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Why the Taliban won't take over Pakistan

For reasons of geography, ethnicity, military inferiority, and ancient rivalries, they represent neither the immediate threat that is often portrayed nor the inevitable victors that the West fears.

By Staff writer / June 7, 2009

Taliban militants met with tribal elders in Daggar, a town in the Buner Valley northwest of Islamabad, in Mid-April. Pakistani forces launched a counteroffensive in the area to check the Taliban's advance.

Mohammad Sajjad/AP

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Islamabad, Pakistan

It has become the statistic heard round the world. The Taliban are within 60 miles of Islamabad. Just 60 miles. Every dispatch about the insurgents' recent advance into the Pakistani district of Buner carried the ominous number.

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Washington quivered, too. A top counterinsurgency expert, David Kilcullen, reiterated that Pakistan could collapse within six months. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said flatly if the country were to fall, the Taliban would have the "keys to the nuclear arsenal." On a visit to Islamabad, Sen. John Kerry – the proctor of $7.5 billion in Pakistani aid as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – warned bluntly: "The government has to ratchet up the urgency."

The Pakistani military did launch a major counteroffensive that has sent 2 million people fleeing their homes. For now, both the US and many Pakistanis appear to be relieved that the military has drawn a line at least somewhere, in this case in the fruit orchards of the Swat Valley and the city of Mingora, north of Islamabad.

Yet Pakistani analysts and officials here caution that the casus belli of all the commotion – the infamous 60 miles and the threat of an imminent Taliban takeover – is overblown. The Visigoths are not about to overrun the gates of Rome. Bearded guys with fistfuls of AK-47s are not poised to breeze into Islamabad on the back of white Toyota pickups.

True, the Taliban threat remains serious. By one estimate, the militants maintain a presence in more than 60 percent of northwestern Pakistan and control significant sections along the Afghan border. Moreover, the possibility of the insurgents one day getting their hands on nuclear material remains the ultimate horror – it would probably be more ominous than the Cuban missile crisis.

But experts note that, even if the current operation by the Pakistani military stalls, or the Taliban return to areas they've been ousted from, the insurgents may not significantly expand their footprint in the country anytime soon. For reasons of geography, ethnicity, military inferiority, and ancient rivalries, they represent neither the immediate threat that is often portrayed nor the inevitable victors that the West fears.

"The Americans have become paranoid about Pakistan," says Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani military general. "They are losing their objectivity, and I think they need a reality check."

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A planned city built in the 1960s, Islamabad is a strikingly modern South Asian metropolis. Broad streets lie along a spacious, uncluttered grid filled with trees. Nearby, its sister city, Rawalpindi, is more a reflection of old Pakistan but serves as its protectorate: It is the headquarters of the world's seventh-largest army.

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