The Argument

The Taliban bogeyman

How Pakistan’s president is scamming the West. By Fatima Bhutto President Asif Ali Zardari, less than a year into his reign, has managed to engage Pakistan’s armed forces, the seventh largest army in the world, in a guerrilla war with the newly formed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, our very own Taliban, in the North West Frontier Province. ...

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How Pakistan’s president is scamming the West.

By Fatima Bhutto

President Asif Ali Zardari, less than a year into his reign, has managed to engage Pakistan’s armed forces, the seventh largest army in the world, in a guerrilla war with the newly formed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, our very own Taliban, in the North West Frontier Province. Rumors of Talibanization air daily on Pakistani television, radio and print media: The barbarians are at the gate, we are told, and warned that if there was a time to rally around the nation’s oleaginous president, a man known locally as “President Ghadari” or traitor in Urdu, this is it. However, the time for scaremongering has past — it is precisely President Zardari’s politically expedient use of national hysteria that has seen American drones welcomed over Pakistan’s airspace and has birthed a war that this government cannot win.  

In the aftermath and fallout of 9/11, Pakistan saw its elite — the power brokers of the country’s politics and economy — turn against their traditional allies, the United States for the first time. As U.S. forces occupied first Afghanistan and then Iraq, Pakistan’s elite took an unexpected turn; they welcomed resistance to American foreign policy and supported, as they had never quite done before, Islamic parties that took control of local government and provincial cabinet positions in the North West Frontier Province. 

Islamic parties in Pakistan traditionally perform poorly in national elections — garnering only a handful of seats in the assembly, but the 2002 elections saw them enter coalitions and alliances that brought them to power on the national level. For the nation’s elite, a powerful but small minority and the stronghold of Western interests, this was a dangerous turn of events.

In 2008, months after taking power in a hastily organized parliamentary election, Zardari drew upon Pakistan’s overwhelmingly anti-American sentiment and empowered the nascent domestic Taliban, which entered prominence roughly at the same time that the president did, by capitulating to their demands for sharia law in the Swat Valley (the very same region that the government is now, one month later, bombarding with American assistance).

With one hand, Zardari gave the militants what they wanted — no vote or referendum was held — and Taliban law was imposed on the Swat Valley by force. With the other, Zardari pointed a crooked finger at the rise of fundamentalism and capitalized on a golden opportunity to bring the nation’s elite back into the government’s obsequiously pro-American fold.

The Taliban were pointed out as the largest threat facing the urban elite of Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore — they threatened our values, our dress, our lives, and they had to be dealt with for us to remain safe. While the Taliban have certainly made inroads into Pakistan in the last year, there is no doubt that they were only able to do so with the consent of the government, a very powerful backer. Without the government aiding and abetting the Taliban (as in the Swat Valley), they have a long way to go before they can exercise power in any cohesive manner.

Zardari’s double game may have brought him billions more in American aid and assistance — U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke being the president’s loudest champion in Washington, warning Congress that if billions of dollars are not delivered immediately to Pakistan the war on terror will be in mortal danger — but it has lost him Pakistan. As we watch the number of internally displaced people rise steadily toward two million our army kills our own citizens, it should come as no surprise when the BBC Urdu service reveals that the government controls only 38 percent of the NWFP province — a number that is sure to fall as the weeks go on.

Fatima Bhutto writes for the New Statesman and the Daily Beast. She is working on a book on Pakistan to be published in 2010. She is a niece of Benazir Bhutto, who was married to Asif Ali Zardari.

Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Fatima Bhutto is a writer based in Pakistan. Her most recent books are The Runaways, a novel, and New Kings of the World, a nonfiction reportage on global popular culture. Twitter: @fbhutto

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