Pakistani army using massive firepower to attack jihadi militant strongholds. Helicopter gunships, fixed-wing strike aircraft, tanks and heavy artillery have been used in the onslaught.”
The fighting itself appears no less daunting than the refugee problem. This from from Syed Saleem Shahzad of Asia Times:
“When several hundred Pakistani troops backed by paramilitary forces on Friday launched an operation against militants in Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, they received a most unwelcome surprise. News of the offensive, which proved to be the most bloody this year in Pakistan, had been leaked to the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda militants by sympathizers in the security forces, and the army walked into a literal hail of bullets. Contacts familiar with the militants told Asia Times Online that every hill had observers as the first military convoys entered Bajaur – the main corridor leading to the Afghan provinces of Kunar, Nooristan, Kapisa and the capital Kabul – and they were quickly under attack. In just a few hours, 65 soldiers were killed, 25 were taken prisoner and scores more were wounded. Under air cover, the soldiers retreated, leaving behind five vehicles and a tank, which are now part of the arsenal of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”
The Pakistani government and military together are indeed doing what was never expected of them. What’s more, their predicament, facing an uncompromising enemy on its periphery while undermined by double-dealing Islamist-sympathizers within its security services, is clear.