The Taliban in Pakistan effected at least a putative tactical retreat this weekend, lessening some of the pressure building in the northern part of the country with their advance in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). The Taliban had pushed into the Buner district of northwestern Pakistan, only 60-some miles from Islamabad, after consolidating a position in Swat, where the authorities of the semi-autonomous NWFP had agreed to imposition of shari’a law in February. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other international observers, called last week for a more robust response from Pakistan’s central government, and many have attributed the Taliban’s confidence in the push into Buner to perceived weakness from the Asif Ali Zardari government in Islamabad (a perception created largely by the government’s effective ratification of the shari’a law “peace deal” in Swat on 13 April).
A Taliban spokesman explained the retreat from Buner as a gesture of good faith to show their “commitment to make the peace deal [with the NWFP authorities] a success.” Some reporters and analysts are skeptical about the pull-out, suspecting that the Taliban may leave a substantial number of armed operatives behind. And international pressure is mounting on the Zardari government to deal more effectively with the de facto takeover of Pakistani districts by Taliban insurgents, with many voicing the fear that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal could fall into unreliable hands with a collapse of federal government control.
Three analytical points made be made, briefly, as this situation develops. First, the Taliban retreat is unquestionably a tactical ploy, and should not be seen as anything else. That it has been made in conjunction with announcements by spokesmen should clarify that, for anyone who might be on the fence in his interpretation of it. The increased concern from the US, other local nations (e.g., India), and US pressure on Pakistan to take stronger military action to protect the provinces, probably convinced the Taliban that a less overt approach is in order for the time being.
My own assessment is that the Taliban were emboldened, in their push into the NWFP over the last several weeks, by the narrow focus of the US plan for beefing up force in Afghanistan – a plan that has accounted less, in my view, than it should, for the issues of logistics routes into and out of Afghanistan (for both insurgent factions and NATO), and for the likelihood of the Taliban seeking more urgently to consolidate a base in Pakistan. The US plan’s attention to Pakistan has been occupied largely with the issues of manhunts for terrorist cells, and security for NATO supply routes across her border with Afghanistan. Promoting the holding of territory – a wholly separate activity from an operational and tactical standpoint – has been left to Pakistan (a vulnerability that goes back to the Bush administration), and that has quickly become an exploitable weakness, as the prospect of beefed-up American forces in Afghanistan adds urgency to the Taliban agenda for the NWFP.
With the announcement of a withdrawal from Buner, and particularly by tying it rhetorically to the shari’a law “peace deal” in Swat, the Taliban can at one stroke defuse the potentially imminent threat of active US intervention, and posture as amenable to “peace deals” – a profile some in the West, including President Obama and the US State Department, are determined to see the outlines of anyway.
We should not be deceived about the character or intentions of the Taliban. As the WSJ story reminds us, this is a group that has prompted the local residents of the main Swat city of Mingora to name their town square “Slaughter Square,” because “the Taliban have begun using it to dump bodies after executions.” If the Taliban cannot control the Buner district by occupying it outright, we should be prepared for an alternate plan of subverting it through violence until it is under their de facto control anyway, with only nominal leadership by an Islamabad-approved political head.
A second analytical observation is that it would be more difficult than it may appear for insurgents to obtain control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Realistically, it would take more than loss of territorial control by the federal government in Islamabad: it would take actual penetration of the ranks of the senior military by operatives of the Taliban, or of another group sympathetic to them. While this is not absolutely inconceivable, it is not so likely that it should be an imminent concern.
Pakistan does not keep her nuclear weapons in a constant state of fully assembled readiness. In this she operates differently from the five major nuclear powers (the US, Russia, China, the UK, and France). Except on the extremely rare occasions when Pakistan has been known to increase her national security readiness level – and very possibly not even then – it is not possible for attackers to gain access to a “weapon” by raiding one location. Pakistan keeps her nuclear arsenal laid up in parts, and in the event of a decision to use them, or make an overt threat with them, will mate the parts under heavy security in as secretive a manner as possible. This methodology is intended as much to protect Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent from targeting by India as to ensure it against unauthorized access from within.
The integrity of this security apparatus is maintained by senior military officers, who are likely to have greater input into operational decisions about the country’s nuclear weapons than even the elected head of state. Military control of the nuclear arsenal has been a longstanding bargain of the powerful career military contingent with elected officials: the head of state cannot govern without the tacit approval of the military, and the understanding that military control of the nuclear deterrent keeps it safe and viable is a very realistic one. Knowledge of Pakistan’s nuclear secrets is highly compartmented within the military as well. Although both the military and the national intelligence service (the ISI) are penetrated – and widely known to be so – by Islamicists, It would actually be quite difficult for such partisans to gain admission to the inner circle that keeps the “keys” to the nuclear closet. They will typically have been seen coming for years, and will simply not be given access to useful knowledge.
