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.
(Page 2 of 5)
One of the biggest houses in "Pindi" goes to the chief of Army staff. Clustered near the military compound are tony neighborhoods where retired generals live. Colonels, majors, and businessmen mingle in upper-middle-class enclaves, and farther away rise the starter homes of the lieutenants.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The elite area features a commercial center with a movie theater showing, at the moment, "Fast & Furious IV," as well as a big-box store and a McDonald's. Sitting on a bench, a young Pakistani businessman dressed in jeans laughs at the question of a Taliban takeover. "No," says Omar Ali with incredulity. "Do you think the Taliban are going to take over Washington?"
If it sounds as if Mr. Ali lives in a world far removed from the Taliban, it's because he does, literally and figuratively. The drive from McDonald's to the mountain hamlets of Buner, where the Taliban are trying to gain a sandal hold, takes about four hours. It may be 60 miles as the drone flies, but it's double that by pickup truck.
The M1 Motorway heading out of the capital starts like an American Interstate highway – three divided lanes in each direction, manicured on and off ramps. Take an exit toward Buner and soon the pavement grows intermittent, as does the sight of any women in public view.
Eventually, a bridge spans the rock-strewn Indus River. Historically, this has marked a significant divide – and serves as a reminder of how geography and history intrude on the Taliban. "West of the Indus [versus] East of the Indus – the cultures, attitudes, and linkages with Afghanistan are very different," says General Masood.
West was frontier and Pakistan still calls it that: the North West Frontier Province. In this direction, the land rises toward Afghanistan, and the lives get harder as mountains tear apart arable land and communities divide into insulated tribes.
The worldview of the Taliban comes from West of the Indus. For them, the plains represent exposure. "The Taliban have been able to operate in certain [mountainous areas] because of the terrain and the sympathy factor," says Rifaat Hussain, a military expert at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "But the moment they begin to move out of the hideouts, they are exposed. If you have 100 truckloads of Taliban on the Peshawar Highway, all you need is two helicopter gunships" to wipe them out.
Coming down from the hills also would expose the Taliban to a more secular, urban world that views their way of life as something on the cover of National Geographic. Or, as a colleague of Professor Hussain puts it: "They are a bunch of mountain barbarians."
THE ETHNIC FIRE WALL