Liberal Grace

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Taliban... with nukes.

While Bush is distracted by his goose chase in Iraq, the Taliban are making a play for Pakistan.

I've asked my Pakistani friends over the years if they thought their country could fall to the Taliban or similar. They all said no.

I pushed them on their answer, mentioning that such a take-over has happened in two countries, right next door (Iran and Afghanistan). Even so, the idea was inconceivable to them.

Even when out-voted by people who know Pakistan better than I, I'm still concerned about Pakistan falling to the radicals.

While respecting my Pakistani friends, I consider that they are all Punjabi. The Punjabis have had a full grip on power in Pakistan for decades. I suspect that my Punjabi friends can't picture it any other way.

If radicalism takes control of Pakistan, it unlikely that it will be Punjabi. More likely, it will be a Pashtun-led coalition, organized around their religious conservatism and shared history of being oppressed by the Punjabis.

Until recently, I've never had an example to show my Punjabi friends how a take-over might happen. Radicalism is alive-and-well in Pakistan but it's been in the margins: up along the Afghan border; in Kashmir along the Indian border or preached, here and there, in makeshift mosques and madrassas.

But now it is open and aggressive in the heart of Islamabad... and seemingly untouchable.

Lal Masjid is a radical mosque/madrassa with it own taliban (literally! Taliban means students) "brigade" enforcing their own version of sharia law
Radical cleric sets up vigilante sharia law court in Pakistan's capital

A radical cleric set up a vigilante Islamic court in Pakistan's capital yesterday and threatened to unleash a wave of suicide bombs if the government tried to repress his Taliban-style movement.

The challenge to the authority of President Pervez Musharraf, by a firebrand cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, came amid growing fears of what the local media has dubbed a "creeping Talibanisation" across Pakistan.

"Our youths will shake their palaces with their suicide attacks," said Maulana (Father) Aziz in a sermon delivered to thousands of his followers at Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in central Islamabad.

In recent months Pakistan has been rocked by a series of suicide attacks by militants opposed to Gen Musharraf's support of the US-led war on terror and clashes between militants and security forces along its border with Afghanistan.
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It would be easy-enough to send in the Pakistan army with a bunch of bull dozers to flatten the Lal Masjid.

But, it seems like the government understands that use of violence would likely boost extremism. (a lesson George Bush and American conservatives will surely never learn.)

The radicals in Pakistan, as typified by Lal Masjid, are in a very strong societal position since they appeal to the pessimism of the millions of Pakistanis who have suffered under decades of corruption, oppression and downright immorality of the ruling and business classes.

They believe (with good reason) that democracy has failed them, so many put their faith in a military dictator. While Musharraf has helped on some macro levels, the squalor of their daily lives has not improved. Maybe it's time to give theocracy a try.

Again, Lal Masjid is a good example of moral vulnerability of the Pakistani government. If they raze the Lal Masjid it will be done because it is illegally built. However, in that same neighborhood there are other illegally built schools for the Pakistani rich elite. Pakistanis are well-aware that schools for the rich kids will never be razed because the rich pay bribes for whatever they want.

So, if the Lal Masjid is bulldozed, it's clear and powerful statement about the moral bankruptcy of Pakistani government. It was this exact appeal that let to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

I suspect that for most Americans, Afghanistan and Pakistan kind of blur together. But, they should understand, it is a much bigger deal of Pakistan is taken over by radicals. For starters, Pakistan really does have WMD. It also has a large army and would be strategically much harder to invade.

These days, Bush is publicly contemplating his legacy. Will history criticize us for not recognizing the existential threat of Islamic radicalism? They might... especially if Pakistan falls to the Taliban while the Bush administration did nothing because they were distracted by their goose chase in Iraq.

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