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Concerns Mount Over Pakistan’s Security Amid Taliban Advance

April 23, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Taliban forces are reported to be advancing further into Pakistan, including an area some 60 miles from Islamabad. Pakistani envoy to the U.S. Husain Haqqani and former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin assess the latest developments.
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JIM LEHRER: Those Taliban advances have provoked debate and alarm in Washington. Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: The White House today called the latest Pakistani developments “very disturbing.”

“We’re extremely concerned about the situation in Pakistan,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “The deteriorating situation there poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country.” And Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen has arrived in Islamabad for consultations for the second time in two weeks.

How threatening is this new Taliban advance? For that, we turn to Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, and the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlain. A former career foreign service officer, she served there from 2001 to 2002, and she’s now president of the Middle East Institute.

Welcome to you both.

Ambassador Chamberlain, beginning with you, how strategically significant is this latest takeover of territory by the Taliban?

WENDY CHAMBERLAIN, Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan: Well, the headline is that Buner is only 60 miles from the capital city of Islamabad, but even that loses some significance. As the Afghan people learned in the ’90s, the Taliban don’t need to seize the capital in order to control the country.

The real significance is that these extremists are now Pakistani extremists, Pakistani Taliban, that they have coalesced around a strategy, a strategy that worked in Swat, they’ve been emboldened by it, and that their goal is alarming. Their goal is to spread Sharia law, or their version of Sharia law, a harsh religious law, throughout the whole of Pakistan.

Their goal is to topple the democratic government of Pakistan, and they have a strategy that’s proved to be working, a strategy where they go into a district, go into a town, terrorize the local authorities, the civil society, the aid workers, women, barbers, impose their law, terrorize the people, and that the government has capitulated, capitulated to this brand of terrorism by signing an agreement, a Faustian bargain, to which they don’t keep that bargain, and continue to move from district to district, creating little pockets of rot, perforating the country, which, in the end, may weaken it so that it will fall.

Two views on severity of threat

Husain Haqqani
Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S.
There has been no military victory for the Taliban, and there has been no ceding of territory. What has happened is that they basically came with false pretensions, told the people that there can be peace if there is Islamic law.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Husain Haqqani, do you find it that perilous? Do you see it that perilously?

HUSAIN HAQQANI, Pakistan's Ambassador to the United States: I don't think it is that perilous for various reasons.

People draw parallels between Afghanistan in the mid-'90s and Pakistan. Afghanistan at that time was war-torn. It did not have a central government. And essentially, what happened was that various warlords who controlled various parts of Afghanistan gave up their authority to the Taliban, as they came with popular support.

In this case, there has been no military victory for the Taliban, and there has been no ceding of territory. What has happened is that they basically came with false pretensions, told the people that there can be peace if there is Islamic law. Generally, the people ended supporting that point of view.

The government gave in to that demand and said, "We will have an agreement," but now that that agreement is not being kept, the government has the option of fighting back, and Pakistan has the military capacity to fight them in Buner and Swat and will do that.

MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying now the government is going to rescind the Swat deal and go in militarily in both Buner and Swat?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: Margaret, that's not for me to say; that's for Pakistan's leadership to say in Pakistan. But what I am saying is that, if the terms of the deal are not kept, that the government obviously has the right to use -- restore the writ of the state.

Look, the deal was essentially that Sufi Muhammad, who is the leader of a group that is not the Taliban, but supports the Taliban, will ensure that the Taliban will lay down their arms. They haven't done that. So if they do not lay down their arms, then the government has the right to pick up arms.

And at the same time, you must understand, that in the past Pakistan's counterterrorism strategy has always been hampered by lack of popular support. In some ways, the images that are coming to Pakistani households from Buner and Swat are actually galvanizing Pakistani popular support for a strong fight against the terrorists.

MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry. Mr. Ambassador, let me just be clear here. Are you saying you're not alarmed by the pictures we've just seen and what's happening?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: I am absolutely alarmed, but I am not as worried. There's a difference. You need to be alarmed and concerned, but you need not feel as if Pakistan or Islamabad is about to fall tomorrow. I think there has to be a sense of realism.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see this as posing a threat more broadly to the whole country?

WENDY CHAMBERLAIN: Well, I think it's an evolving situation that is spiraling downward, yes. I appreciate the position that my friend, Ambassador Haqqani, is in as an ambassador to the country and representing his government.

