According to David Kilcullen — head of counter-terrorism at the US State Department and former Australian digger — Pakistan "could collapse within months". Most ominously, he claims that al Qaeda could end up running a "Talibanistan" in Pakistan.
The situation is certainly dire in Pakistan, but the real threat comes not from al Qaeda but a Taliban insurgency fuelled by disaffected young men who, with no prospects of employment, are lured by the "honour" and "respect" garnered from fighting the more powerful Pakistan Army, who are seen as a proxy for the United States.
The signs are not good. Last week the Pakistan Government finally approved legislation enacting a Taliban-friendly regime of Islamic law in the Swat valley, which is a mere 160 kilometres from the capital Islamabad.
The Government caved in over fears that its refusal to approve the measure — a stance taken after lobbying from Washington and London — would add fuel to the Taliban’s jihadi movement.
Yet this is precisely what has happened in the district neighbouring Swat. The Taliban recently expanded their insurgency to an area called Buner, which is even closer to Islamabad — around 100 kilometres away.
The driving force behind these developments is not al Qaeda but an expanding network of local, ethnic Pakhtun militias fighting under the Taliban banner.
In the Kohat and Dera Adam Khel tribal areas just south of Peshawar, where I travelled last week, support for the Taliban is extraordinarily high — even among those who do not agree with their strict social precepts. As in Buner, the Taliban here have successfully exploited resentment towards the government for its lack of interest in the region.
Support for the Taliban — based on the numerous, frank private discussions I had — appears to have two key ingredients. First, it is a response to the local and federal governments’ abject failure to provide livelihoods and services and crack down on rampant corruption. Second, the Taliban have won respect and prestige with their resilience against the better-equipped Pakistan Army, with its jet fighters and tanks, and the United States’ missile strikes.
In the areas that it occupies, there is widespread denial about the Taliban’s violent and oppressive modus operandi. Often, for instance, I was asked if I believed stories of the recent flogging of a young woman in Swat. The incident — captured on video and widely distributed throughout Pakistan and the world last month — caused uproar even among people in these parts.
Many are sceptical of such incidents, believing that they have been manufactured to discredit the Taliban and Islam.
"The solution to Pakistan’s problems is to follow [the Taliban’s understanding of]Islam," says Ahmed Gulzai, a mid-ranking Taliban activist who, only last year, was fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"The elite don’t want the Taliban [to rule the country]because then they won’t be able to keep stealing the society’s wealth," he adds.
"Things will be much better under the Taliban, there will be no corruption. If something is worth 100,000 Rupees, it will be sold at 100,000 Rupees."
Sohail Janvi, who lives at a key road juncture that links Peshawar with trade routes between Dubai, Karachi and Afghanistan, is not so sure. "If the Taliban succeed, it will mean Pakistan will go backwards."
"But," Sohail continues, "the Government here gives us nothing [and]we do not want Americans here," referring to the US missile strikes which have killed 687 civilians in the past three years.
People who live close to the Taliban-held Orakzai agency claim that they often hear drones overhead. They live in continuous fear that they may fall victim to the next missile strike. Orakzai is one of the main targets for US missiles.
In the context of these strikes, the Pakistan Army looks like an occupying force in the model of the Israeli Defence Force in the West Bank. From mountain top bases with their signature telecommunications towers and strobe-like lights, army mortars pound distant peaks in the outlying Orakzai region after nightfall. It’s not clear whether the strikes are aimed at specific military targets or are more a show of force — perhaps a bit of both.
"You get used to it [the sound of mortars]," says Gul Khan, "but always you think of your wife and children. They get very scared."
Sometimes, the ordnance misfires and lands in farmland and, occasionally, one of the many villages below.
The Army and paramilitary police have numerous checkpoints here, and it is not uncommon to see the rubble of a government building that has been struck by a suicide bomber.
But by night the Taliban travel freely through this district, and the locals advise against leaving the safety of the village for the highways where kidnappings are common.
Attacks on army and government targets occur almost daily. According to the Government, 1395 people have been killed in 1942 "terror incidents" in the past 15 months. The majority of those deaths have occurred in the tribal areas.
The army too has killed many civilians. Although a precise number is not available, the death toll is estimated to be in the 1000s.
In this environment, it’s not hard to see why the Taliban, who come from the same ethnic Pakhtun tribes as the general population, are considered freedom fighters.
"Perhaps they are brutal, I don’t know if what is said about [violence perpetrated by the Taliban]is true," says Mohammad Tariq. "[But] at least they are honest and brave … maybe [their strict forms of criminal punishment]can bring us safety and justice."
Mohammad draws an analogy to help me understand: "Your laptop … if you don’t follow the instruction booklet, it won’t operate properly," he says. "[Similarly], if [Muslims] don’t follow the Koran, how can our society function properly?"
It is a question being asked of Pakistan by the international community too.
In Tokyo last week, the "Friends of Democratic Pakistan" — a network of 31 countries including Australia, the United States, and China, along with the European Union and the United Nations — pledged to donate US$5.28 billion to Pakistan. Only last October, none of the countries in the group were willing to pay off Pakistan’s looming balance of payments deficit. The International Monetary Fund eventually loaned Pakistan US$7.6 billion. But with global concerns over Pakistan’s survival reaching an unprecedented level, there is renewed interest in helping to develop its institutional capacities.
They, along with Pakistan’s leaders, will have to work quickly and intelligently if there is any hope of quelling the growing rebellion in the tribal areas.
Names in this report have been changed to protect the identities of people interviewed.
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