In the Arena

Today in Pakistan

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This is terrible news. The Pakistani government has essentially given control of the Swat Valley to the Taliban. It means that the Taliban are now 100 miles from Islamabad and the military center of Rawalpindi. It also means that Pakistan’s Northwest Province is well on its way to becoming what Afghanistan used to be–a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and related terrorists. The most infuriating aspect of this development is that the Swat Valley residents were apparently looking for a simple government service that Islamabad could not provide–a justice system:

A Pakistani official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official did not have permission to speak publicly, said that the government’s acceptance of the [sharia] courts was an attempt to blunt efforts of the Taliban to woo Swat residents frustrated by the ineffective judiciary. “The Taliban was trying to take advantage of the local movement and desire for a judicial system,” the official said. 

You’d think that it might be time for the Zardari government to lift the most embarrassing legacy of the Musharraf years–the house arrest of the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court. 

This depressing development gives me an opportunity to respond to a comment from yesterday’s thread about troop levels in Afghanistan. I asked readers–without irony or disdain, by the way, just pure curiosity–for their ideas about how to proceed in Afghanistan. Commenter  Shepherdwong offered a four-point plan:

1. Buy the opium crop.
2. An Afghan Marshall Plan using NATO, transitioning to NGOs as troops are withdrawn.
3. Limited and highly targeted attacks on high-value targets, moving more and more to Afghan and Pakistani troops, with NATO air support.
4. Reform or shut down the Pakistani Madrassas.

These are all interesting ideas, especially 2 and 3. The trouble with 2 is that we’re having a terrible time trying to organize the development programs that are already on the ground in Afghanistan. The UN effort has been a disaster. When I asked a prominent Afghan reformer what he’d do with the UN, he said, “I’d kick it out of the country, except for the people who help run the elections.” Currently, there is no way to organize and direct the NGO’s–some of which are doing brilliant work–to the areas that have the greatest need. I’m hoping that renewed U.S. attention to this problem–and the emphasis placed on economic development in Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctine–will yield better results.

As for point 3, define “targeted.” From what I understand, the Predator program has been extremely targeted–it has allegedly taken out 9 of the top 20 Al Qaeda/Taliban leaders in Waziristan–with few of the civilian casualties that have marked other aerial attacks, in part because of the quiet intelligence cooperation of the Pakistani government.

As for point 1, sure, buy the opium crop–but you’re going to have to fight the Taliban and assorted drug lords for the right to do that. 

As for point 4, closing the madrasas–absolutely! The Saudi-funded madrassas have been a plague on Pakistan, mostly because the government has been entirely inept in setting up an alternative school system (If you don’t believe me, read “Three Cups of Tea” about the American mountaineer Greg Mortensen’s efforts to provide schools, especially for girls, in this region.) There is important legislation–the Kerry-Lugar Bill–that would provide a huge burst of funding for a public school program, which will probably be the first foreign aid bill to pass the Congress. I’d rather run the madrassas out of business by offering a better alternative than by closing them down–which would indicate a level of religious intolerance that could prove fatal to any government that attempted it.

As you can see, none of this is easy. It may prove impossible. In any case, I’m still open to any new ideas you might have…