FOR a while, it appeared, the Pakistani Taliban were on a roll.
After dislodging the Pakistan army from the semi-autonomous tribal areas of Pakistan adjacent to Afghanistan, they crept into the northern part of Pakistan and started causing havoc in Swat, a picturesque mountainous district which was, unlike tribal areas, under the jurisdiction of Pakistan.
They forced the government to sign a peace accord that handed over the control of Swat district to the turbaned and bearded hordes. In Swat, the Taliban enforced draconian laws under the guise of Shariah.
Despite their agreement to limit their brand of law to Swat, the Taliban spilled over into neighboring district of Shangla, then Buner, and unleashed a reign of terror that forced hundreds and thousands of people to leave their homes and fields and flee to the safety of other areas.
In Buner, the Taliban took over the mausoleum of an 11th-century Sufi saint, Pir Baba, banned women from the shrine, and turned it into an FM radio station from which they broadcast half-baked and skewed religious edicts.
Pir Baba is venerated widely among the Pashtuns for his broad outlook and kind and gentle approach to religion. He would be horrified to see a bunch of Kalashnikov-totting, illiterate zealots occupying his final resting place.
Much was made in the press of the Taliban's arrival in Buner, about 70 miles from the capital Islamabad.
It was said that the Taliban were within a striking distance of the capital. But the real distance in terms of stark differences in attitudes and practices between the Taliban and the rest of the country couldn't be measured in miles, but in decades. The Taliban do not have the support of the majority of Pakistanis, who have often shown their distaste for radical Islam in a country which is rather moderate.
In the last election, a year ago in February, they returned power to the secular political parties and dumped religious parties.
The Taliban went into Buner in clear violation of the accord they had signed with the central government. In exchange for institution of Shariah laws in Swat, the militants had agreed to confine their activities to Swat only. The Pakistan government does not realize that the Taliban are not content in limiting their activities to a tiny speck of the country.
Their design is to control the whole country. To achieve that objective, they would sooner or later disregard any agreement they make with the government.
In the past four years, there have been many such accords and agreements with different Taliban factions in the tribal areas, and almost all were thrown out as soon as the Taliban got the breathing room to regroup.
Buner appears to be the tipping point that has forced the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, under intense American pressure, to tackle the Taliban menace head on.
As of this writing, fighting between the Pakistani army and the Taliban is shaping into a major battle, and the Pakistan army is going back into Swat, according to reports.
One wonders, however, if the army is capable of waging a war against a battle-hardened enemy that is at home in the mountainous terrain.
Since the independence of the country in 1947, Pakistan has been preoccupied with India and the army's weapons and training have been geared against an Indian attack.
The other equally significant shortcoming is that the Pakistan army will not be able to sustain a protracted military campaign against its own people.
In this regard, one can draw some lessons from the army's campaign in the southern province of Baluchistan. There, a sporadic low-intensity warfare has been going on for many decades without a clear resolution.
The need of the moment, however, is not a half-hearted military campaign against the Taliban. In addition to a robust military action, the government also has to pre-empt the militants by instituting measures of fair and quick justice and instituting other Shariah laws under its own writ.
The besieged and cloistered leadership in Islamabad must realize that people want Shariah, but they do not want the Taliban.
America cannot win in Afghanistan by waging a conventional war. The time to win the hearts and minds of the people in that country is long gone. Ditto for Pakistan.
In this equation, Pakistan is more important because, as a linchpin in that part of the world, its security and stability are necessary for all of South Asia.
A massive economic development in tribal areas and in the North West Frontier Province is sine qua non for bringing a measure of stability to that tormented and tortured part of the country.
After all, it was Pakistan in general and the people of the frontier areas in particular who paid a heavy price in defeating the Soviet Union 20 years ago.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org