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Pakistan's Peril
A deal with the Taliban provides a measure of the challenge facing the Obama administration.

Monday, March 2, 2009

EVEN AS the Obama administration races to develop a strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, bad news has been pouring in from the region. U.S. casualties in Afghanistan are up sharply so far this year compared with 2008. Pakistan's political system is being pulled apart by conflicts between the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari and rival political movements, even as the economy swoons. But from Washington's point of view, the most alarming development is the Taliban takeover of large stretches of territory in the Swat Valley, less than 100 miles from Islamabad. It's not just that Islamic extremists have succeeded in defeating the Pakistani army's attempts to retake control of the region; it's that government and military leaders are arguing that their best option lies in acquiescence to a cease-fire that ratifies the imposition of sharia law.

In meetings in Washington last week, Pakistan's foreign minister and army commander have been contending that the deal is not as bad as it sounds. The Swat region is distinctive, they say; a mild version of sharia will be applied; extremists who have been beheading local officials and demolishing girls schools will be reined in. More convincingly, they point out that the army has been losing both battles on the ground and hearts and minds across the western part of the country. A truce might be welcomed by the terrorized population of Swat while giving the government time to regroup.

The problem with these arguments is that they are premised on a theory that has been repeatedly disproved by Pakistani truces in other regions. The deals have not succeeded either in preventing the imposition of extreme Taliban-style rule or in separating Pakistani Islamists from the Afghan Taliban or al-Qaeda. By agreeing to the Taliban demand for sharia justice, Mr. Zardari's government will be allowing a rupture with the rule of law that could quickly spread to other areas. It could also allow the creation of a haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives seeking safety from the U.S. airstrikes that have killed a number of senior operatives in areas closer to Afghanistan.

The Obama administration, which has been publicly skeptical of the Swat accord, faces the daunting challenge of persuading Pakistan's military commanders and civilian leaders to squarely face the Islamic threat. Rhetorically, those leaders say that they know the danger of the Taliban's growing strength; in practice the bulk of Pakistan's army continues to be deployed against India, and little has been done to train or equip it for counterinsurgency.

Yet the United States does have leverage: Pakistani officials have asked for major new infusions of American military and economic aid. The aid should be provided but carefully conditioned on the adoption of a concerted military-political strategy for reasserting government control over the western part of the country and defeating extremist forces. In the meantime, the administration should continue U.S. air attacks on militant leaders. Unfortunately, those strikes are, for now, the only solid blows being dealt to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan.

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