But I'm not in government now, and I can speak with a little more personal alarm about what's happening. Much of what would -- Ambassador Haqqani is suggesting could stop the movement -- and there has been movement now of the Talibanization -- is a strong security force.

Pakistanis don't want Taliban rule

Husain Haqqani
Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S.
In dealing with any insurgency, there are always a situation in which things turn good or bad in the short term. What we need to see is the big picture. And the big picture is, the people of Pakistan do not want Taliban rule.

MARGARET WARNER: But back to you, Mr. Ambassador. I mean, what is the game plan? And when will there be a game plan to take these people on?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: The president of Pakistan, as you know, will be in Washington, D.C., and will be meeting with President Obama in the first week of May.

Before then, Pakistan will have a comprehensive national counter-terrorism strategy, which will include a very strong military component. It will have a political and a socioeconomic component.

And we will be working with our partners in the United States on how to strengthen the Pakistani capacity in dealing with the threat, which, by the way, is a threat not only to Pakistan, but also to Afghanistan and beyond.

So we need to work together. But what I am saying, essentially, is that the developments of the last few days in Swat and Buner, though alarming, are not perilous. And we need to understand, put them in context, build Pakistan's military capacity in a manner in which we can have a successful counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency strategy.

One thing I will say, Margaret, is that, in dealing with any insurgency, there are always a situation in which things turn good or bad in the short term. What we need to see is the big picture. And the big picture is, the people of Pakistan do not want Taliban rule. They elected a government only a year ago that is opposed to Taliban rule.

Pakistan still has a very large military. And if that military is trained the right way, it can fight the insurgents and defeat them very effectively.

Punjab province is important

Wendy Chamberlin
Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan
Within the officer corps, the junior officers don't feel as committed to fighting the extremists, the Pakistani extremists, as we would like.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Ambassador Chamberlain, what's the scenario for, on the other hand, the Taliban continuing on the march?

WENDY CHAMBERLAIN: Well, much of the strategy, as Ambassador Haqqani lays it out, depends upon the effectiveness of the military. There have been some who say that the military itself is -- its will to fighting its own people is questionable. There are...

MARGARET WARNER: Or to taking on the Taliban, who used to be their clients.

WENDY CHAMBERLAIN: Taking on the Taliban, who are Pakistanis, Pakistani citizens, that there is a larger gap than many people realize between the infantry and the officer corps. And even within the officer corps, the junior officers don't feel as committed to fighting the extremists, the Pakistani extremists, as we would like.

MARGARET WARNER: And let me ask you quickly, what do you think would be the Taliban's next target here, in terms of looking at the country of Pakistan?

WENDY CHAMBERLAIN: Well, there are many who say that, if the Punjab falls, so falls Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: That's one of the largest and wealthiest of the provinces.

WENDY CHAMBERLAIN: It's the province where Lahore is the capital of Punjab. It's a province where 80 percent of the Pakistan army recruits from, and it is an industrial center and a heartland for the agriculture.

Pakistani military has limits

Husain Haqqani
Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S.
The important thing is, Pakistan continues to have a strong central government and a strong military, which will be able to stave off any threat, given the means.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the Punjab -- a very important part of Pakistan, Mr. Ambassador -- could be under threat here?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: So far, no threat has manifested in the Punjab that can be considered significant. Yes, there are terrorists all over the country, but they're all over the region and, for that matter, all over the world. Isolated pockets of terrorists is not the same thing as a successful insurgency that can take over the country.

The important thing is, Pakistan continues to have a strong central government and a strong military, which will be able to stave off any threat, given the means.

The problem is, people do not understand that Pakistan's military may look very large, but it does not, say, for example, have helicopters to fight the kind of battle that you will need in a valley like Swat, where you will have to make sure that the mountains are not controlled by the insurgents before you mop them out in the valley.

MARGARET WARNER: And if I can ask a one-sentence answer in this, do you think that the Pakistani military has the will to do this, to take on the Taliban, if it had the means?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: I think that the Pakistani military and the Pakistani state definitely wants to take on all extremists and make sure that Pakistan remains a moderate democratic state run by its constitution.

MARGARET WARNER: OK, Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Ambassador Wendy Chamberlain, thank you both.

WENDY CHAMBERLAIN: Thank you.