Hours after a truck bomber slew 53 people last weekend at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, the country’s interior minister laid responsibility for the attack on Taliban militants holed up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, the remote, wild region that straddles the border with Afghanistan.
“All roads lead to FATA,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik said.
If the past is any guide, Mr. Malik’s statement is almost certainly correct.
But what Mr. Malik did not say was that those same roads, if he chose to follow them, would very likely loop back to Islamabad itself.
The chaos that is engulfing Pakistan appears to represent an especially frightening case of strategic blowback, one that has now begun to seriously undermine the American effort in Afghanistan. Tensions over Washington’s demands that the militants be brought under control have been rising, and last week an exchange of fire erupted between American and Pakistani troops along the Afghan border. So it seems a good moment to take a look back at how the chaos has developed.
It was more than a decade ago that Pakistan’s leaders began nurturing the Taliban and their brethren to help advance the country’s regional interests. Now they are finding that their home-schooled militants have grown too strong to control. No longer content to just cross into Afghanistan to kill American soldiers, the militants have begun to challenge the government itself. “The Pakistanis are truly concerned about their whole country unraveling,” said a Western military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the matter is sensitive.
That is a horrifying prospect, especially for Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government, its first since 1999. The country has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons. The tribal areas, which harbor thousands of Taliban militants, are also believed to contain Al Qaeda’s senior leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.
It’s all the greater a paradox, then, that the Taliban militias now threatening the stability of Pakistan owe their survival — and much of their present strength — to a succession of Pakistani governments that continues to the present day.
The origins of the present predicament date to 1994, when Pakistan, unnerved by the bloody civil war that had engulfed Afghanistan following the Soviet Union’s departure five years earlier, turned to a group of fierce but moralistic Afghan tribesman who had won a string of victories. They called themselves “the students” — in Arabic and Pashto, the Taliban. Sensing an opportunity, the Pakistani government, led then by Benazir Bhutto, threw its support behind them. Aided by Pakistani money, supplies and military advisers, the Taliban swept across Afghanistan, entering the capital in 1996.
It was the same group of men — under the Taliban, women were stripped of nearly all their rights — whom the Americans overthrew when they invaded Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001.
Which brings us to the current crisis. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President Pervez Musharraf publicly promised to break with the Taliban. For that, Pakistan was rewarded with nearly $10 billion in American aid. But over the years, something else happened: whatever President Musharraf said in public, the military and intelligence services over which he presided demonstrated every intention of strengthening the Taliban, who fled en masse to the borderlands after their expulsion from Kabul in November 2001.
Over the years, the evidence has been too obvious to ignore. In 2002, for instance, Mr. Musharraf ordered the arrest of some 2,000 suspected militants — many of whom had trained in Pakistani-sponsored camps. Weeks later, without fanfare, he released nearly all of them.
Likewise, after 9/11, President Musharraf promised to rein in the estimated 25,000 private Islamic schools — many of them incubators of Islamic militants — but never took the slightest steps to do so.
The most glaring example came last July, when operatives of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, or I.S.I., were said to have helped fighters under Serajuddin Haqqani, a Taliban commander, bomb the Indian Embassy in Kabul. An Indian defense attaché was among 54 people killed, and American officials said there was overwhelming evidence pointing to I.S.I. involvement. “It was sort of this ‘aha’ moment,” an American official said.
The single most persuasive explanation for Pakistan’s continued involvement with the Taliban is the country’s obsession with India. Pakistan and India have fought three major wars since they broke with the British Empire in 1947, and the rivalry lives on. India has allied itself closely with the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai. In 2006, for instance, a senior I.S.I. official told a New York Times reporter that he regarded Mr. Haqqani as an I.S.I. intelligence asset. Mr. Haqqani, an Afghan Pashtun, is one of the Taliban’s most senior commanders battling the Americans. His father, Jalalhuddin, is a longtime associate of Osama bin Laden. The Haqqanis are thought to be overseeing operations from the border territories.
But while the Pakistanis have been primarily interested in using the Taliban to exert their influence inside Afghanistan, the Taliban have expanded their ambitions to include Pakistan itself. A turning point came in the summer of 2007, when Pakistani troops stormed the Red Mosque, where Islamic militants had gathered in the capital. The gun battle killed nearly 100 people. Taliban militants launched a wave of suicide bombings around the country, and Baitullah Mehsud formed Tariq-i-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella organization of several Taliban groups, and declared war on the Pakistani government. Since then, Taliban militias have expanded their reach beyond the FATA areas to include much of the neighboring Northwest Frontier Province.
Which brings us, finally, to the Americans. Concerned about the growth of the Taliban inside Pakistan — and about the growing losses of American soldiers in Afghanistan — American officials have pressed Pakistani leaders to crush the militants in their bases inside the tribal areas. The Pakistanis have launched a series of offensives, and all of them have ended with the militants stronger than ever. It may be that the Pakistan Army is too inept to destroy the Taliban, but there is abundant evidence suggesting that at least some elements of the army do not want to do that.
“I would not rule out the possibility that explicit deals were made by the military,” the American military official said.
With the arrival of Pakistan’s new civilian government last February, the situation seems more intractable than ever. The government, now led by Yousaf Raja Gilani, is still hugely dependent on America. The Bush administration, in turn, has continued to press Mr. Gilani for military operations against the militants in the tribal areas.
And there’s the rub. Each time Mr. Gilani has sent troops into those areas, he has succeeded only in sparking the outcries of his fellow Pakistanis, who are growing increasingly bitter toward what they see as the Bush administration’s overbearing ways. The attack on the Marriott, for instance, came on the heels of a recent Pakistani offensive in the Bajaur tribal agency. While there is no direct evidence that the attack on the Marriott was launched in retaliation for that offensive, many Pakistanis certainly saw it that way.
Meanwhile, as the Taliban has grown stronger, the Bush Administration has stepped up its own military operations inside Pakistan, taking the extraordinary step this month of landing helicopter-borne soldiers in a village in South Waziristan to strike a suspected militant hideout. The military strike set off tremors of anti-American anger; Pakistani officials, buffeted by domestic criticism, have promised to use force against any future American incursions.
What does the future hold? Some American analysts worry that the fledgling civilian government in Pakistan won’t be able to survive the cross-currents of American pressure and the anti-American anger it stimulates. For their part, American officials have been silent on whether they will attempt more cross-border raids, but privately they say the situation in the tribal areas is contributing to the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this month that while he was sure that victory in Afghanistan was possible, ”I’m not convinced we’re winning it” there now.
One thing seems a good bet: that the fires and deaths that consumed the Marriot Hotel last weekend will not be the last.
6 months ago