Local view: Pakistan: Troubled history in a tough neighborhood

Much is in the news about the march of the Taliban in Pakistan. On Wednesday, President Obama met with the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and both have renewed their pledge to contain the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Much is in the news about the march of the Taliban in Pakistan. On Wednesday, President Obama met with the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and both have renewed their pledge to contain the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

I am skeptical. We should all be concerned.

At issue is whether the Taliban, a radical group of Islamic insurgents, will threaten or topple the governments in Islamabad

and Kabul. Pakistan is an ally of the U.S. in our fight against international terrorism and the quest for stability in the region, especially along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan in the so-called tribal areas. Terrorism flourishes there.

When India dissolved its ties with the British Empire in 1947, Pakistan emerged as a home for the Muslim population. At independence, Pakistan was ably led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a secular-leaning intellectual who died the year after independence. He lacked sufficient time to secure the moorings of his new homeland.


Pakistan is bound loosely by a handful of traditional families who preside as virtual feudal landlords over a largely rural, inward-focused population. The status quo brings these families political power and privilege with scant attention to the plight of the poor.

Economic and political disparity breed resentment. The Taliban seek to dominate the Muslim world and impose a harsh and narrow version of Islam. The Taliban have risen from the ashes since being ousted from Kabul after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks because the U.S. shifted its focus to Iraq. Many of Pakistan's poor find comfort in the rigid Islam of the Taliban and disdain secularism.

They perceive an opportunity to shift the country's traditional balance of power in their favor. Former President Zia ul-Haq, who was killed in a plane crash in 1988, used Islam to expand his power base. That base is being exploited by the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The uneasy Pakistan-U.S. partnership was rocked when the Pakistanis exploded a nuclear device in 1998 but was reinvigorated after Sept. 11. The U.S. quickly perceived that we needed Pakistan's invaluable strategic position to provide us logistical support and transit rights for our fighting forces. Many deals were cut to advance our war on

terrorism. In return, Pakistan found us generous with military and economic assistance and tolerant of its despotic government.

Along with our NATO partners, we continue to rely on Pakistan to backstop us and keep the Taliban off-balance while we wrestle with the shaky government in Afghanistan. But there are signs that Pakistan is wavering.

Pakistan's President Asef Ali Zardari, a vacillating and insecure businessman, came to his current position as Pakistan's leader by

happenstance after the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto. The Taliban quickly perceived his weakness and pounced. Zardari


commands little respect within the army. The foot soldiers evince little interest in taking on the Taliban, though they have been galvanized

to action in recent days. Many foot soldiers and some officers share the Taliban's objectives of reinvigorating conservative Islam.

Because Pakistan is a nuclear power, the potential hazards multiply. The notion of a nuclear capacity in the hands of the Taliban is disquieting, even though we have worked with them to establish safeguards of key facilities. We are not privy to the details of their nuclear arsenal.

Recent events are disturbing. The Swat Valley, in the country's north, was surrendered to the Taliban weeks ago through an ill-advised makeshift peace deal aimed at placating the zealots while taking political pressure off Zardari. But things are not proceeding as planned. Sensing weakness, the Taliban is putting pressure on another area 60 miles north of Islamabad. At issue is whether the Pakistani army has the steel to re-establish control and walk away from the hastily drafted agreement.

Consider that Pakistan's army numbers 550,000 (about the size of the U.S. Army) against a Taliban group of fighters estimated at 6,000 to 8,000. Clearly, the will to plan and execute a campaign to control the Taliban is not at the heart of Pakistan's -- or our -- national agenda.

All that we are fighting for in South Asia is imperiled. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a multitalented diplomat with a full plate. If Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot contain the Taliban and al-Qaeda, our

security options will be jeopardized. We cannot go it alone.

Tom Homan of Duluth served as a U.S. diplomat in Islamabad and is currently director of international education at the College of St. Scholastica.

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