Election 2008 The World is Watching

Video Interview and Dispatch

Pakistan: Taliban Key Challenge for Next President

Our correspondent in Karachi describes a country in civil war

BY Joe RubinAugust 28, 2008


Joe Rubin is curator and presenter of FRONTLINE/World's iWitness, an ongoing series of interviews with reporters and newsmakers in flashpoint regions across the world.

Our reporter in Pakistan says the next U.S. president faces major policy challenges as hearts and minds of future generations are being won in Taliban-influenced religious schools, and a weak civilian government shows little appetite to take on the growing insurgency. Watch her interview and video clips from Karachi and read her dispatch below.

A Country in Peril
by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy

Pakistani politics are not for the weak hearted. In a typical week here, the president of the country resigned, the two main political parties had a falling out, two powerful bomb blasts ripped through the country and at least 100 people were killed in skirmishes in the Tribal belt.

I was born and raised in Pakistan, but I have spent the better part of the past 10 years living in the West, mainly the United States and Canada. My husband and I made the decision to move back to Pakistan early last year. After all, the economy was doing well, security had improved tremendously, and a number of young Pakistanis were opening up new businesses. It was safe to say, society was thriving.

The bubble burst soon after we landed this year.

In the past few months, newspaper headlines here have screamed out news of scores of girls' schools being burnt, video stores being ransacked, women being beheaded, hundreds of suicide bombers ready to attack, offices shut down for immoral behavior, stunning the country into silence.

Newspaper headlines report girls' schools being burnt, women being beheaded, hundreds of suicide bombers ready to attack, stunning the country into silence.

The Taliban has arrived

Two weeks ago, my neighbors and I woke up to the news that an elderly couple, who live several streets away, had received a letter signed and dated by the Taliban, asking them dismiss their hired help because they were involved in "immoral activity" deemed un-Islamic by the Taliban. The shocked couple did not know who to turn to.

In the capital Islamabad, while Benazir Bhuto's husband Asif Ali Zardari and the main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif wrangle for power, no clear policy for dealing with militants has been outlined. This is despite the fact that more 60 bomb blasts have rocked the country in the past 12 months, and that in the past month alone, the fighting in the tribal belt and in the Swat Valley has intensified to warrant heavy reinforcements by the Pakistan Army.

anti-Taliban poster

Posters warning against infiltration of the Taliban appear in neighborhoods across Karachi.

"The man the United States relied on to fight the war on terror is now gone," said Zubair Kadir, a lawyer who celebrated the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf by handing out sweets to his neighbors. "America put all its eggs in the same basket and now they don't know who they should deal with."

This is a sentiment that resonates deep within Pakistani society. The question on everybody's mind is what will America's next step be and how will the two presidential candidates deal with the country?

The fear amongst many Pakistanis is that a Democratic Party win will isolate Pakistan. They point to Bill Clinton's policies and the fact that he spent only four hours in Islamabad in his eight-year tenure in the White House. "We cannot afford isolation," says Sabiha Hamid, a businesswoman who runs a software company. "Pakistan is embroiled in a civil war, whether our government likes to admit it or not, and we will never win this war on our own.

We need America's financial and moral support, said Hamid, whose business has been affected by the political instability in the country. "I think John McCain's rhetoric and policies reflect those of the Bush administration and Pakistan needs that now more than ever."

On August 25th, the Pakistan government -- after years of side stepping -- finally banned the Pakistani Taliban and identified it as a "terrorist" organization freezing its assets and bank accounts. The Taliban retaliated by issuing a warning in all the major cities: a spate of suicide bombings is now on the cards. For the 160 million Pakistanis, a new front on the war on terror has developed, right in their backyards. This is no longer America's war, this is now very much Pakistan's war.

share your reactions

O'Fallon, MO
I cannot seem to grasp how any country would want or allow Taliban personnel in their country. It is this form of religious extremism which paints a bad picture of Muslims everywhere. How can any country willingly see the Taliban as a cure to social ills after news of their terrorist acts have not only been announced in th weekly media but have made it as far the U.S. movie-plex.

Bob Jones - NYC, NY
I've seen your reporter before. She is a rich Western educated "intellectual", who is totally out of touch with the majority of Pakistanis. She is trucked out as if she spoke for the nation. A couple of years ago, she was talking about how things in Pakistan were going great and as proof she spouted that the Pakistani stock market was having a bull run. She doesn't seem to want to acknowledge that the whole reason that the Taliban are growing is because they have popular support! Everyone knows that the new Pakistani president, the widower of Bhutto, is so corrupt that Pakistani public opinion will grow in support of the Taliban.

Captain Johann Samuhanand - Bangalore, India
Who created Taliban? Who funded Osama?
Who carried out 9/11?
Who is funding Taliban now?
Why are the Predators are killing selectively?

Riaz Haq - San Jose, CA
As Pakistanis seem to be beginning to realize that the Taliban are no friends of Islam, Pakistan or Muslims, it is important that the US handle the situation very carefully. Any hint that the US is "pushing" Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban would be counterproductive. Let Pakistanis see it as their fight rather than America's fight. That is the only way to isolate the Taliban and neutralize them.

pam tobin - marion, ohio
Thank you for your informative reporting. I rely on PBS and programs like FRONTLINE to give me the best information. Anyone who has bothered to read THE LOOMING TOWER should realize that Pakistan must be a place we make a stand againt terrorism and the Taliban. It is the largest foreign policy problem out there. Mr. Obama at least seems to have a grasp of the situation, and his selection of Joe Biden as his running mate shows he is aware he needs someone with a good understanding of foreign affairs. Mr McCain seems not to have a clue and his choice of Mrs. Sarah Palin shows he is more interested in getting elected, and allowing those who have been pulling the strings for the last 8 years to regain control,then he is about what is good for America or the rest of the world.

cheryl loots - redwood city, CA
Thanks for this insightful coverage. Why aren't people paying more attention to Pakistan? I have friends who also returned to Pakistan from the U.S. and they too send disturbing messages about how the Taliban is literally taking over the country. This report backs up what I am hearing firsthand about the intimidation and killings. Your reporter is right. We can't afford to let a country with 160 million people and nuclear weapons go astray. The next US president needs to move on from Iraq and focus on countries that represent the real crises threatening global stability. If it weren't for the mess in Pakistan, NATO might actually make some progress next door in Afghanistan.

M Stanekzai - Albany, NY
Pakistan cannot be and must not be left alone if the world is to consider and dream of peace. This country, especially its intelligent services (ISI) have caused death to many US troops along with Afghans that are restoring peace at Afghan-Pak border. They have given refuge to Osama and other Al-qaeda criminals that are responsible for 911. I am glad that Obama is considering tougher measures on Pakistan to keep us safe at home and liberate the people of Afghanistan from suicide bombers trained in Pakistan.

james newmark - portland, OR
I listened to Barack Obama tonight and went searching for some international perspective on his speech. I came across your site. The world does feel like a perilous place as your correspondent describes in Pakistan. And we do need some extraordinary leadership and vision right now to deal with places like Pakistan. I think America still has a vital role to play in foreign policy and diplomacy. Everyone deserves to live in a country where they have a voice, a democratic process, security, and a say in their own destiny. I hope that Pakistan, with political will from within and with help from the rest of the world can overcome the Taliban and other radical forces that work against the principles of freedom and progress. Thank you for this authentic view of a troubled place in the world that needs help.