South Asia’s Taliban Problem
Taliban insurgents, teaming up with other militants in Pakistan’s Punjab province, pose a serious threat to the stability of that country, many analysts say. At the same time, the Pakistani government has granted broad concessions to the militants to achieve a truce after more than a year of fighting. Richard Holbrooke, a senior American envoy, traveling in South Asia last week, called on Pakistan, India and the United States to forge a united front against the intensifying threat from the extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What are the implications of the Taliban’s spread in South Asia? Does it pose a threat to India and the broader region, or is that a mistaken way to view the problem in individual countries?
It has been obvious some time that the Pakistani Army has lost control over more than just the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Swat Valley. The army has now been stripped of the main pillar of its credibility: It is no longer the only institution capable of holding the country together, despite that view being a longstanding axiom in Pakistani politics. Indeed, while some Pakistanis fret about a C.I.A., MI-6 and Afghan and Indian conspiracy to dismember Pakistan, the army’s colonial ways have done a perfectly good job on its own.
India has been hanging back from direct intervention in Pakistan despite the goading of nationalist politicians and diplomatic acrimony over Pakistan’s unwillingness to acknowledge culpability for the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks in Mumbai last November.
But India’s patience is wearing thin as it watches the Pakistani state shrink and as “peace deals” proliferate which cede pockets of sovereignty to the Taliban. Even as a Pakistani military offensive into the Swat Valley may be ill-advised at present, it is clear that the Taliban nexus with Punjabi-based militant groups is deepening: give them an inch, and they will take a yard. If the Pakistani military becomes as lax about controlling the Indo-Pakistan border as it is about the Afghan-Pakistan border, significant escalation will come very soon.
What India learned from the 2001 attacks on its parliament in New Delhi and the November attacks in Mumbai is that even if Kashmir remains the terrorists’ goal, all of India can be the target. With the Indian elections getting under way, the Indian army has acknowledged that there is infiltration into Kashmir by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad. Both major Indian political parties — Congress and B.J.P. — have agreed to much tougher national defense in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, with the B.J.P. president, Rajnath Singh, even threatening to send troops into Pakistan to “crush terrorism” if his party wins the elections. This may just be election-time rhetoric, but unless Pakistan can contain terrorism, the politics in India will require it to act.
While avoiding direct confrontation, India has upgraded its activities in Afghanistan, both through construction of a major road artery on the Iranian border (which will soon be used by NATO forces resupplying Afghanistan) and by opening consulates in the Afghan cities of Jalalabad and Kandahar near the Pakistan border. But such maneuvers are certainly less of a threat to Pakistan than their common Taliban foe.
There are constructive steps India can take. It can increase its own support, together with NATO’s, for the Afghan national army. As important, it has to ensure a credible election in Kashmir to sap the ideological agenda of separatist groups backed by Pakistan-based militias. The Taliban and such militant groups, like the Pakistan army, cannot hold Pakistan together, either. Only a democratic Pakistan can reduce the Taliban threat — and make long-term peace with India.