Reclaiming the Swat

Foreword by Stan Lerner: This blog was written prior to Pakistan’s decision to reclaim the Swat Valley from the Taliban, which makes it a very interesting read — good perspective on Ben’s part.

Pakistan is arguably dealing with the largest problem it has faced in its 62 years history. In February, 2009, the Pakistani government agreed to allow sharia in the Swat Valley in exchange for a promise of no more further expansion by the Taliban into Pakistan. It is debated on whether Pakistan’s accession was more surrender than anything else. CNN’s Farheed Zarkaria claims “Pakistani military was making a virtue out of necessity.” But what is not debated is that not since 1971, when East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh, has Pakistan had its territorial sovereignty so out-rightly threatened. Today’s loss of the Swat, however, is a much graver a problem for Pakistan and the world. The Taliban have demonstrated that they are little interested in according with the terms of their agreement, and also that they are willing to harbor Al Qaeda in lands they occupy. All in an area that sits just 60 miles from Islamabad and Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile.

Richard Holbrooke, chief U.S. diplomat to Afghanistan and Pakistan, argues that “if Afghanistan had the best government on earth, a drug-free culture and no corruption it would still be unstable if the situation in Pakistan remained as today.” Such a remark chills further debate on American policy toward Afghanistan. If Holbrooke is right, American diplomats and generals must concentrate the bulk of their efforts on solving the chaos within Pakistan. And in Pakistan, there is no doubt that the chief instigator of chaos is the Taliban. Testifying on Pakistan before the Senate this month, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of American forces in the Middle-East, warns that the Taliban and their allied extremists “could literally take down their state.”

Pakistan’s true motives are frequently and justifiably questioned. Talk on the subject usually revolves around the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence organization. It has been alleged that the military is sluggish and purposely ineffective in combating extremist elements within Pakistan. The government and military, however, would be foolish not to realize that their tolerance of extremism must, in this instance, be curtailed. Fortunately, there is evidence that the government agrees. In discussing the issue of the Swat Valley, President Zaradari admits that “there’s no assurance that this will be the final domino.” Taken then, as cue that they want this problem solved, what can the Americans do to help?

 Reclaiming the Swat Valley for Pakistan, and ejecting the Taliban, must be America’s top foreign policy priority. To achieve this, America must fully support a Pakistani military led effort into the Swat. America must commit money, men, and arms. In terms of military leadership, they should serve as active advisors and naturally lead when asked, but must be careful to allow Pakistani generals to command the operation. The entire campaign, from beginning to finish, must appear to be Pakistani. The expulsion of the Taliban from the Swat Valley (which is certain with American cooperation), and the following political reconstruction, should be handled by only Pakistani politicians. Americans must play no visible role in the operation.

If Americans can successfully keep their heads low throughout, then they will have achieved two victories. First, they will have ensured a more stable Pakistan, which in turn may feel less comfortable allowing extremism to survive in its state. Second, the Taliban in the Swat will flee for the mountainous regions of Afghanistan. Anticipating this, America should be able to organize a fairly effective system, whereby when Taliban operatives cross the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, they are apprehend or killed.  And even if they escape, they will have taken up residency in Afghanistan, a state America has full authority to police.

It can be reasonably supposed that the Pakistani government will be less than open to the idea of cooperation with America in a military campaign. Relations have been strained between the two states due to American insistence on using predator drones to bomb Pakistan’s territory without permission. However, this is an issue Pakistan will not likely play cagily. In accepting American assistance, President Zaradari will have mitigated the most pressing threat on his power.  In fact, should the operation run successfully, the Muslim world will be forced to consider Pakistan’s government with greater seriousness.

Edmund Burke said that with extremists “there [can] be no negotiation nor treaty, no truck nor commerce, but only armed confrontation with whatever means available.”  He would have warned Pakistan not to deal with the Taliban and trust that they would be true to their word. They have not been. But this now realized, Pakistan should revert to old tactics, when “the army actually succeeded in pushing militants out of the area in 2006 and 2007.” Zaradari has demonstrated, through reinstating the dismissed Supreme Court chief justice, that he can be reasonable when a problem becomes too troubling. He will do so again, if asked by the Americans. Reclaiming Pakistan’s vandalized Swat Valley will be his most important political achievement.


Farheed Zakaria “Spiraling Chaos Possible in Pakistan.” CNN.com, April 23, 2009 [http://images.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/04/22/zakaria.pakistan/index.html}

Matthew Kaminski, “America’s regional envoy says Pakistan’s tribal areas are the problem.” The Wall Street Jounral, April 13th, A7.

Elisabeth Bumiller, “Pretraeus Warns About Militants Threats to Pakistant.” New York Times, April 21st, 2009, A10.

James Traub, Can Pakistan be Governed? April 5, 2009.

David M. Kennedy, Two Concepts of Sovereignty, in To Lead the World: American Strategy After the Bush Doctrine, ed. Meylven P. Leffler and Jeffrey W. Legro, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.159.

James Traub, “Can Pakistan Be Governed?” New York Times Magazine, April 5, 2009.

3 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Swat”

  1. Outstanding article. I really appreciate your citation of sources and footnotes. Bravo!

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