The news is certainly troubling. Taliban fighters get a “peace” treaty from the national Pakistani government, and then expand from Swat to neighboring Buner. A vast national military seems unable or unwilling to respond, and everyone scratches their heads wondering what is next.
But does this really mean that Pakistan is on the verge of falling to the Taliban? If you look at the details, it is a notion deserving of skepticism.
In a column for CNN, New America Foundation fellow Peter Bergen puts the current bad news in the context of Pakistan’s historic challenges:
The present crisis with the Taliban is not nearly as severe as the genuinely existential crises that Pakistan has faced and weathered in the past. Pakistan has fought three major wars with India and has lost each encounter, including the 1971 war in which one half of the country seceded to become Bangladesh. Pakistan’s key leaders have succumbed to the assassin’s bullet or bomb or the hangman’s noose, and the country has seen four military coups since its birth in 1947. Yet the Pakistani polity has limped on.
When looking for reasons why the Taliban don’t pose a nation-destroying threat, this history of “hard knocks” isn’t exactly what one has in mind. But it does put the current border insurgency in its proper context. Pakistan has experienced far greater challenges in the past, and Pakistan still exists as a nation.
Indeed, one can even look to India for additional context. Many think of India as a simple example of democracy rising, but you could easily string together a series of anecdotes to paint a more nuanced picture: two Indian states currently under military control (Kashmir and Manipur), two more states with ongoing Maoist insurrections (Chhattisghar and Jharkhand), past and present separatist movements elsewhere.
Of course, India has not suffered anything remotely close to the history of instability faced by the central government in Pakistan. The one major exception was the 1975 “State of Emergency“, when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended India’s democracy for two years. Luckily, Prime Minister Gandhi didn’t have access to reliable polling data. She ended her experiment with dictatorship convinced that she would win re-election. She lost.
But back to Pakistan. In addition to the sobering history lesson, there are also positive reasons why one shouldn’t reflexively agree with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s fearful scenario.
For starters, try Pakistan’s electoral record. Again, Peter Bergen:
The alliance of pro-Taliban religious parties known as the MMA secured enough of the vote in 2002 to win control of two of the four provinces that make up Pakistan. But in 2008 voters threw the MMA out of office, and it secured a miserable 2 percent of the vote.
And even this bit of information doesn’t truly reflect the lack of electoral support for conservative Islamist political parties. Their electoral victory in 2002 was made possible in significant part because the U.S.-backed military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, wouldn’t allow most of the mainstream political parties to participate in those elections.
Lastly, lets not forget about the Lawyers Movement. Thousands of Pakistani lawyers have now challenged the central Pakistani government in the name of democracy twice. First, they brought down Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship. Then, they pushed current President Asif Zardari to the wall when he refused to reinstate an independent chief justice. Along the way, the lawyers had the support of hundreds of thousands of average Pakistanis.
None of this should be read as an attempt to gloss over the serious challenge of a Taliban insurgency spreading from Pakistan’s border. The problem is real. But that insurgency shouldn’t just be seen as something growing inside Pakistan. It should also be viewed as the logical result of U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and on the border. As the drone missile attacks on the border intensify, Taliban troops take the obvious step of moving further away from that same region.
This dynamic has been obscured in the U.S. media. What has also been obscured is that those few thousand Taliban should be considered in the context of the political preferences of Pakistan’s 160 million+ people. As the electoral returns and democratic movements indicate, it’s a bit more complicated than the doomsday scenarios we are hearing in the U.S.
That doesn’t mean that the Taliban are a phantom — just that they aren’t necessarily a looming apocalypse either.