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Published: Monday, 7/14/2008

Musharraf vacillates while the enemy is at Peshawar's gates

FROM the news reports, it appeared that the so-called "barbarians" had reached the gates and were poised to strike the city. Such words and imagery conjure up scenes from a bygone era when large armies would surround medieval walled cities.

But Peshawar, a metropolis of 3 million located barely 30 miles from the Afghan border, has its share of Taliban-types already in the city and the surrounding area. The figurative defenses were breached almost three decades ago but the influence of the Taliban remained limited in urban areas.

Peshawar always has been the first major Pakistani city to face the tide of invaders. This time it is the Taliban that have brought an uncompromising Islamic view from the tribal areas of Pakistan into the urban centers of the country. Their stronghold is the mountainous tribal hinterland that runs for 1,500 mile along the Afghan border and is under only the nominal control of Pakistan's government.

The seeds of radical Islam were sown in the area long before 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It was during the decade-long (1978-89) war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that a radicalized version of Islam, supported by Western aid and Arab petrodollars, was used to fight the occupiers.

But the mind-set that waged a successful holy war did not dissipate with the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989. American ambivalence toward other pressing issues such as Palestine, Kashmir, and the Balkans turned the radical Islamists against America and the West but, in reality, their agenda is not driven by the long list of America's "sins" enumerated by her detractors.

Instead, their ultimate goal is to establish an Islamic state based on the most restrictive interpretation of Islamic law. Their vision is based on a glorified version of the Islamic state that existed in the early days of the religion in 7th-century Arabia.

The Taliban are totally oblivious to the welfare nature of that ancient state. They are more concerned about the punitive laws, a rather minimal part of the larger body of the Islamic law. In their restrictive world view, there is hardly any place for social justice, economic development, amelioration of poverty, education reform, and land reform. They believe that once they control society, everything will fall in place.

In many towns along the frontier with Afghanistan, the Taliban have been using force to close video and music stores, defacing billboards with pictures of women, and forcing women to cover themselves from head to toe.

In reality, the Taliban don't have much support within Pakistan but their claim to speak in the name of Islam does have some traction. Added to this mix are a large number of Pakistanis in the tribal and urban areas of Pakistan who, after working in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, brought back not only wealth but the Wahhabi version of Islam. They tend to support the Taliban philosophy.

The Taliban are working on two fronts. One is to oppose American and NATO forces in Afghanistan; the other is to intimidate the population in urban areas of Pakistan, particularly in frontier areas. Most of the suicide bombings have been directed against government functionaries and even ordinary citizens. And almost all of them, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, can be traced to Taliban-al-Qaeda axis operations out of the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Can the Taliban be trusted when they enter an agreement with the government? Not really.

There have been many peace agreements in the past few years that have not been followed, partly because of trigger-happy government officials and partly because the Taliban's ultimate aim is not a permanent moratorium but relentless advance to control society. One such pact was signed in the Khyber Pass region only a week ago.

In his seminal work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, historian Edward Gibbon painted a picture of a confused Roman Senate deliberating the future of their empire even as the Goths, having crossed the six hills of Rome, knocked at the city gates.

For seven long years (the seven hills of Rome), while Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf vacillated, the Islamic Goths kept marching imperceptibly past the proverbial city gates.



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