Thinking about our continuing controversial political and military involvement in Iraq, though it should be winding down a great deal over the next year or two, and our growing, troubling involvement in and commitments in Afghanistan, I'm one of those who is even more concerned with what's going on in neighboring Pakistan with its 173 million almost entirely Muslim population and the consequent potential impact on our military forces and our limited available financial resources.
What's going on and why am I very concerned? Religious conservatives in the Swat Valley in the northwest of Pakistan close to the border with Afghanistan have been rebelling against the secular laws of the federal government since 1969 when the formerly independent region became part of Pakistan. A consequence of this is that these conservatives have increasingly become sympathetic to the radical Islam Taliban movement whose primary battleground for many years has been Afghanistan. In December 2008 Taliban insurgents captured the Swat Valley, surprisingly without a lot of resistance from the large Pakistan army. Among other anti-social policies in the area, they immediately banned education of girls, use of televisions and the playing of music.
In February this year, in an effort to secure peace in the region, the captive regional government of the area, supported by the weak and fragile government of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani agreed with a leading Taliban cleric that harsh Islamic or Sharia law should replace the current secular laws.
Since that time the Taliban has moved forces into the adjacent Buner District only 60 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. The U. S. has been suspicious for years that elements in the Pakistani military and especially in Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, though officially denied, have been secretly working against the policies and interests of the Pakistani government in support of some of the insurgent groups.
There is increasingly widespread concern, as evidenced recently by blunt statements by Secretary of State Clinton and some high-ranking British sources, that the Taliban pose a major near-term threat to the rest of the country and its federal government. President Obama's special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke said in an interview yesterday that "Pakistan is an emergency situation." We should all be greatly oncerned because Pakistan has nuclear weapons and the Taliban have recognized links to al Qaeda. Our worst fear would be that al Qaeda gets even close to control or access to any nuclear weapons.
The U. S. therefore needs to continue and further increase its political pressure on the Pakistan government and its military leaders, including the head of the army, Ashfaq Kayani, to get much more serious in dealing effectively with this Taliban threat. It's positive that Chairman of our Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen has recently talked to General Kayani, and that Mr. Holbrooke has been regularly talking to Mr. Zardari, who is scheduled to come to Washington, D. C. on May 6th to talk to President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai about how to combat the threat that is a continuing danger to both nations and also a potential danger to U. S. interests. Hopefully Mr. Obama will make it extremely clear what we expect and how their subsequent actions will impact continuing U. S. aid and financial support.
That this threat has been allowed to develop as it has is ridiculous! Pakistan has 650,000 active, reasonably well-trained duty personnel in the military, a paramilitary force of 300,000, and reserves of 520,000, giving a combined military force of nearly 1.4 million! The Taliban apparently has a comparatively small force of some 5,000 fighters. What's the problem? As I understand it, the problem seems incredibly to be primarily two-fold: questionable national political consensus and will and, secondly, the fact that the military has 80% of their troops firmly positioned near the Indian border, in anticipation of another possible war with that country, especially in view of the massacre in Bombay in November 2008 committed by Pakistanis, possibly assisted by some ISI insiders. Of course, another major factor in the Pakistani deployment is the longstanding national tensions associated with territorial disputes in the Kashmir region.
It should not be necessary for the U. S. to get directly involved militarily in dealing with this threat, at least with combat troops on the ground. If the Pakistani government and military allow the Taliban to capture the country's nuclear facilities, or significantly increases its control of other regions in Pakistan, the U. S. should seriously consider disabling or destroying the nuclear facilities in collaboration with the other members of the U. N. Security Council and our major allies.
This is obviously a highly sensitive and challenging situation for many reasons. The Security Council would most likely be divided on any appropriate military action. Despite the serious threat, China and Russia would probably veto any U. N. supported military action proposed by the U. S. and perhaps try to conduct bilateral negotiations with Taliban leaders, even though Russia had a bitter war with the Taliban in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. China supplied much of the technology used by Pakistan for their nuclear facilities and probably is concerned with maintaining a balance between the military power of Pakistan and India for greater stability in the region.
Considering everything already on their plates, President Obama and Mrs. Clinton will deserve a lot of credit if they can get this matter resolved satisfactorily. Most preferably, this would be convincing the Pakistani leaders not to be unduly concerned with any threat from India, redeploying their forces as needed, and to quickly retake control of their country without requiring any significant U. S. military or financial assistance. Since the Taliban have been active moving fighters and training camps back and forth across the loosely guarded northern Afghan Pakistani border with ease for years as opportunities for their terror and mischief campaigns arose, success in killing or capturing militants in Pakistan will help the U. S., our allies there and Karzai's government in Afghanistan as well.