Even to those who expect very little good news to emerge from Pakistan, Monday’s announcement of an agreement between the government of the North West Frontier Province and the Taliban would have come as a shock. The agreement gives the Taliban virtual control of the old Swat kingdom that is a part of the NWFP, and has been blessed by Islamabad. This is open acknowledgement that the Taliban is not losing its war for the control of Pakistan, it is in fact gaining ground. That is why the implications of the agreement go far beyond Swat, which has been a battleground for more than a year, with the Pakistani army giving a poor account of itself throughout. Recent months have seen the closure of girls’ schools and the introduction of summary Islamist justice, which has now been sanctified by the formal statement that the Sharia will operate in the area.
One of the central tenets of a modern state is that it must have control of its territory, and that its writ must run throughout that territory. This may not be entirely the case in many countries that are still struggling with nation-building challenges, India among them (think of the Maoist enclaves, for instance). But a Rubicon is crossed when the state formally hands over power in a region to a rival force, as has happened with Swat. There have been two comparable agreements earlier, concerning the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan; neither lasted very long and Islamabad did not come out the winner in either case.
The battle for the soul of Pakistan has therefore been joined. Will it be a modern nation-state of the kind that the world would wish, or is it going to slip into an Islamist miasma from which nothing will emerge but trouble—for neighbours as well as distant powers? The trend of recent events suggests the bleaker outcome—starting with the killing of Benazir Bhutto, the vesting of true power in the army despite the advent of a democratically elected government, the string of attacks on Indian cities in 2008, from Bangalore to Mumbai, the busting of Nato supply lines into Afghanistan, the release of AQ Khan, and now the Swat capitulation. Underlying all this is the army’s perception of Pakistan’s interests vis-à-vis its neighbours, and its use of the Taliban as a weapon that can be used to regain “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and to attack targets in India.
The western powers, which have allowed themselves to be deluded by clever Pak diplomacy for half a century and more, recognise that they have a Grade A problem on their hands, but will even now be reluctant to see how they themselves have had a hand in creating what could become very quickly the world’s No. 1 headache (where, after all, did Dr Khan get his technology and the equipment for his centrigues?). That goes for China too, which has been Islamabad’s source of nuclear and missile technology, and its chief international bulwark. Interlocutors like Richard Holbrooke will almost inevitably seek to point a finger to Kashmir as the principal source of Pak paranoia, so India has its job cut out in making what is seen in New Delhi as the obvious point that, whatever the nature of the problem that this has become, Kashmir is the least of it. Resolving Kashmir will solve little, if anything.
Though one might wish it otherwise, it is possible that Pakistan has already begun a slow descent into anarchy, and even a possible breakup. The question is who is controlling whom—are the Pak generals controlling the Taliban, or is the latter an independent Frankenstein that is beginning to gain the upper hand? After Swat, there is the very real possibility that it could be the latter, raising the prospect of a virtual obliteration of the Durand Line and the de facto formation of some kind of Pakhtoonistan. Those painting worst-case scenarios should do serious work on how the world will deal with the possibility of the Islamist elements getting control of nuclear weapons. It is no longer as remote a possibility as it might have seemed till the other day.
One thing is clear—however much of a purchase the United States may enjoy in Pakistan, it is not going to be able to tackle this problem alone. Mr Holbrooke will have to engage in serious dialogue with China, which for all its backing of Islamabad must have begun to worry about where exactly its wayward godchild is headed. Russia will become important too, for if the Taliban manage to choke Nato supply lines through Pakistan into Afghanistan, then the US needs to develop alternate lines through Central Asia. The fact that Kyrgystan has recently upped the ante on this score is a signal from Moscow that Washington should learn to play ball, and it is likely therefore that Mr Obama will be sending some peace signals to Mr Putin, whose price almost certainly will be the recognition of a Russian zone of influence that includes (for instance) troublesome Ukraine. In other words, Swat’s shockwaves are going to be felt in many world capitals, and will begin to move many wheels.