ReutersTaliban fighters have taken control of strategic sites and could strike at Pakistan’s largest dam and sites holding nuclear weapons.
Pakistan tottered on the edge of a precipice this week as the Taliban made a concerted push into mountain districts that overlook Islamabad.
Near panic seized Pakistan’s allies, as masked and heavily armed Taliban terrorists invaded the Buner district, just 115 kilometres northwest of the capital Islamabad, overran government offices, looted foreign aid agencies and established makeshift sharia courts that banned everything from music to shaving.
The strategic consequences of the invasion are immense.
It exposed far more than Pakistan’s fragility or Islamabad’s vulnerability. It thrust the worst possible doomsday scenario to centre stage.
The Taliban, backed by al-Qaeda, are now established in a district that straddles two crucial targets.
Just 50 kilometres southeast of Buner lies the Tarbela Dam, the largest earth-filled dam in the world. It provides central Pakistan with most of its electricity and the country’s farmers with most of their water.
Thirty kilometres further on lies the Wah Cantonment, an army ordinance complex that produces almost all of Pakistan’s weapons and military supplies – including nuclear weapons – in a collection of 14 massive factories that employ up to 40,000 people.
According to some reports, Wah is the chief storage and maintenance site for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal and it may also house a uranium enrichment plant that was built in the 1990s with assistance from China.
In addition to menacing Pakistan’s capital, the Taliban and al-Qaeda can now spread out into the seven other districts surrounding Buner and threaten to destabilize Pakistan’s economy, while continuing their quest to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
On Friday, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was “extremely concerned” by the Taliban’s recent advances in Pakistan.
“We’re certainly moving closer to the tipping point,” where Pakistan could be overtaken by Islamic extremists, he said.
“The situation there is definitely worse than it was two weeks ago,” he added. “It just continues to spin off.”
Two days earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, blasted the Pakistani government for “abdicating” to the Taliban, saying Pakistan now presents “a mortal threat” to the rest of the world.
“[We] cannot underscore the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by the continuing advances, now within hours of Islamabad, that are being made by a loosely confederated group of terrorists and others who are seeking the overthrow of the Pakistani state,” she said.
The Wah Cantonment was targeted by the Taliban last summer, when two suicide bombers tried to enter the factory complex simultaneously at different gates during an afternoon shift change. When they were stopped by security, the men blew themselves up, killing 70 people and wounding 1,000 others.
On Friday, Pakistani newspapers reported security personnel at the Tarbela Dam were put on alert following the invasion of Buner.
More significant perhaps is the fact that last month Indian security services issued a similar alert – only they feared Pakistani terrorists were poised to bomb two large Indian dams, the Bhakra and Nangal, in Himachal Pradesh.
India’s Intelligence Bureau and Research and Analysis Wing are said to have intercepted a mobile phone conversation discussing the proposed dam attacks between members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (The Army of the Pure), a radical Islamist group allied to the Taliban which is believed responsible for last November’s suicide guerrilla attacks on Mumbai.
Short of actually obtaining nuclear weapons, a worst case scenario for the Taliban and al-Qaeda would be for the terrorist groups to establish themselves in safe enclaves in northern and northwestern Pakistan from which they could continue to carry out attacks on Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the West.
Pakistan’s Taliban already shelters al-Qaeda’s leaders, fuels the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, destabilizes Pakistan’s northwest frontier tribal areas, controls international terrorist training camps and wages car bomb and suicide attacks as well as assassinations inside the country.
“If present trends persist, the next generation of the world’s most sophisticated terrorists will be born, indoctrinated and trained in a nuclear-armed Pakistan,” warns Daniel Markey, a South Asian specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations.
On Friday, the Taliban temporarily withdrew from Buner, after the government threatened to use force to remove them. But locals say the Islamists still occupy bunkers in the mountains and can easily reassert themselves.
For now, by expanding their influence deep into the heart of Pakistan, the Taliban have underlined the strength of their insurgency and driven a wedge between Washington and the Pakistani government.
Washington and Islamabad are already at loggerheads over a Pakistani peace deal with the Taliban in the Swat valley, which agreed to introduce sharia law in exchange for promises to end an 18-month old insurgency in which Taliban terrorists beheaded their opponents, burnt girls’ schools and enforced strict social codes.
U.S. perceptions of the Pakistani government as confused, ineffective and reluctant to attack groups responsible for violence are balanced by a growing belief by Pakistanis that the U.S. “war on terror” is threatening to tear their own country apart.
This week, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the pro-Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Islamic Party of Religious Leaders) complained in Pakistan’s parliament that the entire country risks being engulfed in terrorism, if Pakistan persists in supporting the United States.
“If the Taliban continue to move at this pace, they will soon be knocking at the doors of Islamabad, as the Margala Hills seem to be the only hurdle in their march towards the federal capital,” he said.