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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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Certainly, many are upset with the military's tactics. One resident of Buner, Sherin Zaida, says the government gave his town three hours warning – but bullets flew within 15 minutes. He and 11 family members carried his mother, who can't walk, for two days until they reached a camp in Swabi.

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Yet much of their wrath is reserved for the Taliban. Not long after the insurgents invaded Buner, two masked men approached Mr. Zaida, a court clerk, and told him: "We know which is your village and your family. Why don't you just shut down the court, put a lock on it, and go back home." The judge told him to comply. This is how law and order left Swat and Buner, one courthouse and police station at a time. "We don't want the military, we don't want the Taliban," says Zaida.


From her desk at the RAND Corporation, C. Christine Fair watches Pakistan and the prevailing zeitgeist in America about it. What she sees at the moment is fear among more than a few in Washington that the Taliban will sweep into Islamabad in some sort of ragtag swarm and seize the city. She and other scholars consider this notion almost cartoonish.

Yet there is another danger she sees lurking on the leafy streets of Islamabad, and this is the main caveat to the argument that the Taliban won't prevail in Pakistan. Call it the jihadi within. "What does it mean that they are 60 miles outside of Islamabad when there are actual cells within Islamabad?" she asks.

She's referring to infiltrators who have the capacity to conduct suicide bombings, which they could carry out frequently enough to make residents of the twin cities more wary about public spaces and private intimidation. English-language schools in Islamabad have already had to close temporarily after receiving bomb threats.

Even worse – though unlikely – Taliban cells might be able to operate with enough inside help to succeed in nabbing nuclear material as it's transported. Or they could blow up a key installation such as the Tarbela dam or sever the road between Islamabad and Peshawar.

In other words, the real threat isn't the Taliban occupying urban territory. It's their ability to attract followers and sow chaos. One reason given for the conversions: US meddling. "The mujahideen are not the products of the madrasas," says Syed Yousef Shah, who heads one of the largest religious schools. "They are the product of American actions." He argues that the militants attack Pakistan because of its cooperation with America and its intervention in the region. "A person whose house is destroyed by a drone attack and sees his parents and his brothers dead, what will he do? A suicide attack demands no lecture."

As enemies go, Talibanization may prove trickier to fight than the Taliban. Just ask Fahad Marwat. At an upscale coffee shop in Islamabad, the 20-something reaches for his cellphone and pulls up a photo of a young man with a Taliban beard. That's my cousin, he says. Over the course of a year, his cousin went from being an unemployed college graduate to Taliban sympathizer. "I was like, 'Who is this guy?' " says Mr. Marwat.

It's taken his family six months – and the counsel of "peaceful" clerics – to reverse the process. "We do make fun of him," says Marwat. "[But] he's very thankful to us for forcing him to come back."

• Rehmat Mehsud contributed to this report.