With the active support of the Pakistani state and its religious force multipliers, the Taliban are back in the saddle in many parts of Afghanistan and have upped the tempo of attacks on President Hamid Karzai's government and innocent civilians. So alarming is the rate of Taliban resurgence and activity that the chief US intelligence analyst for transnational terrorism, Edward Gistaro, has just informed two legislative committees that the biggest threat of terrorism lies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, not Iraq.
One of the main authors of this year's US National Intelligence Estimate, Gistaro holds that the Al Qaeda and Taliban have been able to retain many top lieutenants, recruit new operatives and establish new training camps in Pakistan's lawless northwest frontier. The Bush presidency's obsession with Iraq has essentially taken the war on terror up the proverbial garden path. As the chairman of the Armed Services Committee who heard Gistaro put it, "Chasing windmills has kept our eye off of the more important struggle, the one with roots in Afghanistan." A more precise statement should read as "roots in Pakistan."
Who are the Taliban if not a creation and gopher of Islamabad? One does not need an exasperated Karzai to know this. History bears witness that the Taliban were trained in Pakistan and deployed from Pakistani territory into Afghanistan in 1994 by prime minister Benazir Bhutto's government. Journalist Hamid Mir's apt characterisation of Benazir as the "mother of Taliban" is not lost on anyone and should not be forgotten in the liberal discourse about lack of democracy in Pakistan.
Several Western observers are partially correct in blaming the rule of military and intelligence agencies as the master bane of Pakistan. While there can be no gainsaying how much destruction military rule has dumped on Pakistan and its neighbourhood, it is a silly oversimplification to think that restoration of democracy will moderate the country's teeming jihad industry or militant foreign policy. The pedigree of democratic Pakistan is no better, and oftentimes much worse, than dictatorial Pakistan when it comes to employing jihad as a strategic doctrine.
One could argue that 'genuine' democracy (without the military and ISI running the show) has never gotten a chance in Pakistan and, ergo, it is an ideal worth aspiring for. While plausible, this line of thinking runs into rough weather because politics is the art of the possible. Whatever 'democracy' Pakistan has had in the past and will have in the future was and will be inevitably hostile to India, meddlesome in Afghanistan, aggressive and revisionist in foreign policy with an Islamist spearhead.
What makes such a prediction highly determinate? History again holds the answers. Firstly, Pakistan is one of only two states of the world whose very formation was on the basis of religion. It does not take long for religious identity to overshadow all other secular bearings in a state and population whose raison d'etre is a separate homeland for Muslims of the Indian subcontinent.
Secondly, it is a pure myth that Pakistan's slide into extremism and religious bigotry began during president Zia-ul Haq's military reign between 1977 and 1988. Zia's civilian predecessors, including the great democratic hope, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, were often compelled to unleash religious jingoism for domestic political reasons as well as to compensate for Pakistan's weakness in the international system. This axiom has no exceptions, starting from Liaqat Ali Khan down to Nawaz Sharif.
The return of the Taliban with a bang is bound to once again shock the conscience of the world, but there has to be a serious reordering of global priorities if we are not to be left wringing our hands. The cardinal mistake of viewing Afghanistan's problems as tangential or merely related to Pakistan should not be perpetuated. The Taliban menace cannot be satisfactorily tackled without understanding the roots of terror that proliferate in Pakistan.
Just as the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio can never be resolved without a wider Arab-Israeli reconciliation involving disputed borders with Syria and Lebanon, the Taliban scourge cannot be dealt with in isolation from Pakistan. Mullah Omar's butchers are congenitally hyphenated with Pakistan's government and intolerant civil society organisations, whose bold show of strength in Islamabad's Lal Masjid reflects the depth of the cancer.
While inane commentaries lament that Pakistan is paying a "heavy price" for nurturing fanatical forces, it needs to be asked "which Pakistan?" The political economy of jehad is such an entrenched aspect of Pakistan's history that incubating the Taliban and a multitude of other jehadi formations is not voluntary or optional, but existential. Eschewing policies of zealotry is not a matter of choice for a country like Pakistan but, ironically, a death warrant.
If the world wants the end of the Taliban, Pakistan's existence as it is will also have to be recast.