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Brian Till
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Pashtunistan

Comment

The Taliban's siege in the Swat Valley presents a major opportunity for Pakistani President Asif Zardari, one he's taken an important first step toward grasping, but one that can also slip away quite easily.

The Swat has been pounded since Thursday by 15,000 Pakistani troops beating back Taliban fighters. Heavily armed helicopters, mortars, and jets have bombarded the lush terrain, inflicting 700 Taliban casualties, according to the state's interior minister, and displacing 400,000 people.

First, it's important to paint the conflict in ethnic terms, rather than only as a clash between moderate and extremist hues of Islam. The population in the eye of the storm, 41 million Pashtuns, represents the world's largest ethnic group without a sovereign state. The population straddles the Pakistan and Afghanistan border. It's also critical to recognize the crucible that's been created in recent years: a war on two fronts and frequent missile and drone strikes that have killed thousands of innocent bystanders — often mistakenly striking gatherings such as funerals — have had a compounding effect.

As the eminent terrorism scholar Peter Bergen has suggested for months, we're at a serious risk of the war in Southeast Asia, being waged by American and coalition forces to the West in Afghanistan and the Pakistani forces to the East, not only coalescing rivalrous Taliban factions and driving less ideological tribes into their favor — as has already occurred — but also feeding off perceptions of assault and duress to build a violent movement for a Pashtun state.

A number of observers are suggesting that the offensive of state forces against the Taliban in the Swat might be a turning point for Pakistan, the tone in even conservative corners of the country shifting to support the siege after a peace deal broke down between the Taliban and the federal government. The February agreement granted extremists autonomy in the Swat region and allowed for the implementation of Sharia law. The Guardian has reported that a gathering of clerics in the northern city of Rawalpindi endorsed the military's offensive as legitimate "jihad against the enemies of Islam."

Advancing out of the Swat — and violating the peace deal — appears to have been a Rubicon of sorts for the Taliban, ostensibly changing the way Pakistanis see the conflict.

It should be noted that before the Taliban advanced out of Swat Valley, 82 percent of Pakistanis were in favor of President Zardari signing the deal, and 74 percent thought it would bring peace to the region, according to a March International Republican Institute poll. Whether the president and his men can capitalize on this moment of changing perceptions, and leverage it against the collective feeling that Pakistan is fighting America's war rather than a threat to its own state, remains critical.

But most importantly, how President Zardari deals with the hundreds of thousands of displaced Swat residents over the coming months, and whether he manages to quickly and thoroughly rebuild after the militants are driven out, will determine the victor for this chapter — and likely have significant consequences for the broader war.

A large portion of this conflict is anchored in matters of governance and the failure of the state. Like most successful Islamist movements — such as Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood in decades passed, and Hamas — the clans the Pakistani military is pitted against draw support from filling the void of governance, sometimes by merely serving as arbiters, offering supposedly just Islamic resolutions in the absence of formal state mediation.

The Pakistani government may not have the will nor the capacity nor the public support to assert itself — either militarily or in terms of civil service — in many of the Pashtun regions that have endured autonomy since British colonial rule expired, but it must resurge in the Swat, where it has public support, and where it can draw a distinct contrast between life under Taliban rule and the auspices of a successful democracy.

This will mean pouring substantial resources into the region, vehemently protecting it against assured Taliban aggression, and resettling refugees as quickly as possible.

A large portion of those Pashtuns we're currently at war with in both Afghanistan and Pakistan aren't the taqfiri jihadists that have blown up hotels and airliners both in the region and abroad, they're an impoverished, stateless people under siege from nearly every angle. Convincing them that American troops are not an occupying force and that Pakistan is not merely doing America's bidding may be impossible, but illustrating the disparity between life with the Taliban and benefits of effective governance should be an achievable end. And it should start in the Swat.

Brian Till, one of the nation's youngest syndicated columnists, is a research fellow for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He can be contacted at till@newamerica.net. To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.



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