The Taliban Threat
As Pakistan finally faces the truth, will the United States stand down?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

DURING THE past 10 days, Pakistan's conflict with the Taliban movement has escalated toward full-scale war -- and the extreme Islamist movement has mostly held the initiative. On Tuesday, government warplanes bombed targets in the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan in what may be the prelude to a major army offensive there. Over the previous eight days, however, the Taliban carried out four major attacks that demonstrated both its growing power and its ambitions. One, against Pakistan's army headquarters, was staged with the help of a terrorist organization from the country's ethnic Punjabi heartland. That alliance underlines the fact that the Taliban no longer aims merely at controlling the ethnic Pashtun areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan but at gaining control over a nuclear-armed state.

All of this is bad news for the United States, which has a vital national interest in preventing an extremist takeover in Pakistan and the destabilization of the region stretching from Afghanistan to India. So it's curious that spokesmen for the Obama administration continue to talk down the Taliban threat and to describe it as unequal to that posed by al-Qaeda. "I think the Taliban are, obviously, exceedingly bad people that have done awful things," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last week. "Their capability is somewhat different, [from al Qaeda] though, on that continuum of transnational threats."

That analysis -- which is being used by many who oppose sending additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan -- made some sense in the first years after Sept. 11, 2001. Now it is badly out of date. Al-Qaeda, though still dangerous, has suffered serious reverses in the past several years, while the Taliban has gone from struggling for survival to aiming for control over both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though it is not known to be planning attacks against the continental United States, success by the movement in toppling the government of either country would be a catastrophe for the interests of the United States and major allies such as India.

For years the United States has been trying to persuade Pakistan to fully confront the threat of the Taliban, even as its government and army dithered and wavered. Now that the army at last appears prepared to strike at the heart of the movement in Waziristan, the Obama administration is wavering -- and considering a strategy that would give up the U.S. attempt to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Adopting such a strategy would condemn American soldiers to fighting and dying without the chance of winning. But it would also cripple Pakistan's fight against the jihadists. With the pressure off in Afghanistan, Taliban forces would have a refuge from offensives by Pakistani forces. And those in the Pakistani army and intelligence services who favor striking deals or even alliances with the extremists could once again gain ascendancy. After all, if the United States gives up trying to defeat the Taliban, can it really expect that Pakistan will go on fighting?

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