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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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.