Choosing Between Reality and Legal Fiction in Pakistan

Steve Hynd, writing at the New Atlanticist,makes the good point that a lot of analysis of the Taliban treats themlike a monolithic movement, when the groups referred to are actuallydisparate elements with varying degrees of rivalry, cooperation and agenda overlap.I’m definitely guilty of that, so via Hynd, thisAnand Gopal article is a good start towards getting a better handle on the more precise taxonomy.

But whether it’s the Afghan Taliban targeting Kabul (Mullah Omar and Jallaludin Haqqani), or the Pakistani Taliban targeting Islamabad (Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah), over and over, the common refrain when discussing the Talibans’ (as opposed to the Taliban’s) gains is the law-and-order vacuum that they fill withSharia law. That’s no coincidence, says Arif Rafiq, since the Pakistani ruling elites, both military and civilian, have done everything in their power to defang the power of the civil courts. Here’s what he wrote last August:

About deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry: it is strange how somany powerful Pakistanis fear one good judge. It is a testament to howmuch political and financial power are contingent upon a state oflawlessness and graft. It is also strange that the rule of lawmovement is being opposed so vigorously when Baitullah Mehsud hasaccelerated his plans to establish his own judicial system across thetribal areas. In a sense, Pakistanis face a choice betweenIftikhar Chaudhry and Baitullah Mehsud. Eliminating the former is avote for the latter.

Pretty prescient, when you consider that the Swat ceasefire essentially seals the deal in Mehsud’s favor, at least for the time being.

Rafiq calls Pakistan’s negotiated settlement “death by deferral.” Spencer Ackerman links to this NY Times video documenting the horrors the Taliban are inflicting on Swat, and says that “the idea that the Taliban will stop at Swat flies in the face of Taliban irredentism since its inception in Pakistan a few short years ago.” Henry Kissinger says:

Military strategy should concentrate on preventing the emergence of acoherent, contiguous state within the state controlled by jihadists. Inpractice, this would mean control of Kabul and the Pashtun area.

But for all their distinctions, the various Taliban jihadists have demonstrated a much more local, nationalist agenda than al-Qaida. And unlike Ackerman, I suspect that they’ve reached the highwater mark of their ability to claim Pakistani territory. Not to be cavalier to the horrors of Taliban rule. But the real threat to American interests is two-fold. First, that they harbor al-Qaida elements that can then target America. Second, that the Mehsud faction destabilizes — which is very different than takes over — the Pakistani state.

So I lean closer to Tom Barnett’s assessment than to Kissinger’s. The developments in Swat and Afghanistan demonstrate the degree to which the American war effort — including its pressure on Islamabad to enforce government writ in the FATA and NWFP — are in defense of a legal fiction. The Pashtun state within a state already exists and is for now governed by various Taliban factions. Better to accept that, with the condition that we exercise the right to target al-Qaida there with or without Islamabad’s cooperation, than to continue to pressure Pakistan to cooperate in policies that might very well turn it into a failed state.

Things might change in Pakistan, and when they do, we can always recalibrate policy to help Islamabad develop a civil criminal system and engage in the full-spectrum development effort in the FATA and NWFP that could turn it into a coherent state. But until then, we’re better off facing reality, which means scaling back to a counterterrorism approach.

Note: Updated for clarity.

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