How Pakistan is Countering the Taliban

The pacification model that worked in Iraq can work in the Swat Valley

Pakistan and the international community do face serious challenges in confronting terrorists and the ideologies that sustain them. But panicked reactions of the type witnessed in the U.S. media over the last few weeks — after the Taliban drove into Buner, a town 60 miles north of the capital Islamabad — are not conducive to strengthening Pakistani democracy or to developing an effective counterterrorism policy for Pakistan.

Now that the Taliban have been driven out of Buner, and Pakistani forces have militarily engaged them just outside their Swat Valley stronghold, it should be clear to all that Pakistan can and will defeat the Taliban.

In the free elections that returned Pakistan to democracy in February 2008, Pakistanis overwhelmingly rejected Taliban sympathizers and advocates of extremist Islamist ideologies. But the legacy of dictatorship, including a tolerance for some militant groups, has proven tough to erase. Anti-American rhetoric and Pakistan’s traditional security concerns about its neighbors have also dampened popular enthusiasm for strong military action against violent extremists, even though President Asif Zardari has repeatedly declared the war against them a war for Pakistan’s soul.

Meanwhile, the change of administration in the U.S. has slowed the flow of assistance to Pakistan. Unfortunately, ordinary Pakistanis have begun to wonder if our alliance with the West is bringing any benefits at all.

Under the Musharraf dictatorship, Pakistan probably was not as quick as it needed to be to comprehend the enormity of the Taliban threat. And after last year’s election of democratic leaders, our new government had an array of domestic issues to address. Mobilizing all elements of national power, particularly public opinion, against the Taliban threat took time because many Pakistanis thought the Taliban were amenable to negotiations and would keep their word.

Recent developments offer us an opportunity amid crisis. More Pakistanis are now convinced of the need to confront the extremists.

The recent spike of international concern about the threat in Pakistan seems to stem from the recent dialogue between the government of the Pashtunkhwa Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan and a local movement that supported Islamic law but did not join the Taliban’s violent campaign. The goal for this dialogue was twofold — first, to restore order and stability to the Swat Valley; and second, to wedge rational elements of the religiously conservative population away from terrorists and fanatics.

The model here was the successful pacification of Fallujah in Iraq, where agreements with more moderate elements broke them away from al Qaeda nihilists. The model worked so well in Fallujah that it is now being resurrected by the American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The goal in Pakistan’s Swat Valley was the same.

The dialogue in Swat resulted in an agreement that would allow for elements of Shariah to be applied to the judicial system of the Valley, as it has at other times in our nation’s history. This agreement demanded that the native Taliban put down their weapons, pledge nonviolence, and accept the writ of the state. It was a local solution for what some in Pakistan viewed as a local problem.

Let me be perfectly clear here: Pakistan’s civil and military leadership understands that al Qaeda and its allies are not potential negotiating partners. But, as the U.S. did in Iraq, Pakistan sought to distinguish between reconcilable and irreconcilable elements within an expanding insurgency.

The premise of the dialogue was peace. Without peace there is no agreement, and without an agreement the Pakistani government will use all power at its disposal to restore order in the Valley. We’d rather negotiate than fight. But if we have to fight we will — and we will fight to win.

What does Pakistan need to contain this threat? In the short term we need the U.S. to share modern technology in antiterrorist engagement. Pakistan needs night-vision equipment, jammers that can knock out FM radio transmissions by the terrorists, and a larger, modernized fleet of helicopter gunships for ground support in the massive sweeps that are necessary to contain, repel and destroy the enemy.

Yet Washington has been reluctant to share this modern equipment, and to train our military in antiterrorism techniques, because of concerns that these systems could be used against India. Such concerns are misplaced. Pakistanis understand that the primary threat to our homeland today is not from our neighbor to the east but from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on our border with Afghanistan. To meet this threat, we must be provided the means to fight the terrorists while we work on resuming our composite dialogue with India.

In the long term, Pakistan’s security will be predicated on Pakistan’s economic viability. That is the central thrust of the Kerry-Lugar legislation currently before Congress, which would establish a 10-year, multibillion dollar commitment to Pakistan’s economic and social system. It is also manifest in the Regional Opportunity Zone legislation currently before Congress that would open U.S. markets to products manufactured in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s FATA region. An economically prosperous Pakistan will be less susceptible to the ideology of international terrorism — and it will become a model to a billion Muslims across the world that Islam and modernity under democracy are not only compatible, but can thrive together.

This op-ed was published in The Wall Street Journal on April 29, 2009