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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.

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The notion of a Taliban conquest of Pakistan also bumps up against some simple arithmetic. The Taliban in Swat number 5,000, and the total from all factions in Pakistan is estimated in the tens of thousands, at most. The Pakistani military, meanwhile, numbers more than half a million.

"There would have to be a collapse of will on the part of the Army to defend the country," says Hussain. "Yes, it's a state that's under stress, but it's not a failed state in the sense that people refer to Somalia or Afghanistan."

Until the latest counteroffensive, US and Pakistani analysts questioned the military's resolve in fighting the insurgency. Armies do not like fighting their own people. And Pakistani intelligence agencies have a history of funding militant groups to achieve foreign-policy goals.

But the counteroffensive in Swat has convinced many analysts here that the Army is serious – at least for now. The mass displacement of civilians offers grim confirmation of heavy engagement.

Until recently, it would have been easy in the war rooms in Islamabad to see the Taliban as someone else's problem. Since 2007, however, at least 17 suicide attacks have rocked the twin cities, killing more than 250 people. The Marriott hotel, scene of the most deadly strike, has turned into a five-star fort hidden behind a rock-wall barrier. Neighborhood conveniences are a little less convenient, too: The drive-through at the McDonald's in Rawalpindi has turned into an obstacle course with four concrete barriers and a checkpoint.

The military also senses it has public backing for the operation – as scores of interviews with average Pakistanis confirm. "The government is fair to do operations in Swat and Buner because the government has already given a chance to the Taliban to give up weapons, but they did not," says Muhammad Murtaza, a student at Quaid-i-Azam.


Some of the fiercest opponents of the Taliban are those who lived under their reign, making it more difficult for the movement to spread. Mr. Murtaza's classmate, Muhammad Nisar, worries every time he moves between school and his home.

A year ago, he and three other students were waiting for a van in Swat to head back to Islamabad when a group of Taliban approached. They brandished guns and said, "Go pray in the mosque."

"I was scared, so I went to the mosque," says Mr. Nisar. "But the prayer was just a formality. They are just using Islam."

He says that for years the Taliban in Swat were just students of a local religious leader, Maulana Fazlullah. At first their goals were limited to building a mosque, and locals willingly helped. But he and other residents say the Taliban grew increasingly belligerent as outsiders and criminals joined their ranks. "I think 50 percent of the Taliban are criminals," says Nisar. "They have no jobs, no other opportunities, so they join the Taliban."

The Taliban enforced bans on movies, music, and modern mores, with threats broadcast over FM radio. They ordered CD stores closed, and once a bomb ripped through the music market. Residents who fled from Swat and Buner told of public floggings and rampant kidnappings. One aid worker was hanged in the street.