Under pressure from Washington, Pakistani military forces are on the move against the Taliban, which has violated its peace deal with Islamabad. The United States needs Pakistan as an ally in its attempts to wipe out radical Islamic terror groups. Yet this deeply divided Muslim nation is distracted by internal warfare that could soon bring down its democratically elected government.
Pakistan is important in geopolitics for three main reasons: First, it possesses nuclear weapons. Second, its seaports and land routes are vital for supplying NATO forces fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Third, lawlessness in its northern provinces provides a haven for recruitment and training of fighting forces that threaten the security not only of Pakistan and Afghanistan, but ultimately also northern India.
Hoping in vain to appease radical Islamists in its lawless northern region, the Pakistani government recently made an agreement that in essence ceded the strategic Swat Valley to the Taliban. Yet just weeks after the deal was struck, Swat Taliban fighters moved into the neighboring district of Buner—placing their forces just 60 miles from Pakistan’s capital. In response, Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani told Pakistanis in a nationally televised address, “We pledge to eliminate the elements who have destroyed the peace and calm of the nation and wanted to take Pakistan hostage at gunpoint.” Pakistani army Major General Athar Abbas said “They [the Pakistani people] realize their [the Taliban] agenda goes much beyond Shariah [Islamic] courts. They have a design to expand.”
Expand to where? Into every part of the subcontinent where Islam is practiced! By taking control of the Khyber Pass, the Taliban can cut NATO supply lines into Afghanistan. With the U.S. preparing to add 20,000 soldiers to its Afghanistan force, the loss of land supply routes would astronomically drive up the cost of the conflict, as a giant airlift would be required to make up for lost ground transportation access. How long would a cash-strapped Washington be willing to sustain such an effort?
India, like the U.S., has an interest in seeing an end to the Taliban/Al Qaeda threat. Islam is India’s second-most-practiced religion (after Hinduism), with at least 154 million Indians (more than 13 percent of the country’s population) identifying themselves as Muslims. Most of India’s Muslims live in the north, near the Pakistan border, where the province of Kashmir has for decades been a source of conflict between the two nations. Muslim influence is growing in India, thanks to a birth rate one-and-a-half times greater than Hindu population growth. Kashmir’s Muslim population was 25 percent in 1947, at the time of the India/Pakistan partition. Today it is 30-33 percent and growing rapidly (source: Kashmir Herald, October 2004).
Even while facing the prospect of Muslim aggression, India is experiencing a growing internal threat from Maoist rebels. Ten years ago, 55 of India’s 611 districts were under the sway of armed Naxalite fighters; today, the figure stands at 200, with their presence felt in nearly 40 percent of India’s geographic area. These guerillas spread a reign of terror, extortion, murder and infrastructure attacks from Mumbai on the Arabian Sea, all the way to Bihar near the Nepalese boarder, cutting through the heart of India. Eighty percent of the 836 million Indians who live on 45 cents a day live in poor districts controlled by these rebels. In the worst-affected areas, armed gangs routinely attack police stations and blow up government installations. They levy “taxes” using threats of maiming or death to extort money from those who have it. (Newsweek, May 11-18, 2009).
What can be done? What does growing violence in the subcontinent—and around the world—portend for our future?