Those who are interested in reading more about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and how she operates with it, might check out these two pieces (here and here) by author Gabriel Schoenfeld at the “Connecting the Dots” blog he used to write for Commentary magazine. Schoenfeld wrote these pieces incident to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in late December 2007. His comments and links, and the comments and links supplied in the reader responses (which include mine), form a useful primer that still stands up today.
The third and (for today) final analytical point is that the most probable outcome of Taliban-fomented insurrection in the Pakistani territories is not a collapse of central government control, but a military coup to ensure that it continues. Pakistan’s history is one of changes of national government in response to national security crises.
General Pervez Musharraf seized power from (elected President) Nawaz Sharif in 1999 at just such a juncture, when confrontation with India over the disputed border area was at a fever pitch. Sharif and Benazir Bhutto had traded democratically-elected national leadership in the decade before that, following the death of General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who had seized power in a coup from Bhutto’s (elected) father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in 1977. The elder Bhutto’s six-year tenure followed a period of military rule, also established by coup, from 1958 to 1971. His bid for national popular endorsement, and restoration of democracy, was boosted materially by the military’s loss of prestige in presiding over the break-off of “East Pakistan” (now Bangladesh) from Islamabad’s rule, and India’s intervention on behalf of the Bangladeshi bid for independence.
While it is always possible that central government in Islamabad will simply collapse, with a major push from Islamicist insurgents, it is much more likely that Pakistan’s federal military leadership will establish power in a coup to prevent that outcome. What is more, the Taliban are well aware of that – another factor that puts their announced withdrawal from Buner in a useful context. A less overt posture of incursion on their part will, by seeming to reduce the threat to internal security, give Pakistan’s military less of a pretext to make the next coup decision. The situation is best for the Taliban if the federal government they have to deal with is Ali Zardari’s, which requires parliamentary consensus and the cooperation of the military to act decisively.
As numerous Western reports (like this one) have suggested, Pakistan’s military has seemed oddly sidelined during the Taliban’s move on Buner. This passivity has been attributed to low morale, and even, by some, to a paralyzing infiltration of the Pakistani armed forces by Islamist sympathizers. But an equally likely explanation (more likely, I think, than ideas of “low morale”) is that the military simply calculates that it is better to wait, seize national power if necessary, and operate on its own cognizance, than to be governed (and perhaps disadvantageously constrained) in its defense posture by the civilian regime of Ali Zardari. Civilian leaders are traditionally weak, corrupt, and indecisive in Pakistan, and it is not to the military’s advantage to commit itself unreservedly to operating under inexperienced and politicized civilian control.
There is no doubt that this is a regrettable situation, and one that militates against the genuine institutionalization of democratic governance in Pakistan. We may hope that Asif Ali Zardari is able to develop a useful relationship with his military in the near future, one that will allow effective deployment of it by the federal civilian government to hold the line against the Taliban – while retaining the elected head of state, and all the international endorsement that comes with that – or even, perhaps, allow Ali Zardari to push back the Taliban, and take back the Swat Valley.
But conditions in Pakistan now are not so different from those that have obtained throughout her modern history that we can place great confidence in this outcome. Reports today that Pakistani armed forces are mounting a renewed push against the Taliban in the NWFP areas covered by the February “peace deal” are positive, as is the news that Pakistan’s parliament will press ahead on Monday with a special session to draw up a new national policy to counter terrorism. But for US officials, the priority should be put on fostering trust between Pakistan’s political leaders and her military, and promoting joint action between them that is both proactive and decisive. Pakistani leaders, particularly in the military, are unlikely to commit to this risky and unprecedented course without energetic encouragement. Achieving a successful outcome by such a means would be well outside of any familiar pattern for Pakistan.
We should not discount this as an impossibility, of course. But “realists” need not despair that Pakistan must descend into turmoil if a synthesis of civilian and military will cannot be brought about, in the fight to hold the country against the Taliban. At all points, the most likely outcome will remain Pakistan’s military stepping in and taking over, rather than letting the Taliban achieve enough territorial control to seriously endanger the federal government in Islamabad.
Note to readers: This post started out in 12-point, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how it has set itself to 10-point. The HTML view even tells me I have successfully reset it entirely to 12-point, but it continues to preview as 10-point, in spite or a complete do-over by your relentless correspondent. So I am posting it as-is, with apologies to you if it is hard to read.