Who are the militants in Pakistan?
Islamic militants who burn schools and threaten women in the name of religious purity. A righteous force battling corrupt and venal officials. Or gun-waving gangsters who conceal their crimes under a banner of spiritual renewal.
Weeks of turmoil have made it appear as though a unified Taliban is on the march out of the wild northwest, staking out strategic ground for an assault on Pakistan’s heartland.
But who exactly the Taliban is may rest in the eye of the beholder.
Many Pakistanis don’t see the Taliban as much of a threat and are not eager for a confrontation. On the other hand, oversimplification may lead policymakers toward a one-size-fits-all solution that is ineffective -- or even counterproductive.
On Saturday, army helicopters and jets hit militant positions as a curfew kept more civilians from fleeing the violence-hit area. The military said up to 55 militants were killed and four soldiers were wounded, figures that could not be independently verified. Militants also reportedly fired rockets at an army base in Mingora, the biggest town in the Swat Valley.
After a half-hearted military operation in Swat in late 2007 and early 2008, the government tried to reach an accommodation, allowing the militants to impose Islamic law in the region. Only when the Taliban continued advancing toward the capital did the army act.
Among the most confusing elements of the conflict is whom, exactly, the army is fighting.
“Taliban in Pakistan has become a term for everything and anything,” said Abid Suleri, head of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, a civic group in Islamabad.
The most common understanding of “Taliban” is Islamic hard-liners, many linked to Al Qaeda, who want to implement a rigid version of Islam, a goal that resonates in Islamic Pakistan, at least in the ideal.
Another version is Pakistanis outraged by endemic corruption, unfair courts and the government’s inability to supply basic education or services.
A third perception is that the Taliban is simply a gang of thugs using the cover of religion. According to this theory, growing a beard and waving a gun allows criminals to steal furniture, rob banks and take over rich people’s houses with near impunity.
Regardless, Washington is widely blamed for creating the mess by funding militants in the 1980s to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then walking away. Now, the argument goes, the Americans are worried again and pressing the government to crack down.
“There’s a feeling that this is not our war, that America created this problem,” said Ayaz Amir, a lawmaker and commentator.
Pakistanis are not being asked to choose either a government influenced by Washington or by the Taliban. And it’s not likely that, despite their frustration with the Americans, a majority would choose to live under the Taliban. Still, Western diplomats know what they’re up against.
Taking out a map of North-West Frontier Province, where the Taliban is entrenched, a Western diplomat showed district by district how extremism has expanded since 2005.
“A few years ago, I’d say there was a strong anti-Americanism,” the envoy said. “Now I think it’s become quite visceral hatred. Clearly not every one of Pakistan’s 173 million people, but many, view the U.S. as insensitive with a short memory.”
Mohammed Yasin, a retired shopkeeper, says he sees less a problem with the Taliban than he does with the Americans.
“There are the mischief Taliban and the lawful Muslim Taliban,” he said. “I doubt any of the ones with guns are real Taliban. I think it’s all an American sham.”
It is difficult for Pakistan’s leaders to openly oppose Washington when it is willing to hand over billions of dollars to fight extremism, analysts said.
“Any government will be very careful not to offend anyone who has lots of money,” analyst Zafar Hilaly said.
Pakistan angered U.S. officials by using most of the $12 billion poured in during the last decade to invest in aircraft and other heavy equipment better suited for fighting a war with archrival India than for counterinsurgency operations.
With the army gobbling up most resources, there’s relatively little left for police or the paramilitary units, which are on the front lines and suffer a disproportionate number of casualties.
The recent military offensive against militants in the Swat, Buner and Dir districts may be intended mostly to impress Congress. But by using heavy weapons against lightly armed fighters in heavily populated areas, the army risks killing civilians, destroying property and creating enormous ill will.
“Washington hasn’t learned anything,” said Samina Ahmed, Islamabad-based South Asia project director with the International Crisis Group. “Artillery, helicopter gunships, jets, these only feed militancy.”
Until recently, it seemed ridiculous to people in the major urban centers that the Taliban could threaten them.
“We in Pakistan don’t think the Taliban is able to take over Islamabad,” said Hilaly. “It’s like having some crazies take over the Bradford County Council in Britain. That doesn’t mean that London is next.”
Much of the army and many national politicians hail from the eastern province of Punjab. Only now that the threat against Punjab is increasing is the army beginning to respond, some say.
Added to the mix are strong ethnic and regional differences.
“There won’t be a consensus because Pakistan is such an intensely diverse country,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, an analyst based in Islamabad.
Others say that the real problem is the economy. Little has been done to create jobs, give desperate people a stake in stability or enforce the rule of law.
“Teenagers will become Taliban because there are no jobs,” said Aftab Alam, a law and policy expert. “Riding around in vehicles waving Kalashnikov weapons is pretty exciting for youngsters with few alternatives.”
Inequality and official corruption are pervasive, and the courts are often used as a tool against political opponents. Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry became a hero to many for defying President Pervez Musharraf. They rejoiced when Musharraf was forced to resign last year.
But when elections were held, the courts barred a prominent candidate, Nawaz Sharif, because of a disputed criminal conviction. Asif Ali Zardari, who was dubbed “Mr. 10%" for allegations that he solicited bribes when he was a government minister, became president.
Salma Noureen, 20, a student who lives near Swat, said her house has been threatened and her brother’s company was hit by rockets. She has seen women in her community threatened with acid attacks on their faces if they didn’t wear an all-covering burka.
She said the rumor locally is that the families of suicide bombers receive about $200 for an attack. “The main reason for this craziness is poverty,” she said.
Counterinsurgency lessons are clear, experts say: Minimize civilian casualties, don’t use body counts as a measure of success, talk about building infrastructure and improve local standards of living even as you fight extremists.
“It shouldn’t be rocket science by now,” said Ahmed, of the International Crisis Group. If the current offensive is considered a success, she said, “we have a problem.”