What To Make Of The Fighting In Pakistan

Militants are battling government forces in Pakistan's Buner District. Adil Najam, a Boston University professor (and founding editor of the blog All Things Pakistan) offers his insights on what it means.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Robert Siegel. In Pakistan today there was fighting between Taliban militants and government forces. And what is significant about the fighting is where it's happening. It's in a district called Buner - that's only about 70 miles from the capital, Islamabad. In a sign of U.S. concern, Defense Secretary Robert Gates today urged Pakistani leaders to clamp down on the Taliban, saying failure to do so could affect U.S.-Pakistani relations.

Well, we turn now to Adil Najam, who is professor of international relations at Boston University and the founding editor of the blog, All Things Pakistan. Welcome to the program.

Professor ADIL NAJAM (International Relations, Boston University): Thank you.

SIEGEL: It sounds as if the Taliban is on the doorstep of the Pakistani capital. How serious a threat to the government is this?

Prof. NAJAM: I think it's a threat to the government, but much more than that it is a threat to Pakistan as a country and Pakistan as a society. And that's really what's getting Pakistanis really worried. In some ways, in the ordinary Pakistani mind the Taliban were far, far away in another country. And what Buner means is more and more they see the Taliban threat entering their lives and that makes it real.

SIEGEL: How was the Taliban able to move into Buner? Was it by overcoming government resistance or through the absence of any government resistance?

Prof. NAJAM: I think it is the absence of government resistance, but more than that, the government is less important in this story than society. It is because of a sense of disdain and a sense of unraveling on the part of local population which they felt. And what they've been doing in Swat and now Buner is that there's a political vacuum, and they come in and they fill it. And there's just no one standing up to them. It's not because the government does not want to stop them. It is because the government does not have the means or the ability to do so.

SIEGEL: Now, back to what you refer to, Swat is the region where the Taliban took control and seemed to reach an agreement with the government that they could be in charge there. They could introduce Islamic law there, and the government would not try to dislodge them, but they wouldn't expand upon that.

Prof. NAJAM: Right. And for months there was a very active battle between the military, the Pakistan military and the Taliban, where the military made no headway whatsoever. And at the end of that the government kind of gave up and gave in. And the Taliban were able to make this argument that they were really looking for justice and speedy justice, which is something that the local population also wants. So, again, they fill in this political vacuum, which by the way is exactly what they had done in Afghanistan many, many years ago.

SIEGEL: The difference, of course, in Pakistan, is Pakistan is a country with a nuclear arsenal.

Prof. NAJAM: Right.

SIEGEL: The notion that there could actually be at some point a Taliban regime in Pakistan is chilling to much of the world for that reason. Do you understand where the bright line is, at least in the U.S. regard? Is there something that would happen in Pakistan that American policymakers regard as simply unacceptable advance because it might conceivably lead to that highly undesirable result?

Prof. NAJAM: Right. People are believing that, you know, everyone has failed them. Politicians have failed, the military has failed, the U.S. as an external ally has failed. So why not give these guys a chance. And they in some ways have captured the perfect argument. Their argument is A, we have a direct line to God, and B, they have captured all the anti-Americanism, especially after these sort of drone attacks on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. And they have therefore made the argument we are standing up not only for religion, but against the U.S.

SIEGEL: You're saying that the U.S. drone attacks on what are believed to be Taliban strongholds or al-Qaida strongholds, for that matter, in Pakistan, have in turn created a backlash against the U.S. still further within Pakistan.

Prof. NAJAM: It has given the Taliban the killer argument that we are the force against the U.S. and that's why it is so dangerous. There's very little that an outside force like the U.S. can do to help the situation in Pakistan. That has to be done by Pakistan itself. But there's a lot that they can do to make it worse. And I think at this point the issue is that we have to sort of stop it from getting worse and then start making it better.

SIEGEL: Professor Adil Najam, Boston University and of the blog All Things Pakistan. Thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. NAJAM: Thank you.

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