The Margalla Hills offer breathtaking vistas of Pakistan's federal capital, Islamabad. On a clear day, picnic-goers can see from historic Faisal Mosque to Rawalpindi, home of Pakistan's military nerve center. One day soon, however, this national park's densely forested hills could also provide perfect cover for Taliban fighters to rain down rocket-propelled grenades and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles on Islamabad itself.
The Taliban's bid to seize control of Pakistan is now clearly mapped out after its forces this week overtook Buner district, home to about a million Pakistanis just 70 miles from the capital. Top US military official Mike Mullen is in Islamabad for emergency meetings, and Pakistan has sent in troops to restore order. But the damage from earlier appeasement is done.
As one politician from Buner told The New York Times, "We felt stronger as long as we thought the government was with us, but when the government showed weakness, we stopped offering resistance to the Taliban."
Many Tajik followers of Al Qaeda occupying Buner will now surely join forces with the Taliban to beef up their next wave of attacks. Altogether, the Taliban may soon control nearly 1,000 square miles of safe territory within Pakistani borders.
The failure of Pakistani political leadership to stem the Taliban's tide now brings Washington's 3 a.m. wake-up call – nuclear weapons in the hands of extremists – closer than ever to becoming reality. The United States has given its allies in Islamabad political and financial assistance in every way possible for far too long with too few meaningful constraints, only to watch Pakistan destroy itself.
In eight short months since coming to office, President Asif Ali Zardari has managed to cede large parcels of Pakistan's land to the Taliban; to release Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the most dangerous nuclear proliferator in history; to permit the flogging of a 17-year-old girl whose wails are now etched in the world's memory as the image of modern-day Pakistani jurisprudence; and to allow publicly funded gatherings of Pakistan's equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan in Punjab government buildings.
Surely this was not the Pakistan his slain wife, Benazir Bhutto, would have ever tolerated presiding over as a democratically elected leader. Pakistan's politicians have lost all sense of duty to their constituents. Unchecked power appears to be their only objective, not providing vital services or protecting inalienable citizen and human rights. Decisions appear to be about self-preservation, not preservation of the state. Every move seems to be tactical, designed to keep a seat at the table, not to strategically ensure that the table still stands.
Where is the blueprint for a stable, prosperous Pakistan that reflects its founder's vision for a secular, moderate Muslim nation?
Ironically, Mr. Zardari's failed leadership is rooted in the admirable commitment by Pakistan's current Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, to keep the military out of politics. General Kayani's importance to Pakistani stability was underscored recently when he settled the tempest over the reinstatement of Pakistan's former chief justice without a bullet being fired. But today, Kayani's deference to the undisciplined and self-serving political elites in Islamabad is bringing his country to the brink of failure. His time, and that of his country, is running out.
Kayani retires in 15 months. The mutual distrust between him and Zardari over the military's role in Pakistan's affairs has compelled the insecure president to start looking at wholesale replacements in the senior ranks in order to insure the Army watches his back. If he serves a full term, until 2013, Zardari will have had to, by law, replace all 33 of the lieutenant generals serving in the 10 Corps Commands of the Pakistan Army. Unfortunately, by the time Zardari has taken full control of the Army by populating it with loyalists, the Taliban's Tajik, Uzbek, and Chechen rebels could be sipping tea at the president's house.
Pakistan needs a radical plan to turn back the Taliban.
Zardari, Kayani, and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should convene a meeting outside Pakistan before Zardari and his Afghan counterpart, President Hamid Karzai, go to the United States in May, preferably in a Muslim country so as to not give the overt appearance of American interference. They should develop a plan to combat what US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday termed an "existential threat." An American observer (Secretary Clinton or US national security adviser Gen. James Jones, for example) should be secretly invited to attend. No one leaves the room until they all agree on a plan.
At the outset, the American observer should frame an important component of the three-way discussion: the terms and conditions of continued US aid to Pakistan. It would be made clear that US taxpayers won't pay for Zardari to cede more Pakistani territory to the Taliban, nor will Mr. Sharif be allowed to offer political cover for Saudi Arabia's clerics to launder petro-dollars through Pakistan's hate-preaching madrasas.
The plan should have the following attributes:
•The Taliban are redefined as the foreign fighters (Tajik, Uzbek, Chechen, Afghan, etc.) they are rather than as Pakistani madrasa students waging jihad against American infidels and other assorted imaginary villains.
•Zardari (from the far left) and Sharif (from the far right) jointly declare all-out war on Taliban mercenaries, giving Kayani the political cover he needs to act within Pakistan's borders. The joint political declaration allows Kayani to appear to be taking direction from the country's political leaders without interjecting the Army into its politics. The objective of the declaration would be to retake Buner, Swat Valley, and any other areas that have fallen under Taliban control, and to reverse implementation of sharia law anywhere in Pakistan it has been applied.
•Kayani would prepare a comprehensive eradication plan for targeting Taliban strongholds, but now with American agreement to add a distinct advantage: US military equipment – lots of US military equipment. This could include night vision goggles, signals intelligence technology, and predator drones – in short, everything Pakistan's military would need to fight the ground war as if America and her allies were there conducting the campaign.
•To reassure Pakistan's neighbors, Washington would grant access to this technology only on condition that nothing be given to Islamabad that could be used against India or Afghanistan. In the first instance where that was determined to be the case, all military assistance would cease.
•The dollar value of assistance would soar to cold war levels. If America is prepared to spend $100 billion to bail out bankrupt auto companies, spending $5 to 10 billion is a small price to pay for ensuring that Pakistan's nuclear materials don't fall into Taliban hands.
•US civil aid would also be increased dramatically and targeted much more specifically. Such aid could help promote secular schools in place of Saudi-sponsored extremist academies. It could also provide social services to disenfranchised Pakistani citizens. These steps would improve baseline conditions and thus renew trust between Pakistan's government and its people.
This plan, once set, would then be ratified by Pakistan's National Security Council and Army corps commanders, and implemented.
If no plan is agreed upon, America walks out and previews its contingency plan for securing Pakistan's nuclear weapons on the front page of The New York Times.
Pakistan stands on the brink of systemic failure. Urgent action is needed, and a few good men and women still have the capacity to pull this nuclear-armed, increasingly intolerant nation away from inevitable failure if they act now.
Mansoor Ijaz, an American of Pakistani descent, is a venture capitalist and financier.
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