Take a Deep Breath on Pakistan

I don’t know David Kilcullen. But the things he is alleged to have told Paul McGeogh of the Sydney Morning Herald about Pakistan are just bizarre.

I don’t know what is intended by the prediction that Pakistan might “collapse” in six months. The country faces security challenges, and has already seen terrorist attacks such as the bombing of the Marriott in Islamabad, and it could well see more such big bombings. That is not a collapse. It is a reason for better police work and security measures. The Gilani government could fall (it is a parliamentary system), but that would just provoke new elections and PM Gilani would get a successor (assuming there isn’t another military coup, the real threat to ‘stability.’)

And this paragraph:

‘ “But Pakistan has 173 million people and 100 nuclear weapons, an army which is bigger than the American army, and the headquarters of al-Qaeda sitting in two-thirds of the country which the Government does not control,”

is self-contradictory and wrong. Maybe Kilcullen was misquoted or the quote is jumbled. The government firmly controls most of the country, which is to say Sindh and Punjab. There is instability in Baluchistan over Baluch desires for greater autonomy, but that large, craggy province only has 5 percent of the country’s population. Most of the Northwest Frontier Province is patrolled by Pakistani police and military. So there is no “two-thirds” of the country that the government does not control.

In fact, precisely since Pakistan has an army of 650,000 men under arms and another 500,000 reservists, it is absurd to think that a small rural insurgent group like the Taliban could “take over.”

What the government does not control is some parts of the Northwest Frontier Province and the 13 Federally Administered Tribal Areas, an area around the size of New Hampshire with a population (in FATA) of about 3.5 million.

Many Western military observers just seem to me uncomfortable whenever Pakistan has a civilian government (was the country “unstable” three years ago under military dictatorship?) And they vastly overestimate the size and power of the groups they call the “Taliban.”

As for “al-Qaeda,” there isn’t much evidence of there being much left of it. The Pakistani press says there are 8000 foreign fighters holed up in FATA, but many appear to be locals– Uzbeks, Tajiks, etc., who got into trouble with their own government, rather than the classical al-Qaeda of the ‘Arab Afghans.’

And, the Pakistani military just fought an extended campaign in Bajaur, one of the Tribal Agencies, to clear it of Taliban, with, apparently, if anything too much success (300,000 people were displaced from their homes by the campaign). If the military can do that in the home turf of the Taliban, of whom there are only a few thousand on the Pakistan side, than how could the latter take Islamabad?

Small terrorist groups can be deadly, and the US could get hit by al-Qaeda again, even from FATA. But I doubt they can get up another attack of the magnitude of 9/11. The idea that FATA, this remote, mountainous region with a few rebellious and puritanical tribesmen and a small number of expatriate guerrillas, forms a dire threat to Western civilization (or even to the Pakistani military) just seems to me fantastical.

Good Pakistan policy requires that the hyperbole be dialed down. There no need to hyperventilate about a collapse, or a Taliban takeover, or about the defeat of a 650,000-man army by a few thousand scruffy tribesmen. It is that kind of hysteria that impelled the deadly use of drones to fight the “Taliban,” and which may be backfiring as young men from families with innocent dead in the US bombings turn to insurgency.

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