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Opinion: Taliban poised to "take" Pakistan

The recent deal over the Swat Valley gives rise to a frightening scenario.

Supporters of Muslim cleric Maulana Sufi Mohammad gather for prayers at a mosque in Mingora in the outskirts of Swat Valley on February 21, 2009. Taliban fighters and Pakistani officials agreed to a 'permanent ceasefire' in the northwestern Swat Valley, according to a senior government official. (Adil Khan/Reuters)

A deep fissure in the world’s security shield runs through a bucolic valley in central Pakistan, an area about as big as the state of Delaware.

There, in a region known as Swat, Taliban extremists have fought the Pakistani army to a draw. They won agreement to establish a safe-haven in Swat, just 100 miles from Islamabad, the capital. And don’t expect them to stop there.

“We are aware of the fact that the Taliban are trying to take over the state of Pakistan,” President Asif Ali Zardari declared last month. “We are fighting for our survival.” Fighting and losing.

I.E. Rehman, head of Pakistan’s Human Right Commission, says the Taliban are now poised to take over the Punjab province, home to 60 percent of the population. Already, anti-government riots are consuming Punjab over the court decision last week to disqualify opposition-party leader Nawaz Sharif from elective office. The court also sanctioned his brother, Shahbaz, the province’s chief minister.

If Punjab falls to the Taliban, Pakistan is lost, and that possibility should frighten everyone in the world. What would prevent the Taliban, and their Al Qaeda allies, from taking possession of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons arsenal?

“Already religious extremists have strong bases across" Punjab “and sympathizers in all arenas: political parties, services, the judiciary, the middle class — even the media,” Rehman wrote in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper a few days ago. “For its part, the government is handicapped because of its failure to offer good governance” and “restore faith in the frayed judicial system.”

In other words, Pakistanis know full well that their leaders are thoroughly corrupt and self-interested. To them, the court ruling on the Sharifs, Zardari’s arch-rivals, is only the latest evidence.

Transparency International’s worldwide corruption index ranks Pakistan in the bottom third, in the company of Mozambique and Paraguay. When Zadari last served in government more than a decade ago, he was widely known as “Mr. Ten Percent,” for the bribes he extracted from most everyone.

One reason some residents of the Swat valley accepted the Taliban, they have been telling reporters, is that their courts are thoroughly corrupt. They have no justice. The Taliban, at least, mete out justice untainted by money. They order floggings and beheadings as they see fit, then describe the punishments on their illegal FM radio stations.

All of this sounds distressingly familiar. Haven’t we seen this play before — in Cuba, Cambodia, Iran, Nicaragua? In all four states, richly corrupt governments that were ill-serving the people still received unqualified and unquestioning support from Washington. American patronage of corrupt leaders fed enthusiasm for Fidel Castro’s guerrilla army in Cuba, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua.

Certainly each of these previous revolutions had its own unique dynamics, and one big difference in Pakistan is that Zardari won an election. The previous four were unelected dictators.

Still, the pattern is clear. Each nation faced a popular insurgency it was unable to defeat. At this point in the uprising, no one in Washington predicted that the government was in danger. But in each case, the government’s response was ineffectual while government leaders insisted they had everything under control. Meantime, the protesters or insurgents grew ever-more confident as they sensed the government’s weakness.

And so it was in the Swat Valley last month, when a Pakistani military offensive failed, and the army was left to fire artillery shells ineffectually from a safe distance. They had no choice but to accept the Taliban’s terms for a truce — or surrender. The region’s new rulers can impose strict Islamic law, and the military has agreed to leave them alone unless attacked.

Then came the next scripted moment in this play: In Islamabad government officials are insisting there is nothing to worry about.

“This is in no way a sign of weakness,” Sherry Rahman, the information minister, averred. Other officials contend that the agreement is consistent with the nation’s constitution. Still, on Monday Pakistan vowed to appoint Islamic judges immediately, to placate Swat’s new rulers.

In Washington, not surprisingly, no one seems alarmed. Asked about the Swat surrender a few days ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said only that “our Special Representative, Richard Holbrooke, and others are working with the government in Pakistan to understand exactly what they intend with their recent announcement and how we're supposed to interpret it.”

Meantime, the Taliban are growing cocky, and hundreds of Taliban fighters from neighboring areas are flooding into Swat, their new home base. Last week, some Taliban leaders announced an indefinite ceasefire in the Swat Valley. But the most powerful of them, Maulana Fazullah, sniffed at that and proclaimed over his FM station that he would observe a cease-fire for only 10 days.

We all know the next act in this drama. Somebody needs to close the curtain before it begins.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/pakistan/090302/opinion-taliban-poised-take-pakistan