Sometimes peace agreements serve only to advance war. That’s why President Barack Obama, who came to office as a “peace monger,” is telling the government of Pakistan to stop making peace deals with the enemy and get on with the business of fighting — and winning — a war against Taliban extremists. Obama brought the presidents of the often-feuding neighbors Pakistan and Afghanistan to the White House last week to convey one strong and clear message: Fight.
Washington cares about Pakistan’s war because the Taliban forces extending their grip over the country are the same fundamentalists fighting Americans in Afghanistan; brethren of the Taliban government that hosted the 9/11 perpetrators and offered a cozy base of operations from which to attack the United States.
The world worries because Taliban efforts to gain control of Pakistan could put nuclear weapons within their reach. It should also care because the Taliban advocate the most brutal, repulsive and repressive treatment of women and young girls anywhere on Earth.
When Pakistan’s government signed a “peace” agreement with Taliban leaders in February, Washington cringed. Under the deal, the government agreed to establish Islamic law or Sharia in the Malakand division, which includes the Swat district. In exchange, the Taliban would lay down their arms. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused the Pakistani government of “abdicating” to the Taliban.
In an unshocking turn of events, the peace agreement only strengthened the Taliban, who used the territory to further their strategic aims. It weakened the government, and it brought only more violence, more displacement and more war.
Pakistanis have grown used to having lawless areas out of government control. But Swat was different. Easily reached from the capital, Islamabad, the tourist destination has welcomed skiers, honeymooners and other visitors. When the Taliban started hanging people in the public squares and publicly flogging young girls, well-off Pakistanis shifted uncomfortably, but they still didn’t want to see all-out war. War is nobody’s preferred course of action.
Then the Taliban broke the deal and launched an assault on Buner, a neighboring district just 60 miles from the capital. The United States, NATO and others expressed the gravest concern, saying they feared for the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
As the Taliban made progress in their quest to overthrow the government, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Pakistan was becoming “a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world.”
Pakistan’s security forces, which helped create the Taliban in Afghanistan, have mixed emotions about fighting against the tribesmen of the Taliban. They’d rather fight their traditional enemy, the Indians across the border. But this time the proud generals had been humiliated.
Just as President Asif Zardari came to Washington to meet with Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and with the U.S. president, his military launched a major offensive. But Pakistani campaigns have often proven hollow and short-lived.
Zardari, like Karzai, is supremely weak at home. Warming up to Washington is not good for his standing in a deeply anti-American country. Too many people still view this as an American cause. After all, the Taliban move freely across the Afghan-Pakistan border, fighting against Americans on one side and against human rights on the other.
The so-called Af-Pak region is one of those mind-numbingly complicated parts of the world where politics, religion and history create problems most people would rather not spend time trying to understand. It is also a region that gave birth to the 9/11 attacks, forcing our attention.
It is taking much for Pakistan to take the Taliban threat seriously. Zardari’s wife Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by the same extremists. Scores of bombings have massacred hundreds of Pakistanis. And yet, the country remains obsessed with the conflict with India.
Pakistan’s massive military force could defeat the Taliban. But to do that, it will have to fight them. And it will have to do it with skill and determination, not just briefly, to gain favor with a short-attention span international community.
That’s why Obama, the peace-monger, will have to continue making the case that war is needed, not phony peace agreements.
— Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald.