By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
May 1, 2009 - The Pakistani government finally is beginning to respond to the threat that Taliban extremists pose inside the country, the secretaries of State and Defense said yesterday before the Senate Appropriations Committee. The Taliban now control the Swat Valley in Pakistan and have encroached into the area around Buner. This puts the extremist group within 60 miles of Islamabad, the capital. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Pakistani leaders are demonstrating "much greater concern" about the Taliban threat.
"We believe that we're getting a much more thoughtful response and actions to follow," she said. "It was heartening to see the military sent in to Buner province and to begin to try to push the Taliban advance back."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Pakistani leaders had not regarded the Taliban "as an existential threat" to the government.
Since the Partition of British India in 1947 into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Pakistan has fought three wars with India – once in the initial partition, again in 1965 and another in 1971. The two countries maintain large conventional forces on the border. Though tensions have eased in recent years, more than 60 years of distrust have existed between the two.
The Pakistani government seldom has directly governed the area to the west – the so-called tribal areas. "The Pakistani population is dominated by Punjabis," Gates said during the testimony. "They dramatically outnumber the number of Pashtuns in the western part of the country, and have always tried to deal with that situation out there either by setting tribes against one another, working with individual tribes, cutting the kinds of deals that we've seen, and occasionally using the military."
With little control and even less infrastructure improvements from the government, the tribes fended for themselves. "What has happened just in recent weeks, and really since ... the assassination of [former Prime Minister Benazir] Bhutto, is the reality dawning on the Pakistanis that what has happened in the west is, in fact, now a real threat to them," Gates said. "I think that the Taliban moving into Buner set off an alarm bell that may, in fact, begin to create a broader political consensus in Pakistan."
The people of Pakistan must feel the threat of the Taliban, and President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani must convince them that the Taliban are a real threat, Gates said.
The Pakistani government had seen the Taliban presence in the far western provinces as the result of American troops driving the group out of Afghanistan. "Now, they're beginning to see these guys have designs on the Pakistani government itself," Gates said. "And so I think those realities that have begun to dawn on them, I think, provide some grounds for – I won't go as far as optimism, but some grounds to believe that there is a growing awareness in Islamabad and [throughout] Pakistan that this is a threat to them."
Gates used al-Qaida attacks on the United States as an analogy to Pakistan. The terror group first attacked the United States in 1993 with a truck bombing at the World Trade Center in New York. "Al-Qaida was at war with the United States for eight years before we decided we were at war with al-Qaida," he said. "I think the same kind of thing has kind of happened in Pakistan. The Pakistanis haven't realized the threat that has been posed to them over the last several years."
Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal, and a danger is that extremists could gain control of the weapons. "Let me just reiterate that, based on everything that we are aware of, the Pakistani military is very focused on the protection of their arsenal, and we have certainly kept our eyes very closely on that," Clinton said.