The Taliban’s agreement to pull out of Buner district in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) earlier today, following Pakistan’s deployment of paramilitary troops to the area, demonstrates that the Pakistan military has sent the right signal to the Taliban (at least for now). The Taliban’s occupation of Buner soon after the Pakistani Government conceded the Swat Valley to the militants seems to have raised sufficient alarm among the senior Pakistani Army leadership to coax them into action.
The situation in Pakistan remains highly precarious, however. Unless the civilian and military leadership develop a comprehensive and pro-active plan to counter the growing extremist threat, the Taliban almost certainly will again try to encroach on other areas of the NWFP.
In the final analysis, it will be up to the Pakistani military to decide how much of the country will be ceded to the Taliban. But Pakistani military leaders rightly acknowledge that they need the public behind them before they can take on the Taliban militarily. Pakistani civilian leaders have been too slow to awaken to the threat before them and too willing to sacrifice their constituents to the brutal policies of the Taliban. The combination of fatigue from the series of terror attacks in Pakistan over the last two years and high levels of anti-American sentiment have been obstacles to Pakistani leaders adopting firmer polices against extremism.
Pakistani officials now know the costs of appeasement and there can be no more excuses for them to downplay the threat to the country. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s blunt warnings on Wednesday that Pakistan’s abdication to the Taliban was putting the rest of the world at risk indicates she understands the gravity of the threat. Other rumblings from within the Obama administration have been less helpful. For example, today’s Wall Street Journal, quotes a U.S. official working on Pakistan as saying, “Nawaz Sharif could be in a better position to deliver what the U.S. wants.” These kind of blanket assertions that give the impression the U.S. believes it can manipulate Pakistani leaders are not only unhelpful to U.S. policy objectives, they are flat wrong. This is the kind of misguided thinking that will get the U.S. into trouble at a delicate time for U.S. relations with Pakistan.
The real question that Secretary Clinton’s warnings hint at is “what kind of a state will Pakistan become?” Will it contribute to development and stability in the region and remain globally engaged or will it need to be contained by the international community? The choice is Pakistan’s to make.