The Magazine

Sixty Miles from the Capital

The Obama administration mishandles Pakistan's Taliban crisis.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By MICHAEL RUBIN
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On April 22, several hundred Taliban fighters moved from their stronghold in the Swat Valley to the neighboring district of Buner, just 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underscored the seriousness of the crisis, accusing the Pakistani government of "abdicating to the Taliban" and suggesting that instability in Pakistan posed a "mortal threat" to international security. While the Taliban retreated to Swat, the challenge they pose remains. Indeed, on April 30, General David Petraeus said that the Taliban's challenge makes the next two weeks critical to Pakistan's survival.

These events illustrate the weakness of the Obama foreign policy. Addressing the House Foreign Affairs Committee the day of the Taliban's advance, Clinton declared, "The government of Pakistan must begin to deliver government services, otherwise they are going to lose out to those who show up and claim that they can solve people's problems." The issue in the Swat Valley, however, is not simply lack of government services.

Throughout his campaign, Barack Obama articulated twin national security themes. First, he dismissed the decision to liberate Iraq as "misguided" and promised instead to "refocus our resources on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and finish the fight with the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11." Second, he promised "smart diplomacy" toward friend and foe alike. His advisers spoke of smart power that would enhance aid and development. "With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy," Clinton declared at her confirmation hearing.

Putting aside the fact that Joseph Nye, who coined the term smart power, meant it to complement rather than replace the use of hard power, what the Obama administration misses is the nature of the danger posed by extremist ideology--especially when combined with diplomacy allowing Islamists to establish safe havens. Here, the Taliban advance on Buner is instructive.

On February 15, after fighting for almost two years at a cost of 1,500 lives, the Pakistanis and the Taliban struck a deal. The government of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province signed the Malakand Accord with Sufi Mohammed, head of the radical Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law). This agreement imposed Islamic law on the Swat Valley, effectively handing control to the Taliban. This was not the first deal struck between the Pakistani government and Islamist radicals--Islamabad had reached similar accords in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, and Bajaur. But it was the first to test the Obama administration's new approach.

Rather than view the Malakand Accord as a compromise to end bloodshed, the Taliban interpreted it as a display of weakness to be exploited. No one should be surprised. In 2004, Abu Bakr Naji, a prominent jihadist ideologue, published a treatise entitled The Management of Savagery (Idarat at-Tawahhush) in which he rebuffed earlier al Qaeda theoreticians to argue that the key to advanced jihad is first to hold territory and then to impose a government that enforces Islamic law.

With their safe haven established, the Taliban doubled the number of fighters in the Swat Valley to at least 6,000, enabling a column to move on Buner less than 10 days after Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari signed legislation implementing the Malakand Accord. As the column advanced, a Taliban spokesman announced that Osama bin Laden would be welcome in Swat.

Secretary Clinton is not alone in her refusal to grasp that the Taliban's challenge is essentially ideological and not grievance-based. An April 17 article in the New York Times placed blame for the Taliban's rise on the lack of land reform in the Swat Valley, where approximately 50 land-owners dominated economic life. True, Sufi Mohammed and his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, a former ski lift worker in Swat who now heads the militia of the Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, exploited the economic angle to win recruits, but this was only part of their strategy.

They also used torture and execution to intimidate. Fazlullah is famous for broadcasting over the radio the names of those deemed inimical to Taliban interests or disobedient to its rule. As the Taliban murdered their targets in the Swat Valley, they displayed the mutilated bodies in local markets, promising similar treatment to anyone who removed the macabre display. Clinton appears unaware that that those living under such a brutal regime are kept in check by fear.

Nor does the call for land reform show much understanding of the region. The Swat Valley, a resort area, was relatively well off until the Taliban took root. Sacrificing property rights to accommodate a utopian vision of social justice might resolve one Taliban talking point, but the group would simply find another grievance. Land reform would not end the Taliban's march--but it would further destabilize a teetering Pakistan.

Indeed, a constant feature of Islamist insurgency--whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, or now Pakistan--is sabotage of economic development for the purpose of undercutting government control. This is why Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq's Anbar Province and Moktada al-Sadr in Baghdad and southern Iraq both directed their forces to destroy schools, sabotage electrical lines, and target development workers. If the economy is good, jihadists seek to wreck it. While the West sees brain drain as a tragedy, radical Islamists see it as a godsend, simultaneously getting rid of the pesky middle class and gutting the economy so they can fill the void. The antidote should be to strengthen government control--not to cede it, as Pakistan did.

So what should the Obama administration learn from the Taliban's tactical victory? First, soft power and economic development are irrelevant to this situation unless they are enabled by hard power.

Second, engagement is no panacea. Not all our adversaries share Obama's good faith. The Taliban--or, for that matter, the Iranian leadership--are motivated not by earthly desires, but by a religious ideology, one that brands any government unwilling to bow to their demands as illegitimate and Satanic. To them, negotiations can be useful only for gaining immediate advantage: The Taliban might gain safe haven; Tehran might gain time.

While it would be unfair to suggest that Obama himself has sought to engage the Taliban, senior officials surrounding the president do urge talks. (The Clinton administration, it should be remembered, actually sent an emissary to meet with the Taliban in 1997, and even after 9/11 Secretary of State Colin Powell counseled reaching out to the "moderate Taliban.") Further, it is clear that the president does not appreciate the dangers of granting Islamists a safe haven. Weak condemnations of Zardari for doing this are meaningless, especially when the administration simultaneously pursues policies that will provide terrorists and their supporters safe haven in Iraq and Gaza.

Indeed, unless the president and the secretary of state understand that soft power and accommodation are about as effective at countering Islamism as lollipops are at curing cancer, the march to Buner may become the symbol of the Obama presidency, played out repeatedly, from Baghdad to Basra to Beirut.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, lectures on Afghan history and U.S. strategy for the Naval Postgraduate School.