As the Taliban send suicide bombers inside Pakistan’s cities, observers focus on the horrors and the continuing bloodshed.
And though the Taliban has escalated its violence, which we warned it would since the assassination of Prime Minister-elect Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, the worst has yet to happen. Analysts must focus on the lessons learned so far so policy suggestions can be made — and fast.
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, and al-Qaida, 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 new president and as he clearly pledged to fight terrorism, the Taliban leaped to pre-empt 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." In fact 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 toward 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. And in fact it did happen. So what are the lessons so far?
First, the Taliban and their jihadi allies have clearly shown that they have cells capable of conducting terror attacks way beyond their enclaves. Protracted violence in urban zones can be expected.
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.
Second, the attacks against the military headquarters and bases, never performed before, can be replicated against more dangerous locations, including nuclear sites: storage locations, launching pads, or delivery systems. It is only a question of time.
Third, assassinations are still possible. As with the late Benazir Bhutto, the Taliban knows that achieving such goals can trigger even wider clashes inside the country.
Fourth, the present government has decided to fight the Taliban enclaves in the Northwest provinces. If this government fails, such an opportunity will not happen again soon.
Fifth, the Taliban war on the secular government in Pakistan, if anything, shows a determination to take over the country. It clearly shows that the notion of a “moderate Taliban” doesn’t exist. Otherwise the Pakistani Muslim government would have used moderate Taliban against the extremists.
Based on these findings, the following are strategic recommendations for the U.S. administration to consider: As Pakistan’s armed forces and its government are waging a counter-campaign on the Taliban, Washington must refrain from the myth of “cutting deals with the good Taliban” as an exit strategy for Afghanistan. Such a hallucination would crumble the determination of counter 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 discreetly and only when asked. U.S. and Pakistani leaders should coordinate efforts without exposing this cooperation to jihadist propaganda. The Obama administration must rapidly extend resources to Gen. McChrystal in Afghanistan so that allies can move against the Taliban 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.
Anything less and we risk losing not one but two countries in the region to the jihadists, one already nuclear.
Dr Walid Phares is a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of “The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad.”
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