Taliban has acknowledged its defeat in Swat. The announcement by Muslim Khan, the Taliban public information wallah, that the Mighty Fighters of Allah will not "attack" the incoming Pakistani government forces clearly was the face saving attempt at waving a white flag. In a quite unsurprising move Islamabad rejected the accompanying appeal for a "truce." With equal abruptness the government batted down the request by the UN for a "humanitarian truce" so that civilians might be both allowed to leave the area or be succored in place.
Regardless of the plight of the civilian refugees as well as those caught in the zone of operations the government and army were correct in rejecting any halting or slowing of combat operations. Right now the Pak army has what George H.W. Bush used to call "the Big Mo." As any strategist or tactician--even the most armchair bound--knows, momentum is the key to maintaining initiative and initiative is the key to victory. And, for the past few days the Pakistani forces have had the momentum.
The Pakistani government has to win in Swat. More, it has to win quickly before political support withers in the face of the wave of internally displaced persons. Nearly two and a half million people reportedly have fled Swat and Buner. Many of these come equipped with attention grabbing horror stories of cringing under the rockets, bombs and artillery shells fired and dropped by the government forces. These tales and the coverage given them erode support within Pakistan for the reconquest of Swat. International dissemination undercuts international support for Islamabad and gains sympathy for the Taliban.
There is another reason Islamabad has to quickly and successfully wrap up operations in Swat. No matter how well the campaign has gone there, the truth is Taliban is far from defeated. The blast in Lahore makes this point in a mound of bloody rubble. There is little, if any, question that Taliban made the attack against a police facility and the adjacent building occupied by the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence. The Pakistani government believes this to be the case.
Interior Minister Malik was blunt. Taliban did it. The motive was revenge for the army's successes in Malakand. Even if the attack was not one of revenge per se, it is a powerful statement of Taliban's will and capacity to keep on fighting. It was rhetoric made reality in a eye blink of fire and blood.
Lahore is the major commercial center of Pakistan. Punjab province is Pakistan's most populous province. Taliban is obviously well established in both the province and the city given that this bombing is the third terror spectacular there in three months. In March the Sri Lanka national cricket team was attacked. Days later a police training center was taken under siege with numerous casualties during the hours it took for security forces to recapture the facility.
The facts of the internal war combine to put enormous pressure on the army and government to win rapidly in Swat and the rest of Malakand. Unless a convincing victory over Taliban can be demonstrated, public support for the effort will evaporate. Worse, the politically articulate will lose faith in the ability and will of the government to maintain even a slight semblance of domestic tranquility.
The loss of faith by the politically articulate will exacerbate the flight of capital both fiscal and human which has slowed since the commencement of the assault on Swat. The loss of faith will flood--not trickle--down the social pyramid with the result that Taliban will pick up masses of opportunistic support on top of that which is ideologically based.
It is at this point that the army and ISI will have a choice to make. One choice is for the military to take over the government one more time and fight a war to the death with Taliban. The other is to accept a de facto merger with the Islamist jihadists--whether called Taliban or something else.
Neither choice is particularly palatable. Choice number one would result in an outpouring of vitriol from the human rights entities of the world to say nothing of the UN and (can there be any doubt?) the Obama administration. The totems and fetishes of democracy would be waved and flourished.
On the other hand, choice number two would be clearly unacceptable to the US and most other countries. This option would place the Pakistani nuclear arsenal and infrastructure in the hands of Koran-thumping, West-hating True Believers for whom dead bodies are merely Allah's way of keeping score.
In the event of a Taliban takeover under whatsoever cover the US would have few choices other than robust action to draw the nuclear fangs from the new Islamist jihadist serpent. This is not an option that can be contemplated with equanimity.
It is not hyperventilating to assert that any Islamist jihadist supremacy in Pakistan would constitute a world-historical event. At the least it would equal--and probably surpass--the Islamic Revolution in Iran as an event which (permanently) alters the balance of world politics.
In considering the dynamics of Pakistan's politics it is necessary to consider the emerging anti-American narrative in the country. This new narrative is not a replay of the long standing "War on Muslims" theme which has run through the past several years. Nor is it a replacement.
Rather it is a critical addition. This new approach focuses on Baluchistan. There are a few key points to the narrative. The first is that the remote and underpopulated primarily desert province of Pakistan has strategic and economic cruciality for the (presumptively) imperialistic planners of the US. The second is the presence of clandestine support for the Baluch Liberation Army's insurgency on the part of the US, the UK and Israel. The third is that the actual goal of the troop escalation in Afghanistan is to place thousands of US troops in the Afghan province of Nimruz which is primarily populated by Baluchis.
The final point in this paranoiac narrative is the contention that the US forces would cross the border into Baluchistan in hot pursuit of fleeing Taliban fighters. The result would be the de facto separation of the province from Pakistan under Baluchi leadership protected by US arms.
The writing of this new narrative provides a degree of political cover for Pakistani nationalists who are equally uncomfortable with being self-perceived pawns in the American war against Taliban and al-Qaeda and the religiously driven excesses of the Islamist jihadists. These people believe it is better to deal with the indigenous devil with which they share a language, a history and a religion than the foreign Great Satan.
With this new narrative in play along with the old stand-by of the American War on Muslims, it is more important than ever that the current campaign in Swat be brought to a speedy conclusion. It is critical that the conclusion be seen generally as a meaningful victory for the government. Then, Islamabad with the full support of the US and other interested countries must win the peace as well by rapid resettlement of the displaced persons, a rebuilding of ruined buildings, farms and personal property, a genuine renewal of civil life and institutions.
Anything less is defeat on the installment plan. Defeat for Islamabad. Defeat for the US. Defeat for Pakistanis hoping for a decent life.