Pakistan is under siege. Late last month the Taliban, empowered by a peace deal struck with the government in the Swat Valley, advanced perilously close to Islamabad, where they remain, shooting it out with Pakistani troops. Some pundits have started predicting the nation's collapse, and many Pakistanis are joining the call to abandon ship. Yet the situation is not actually as dire as it seems. While the military is barely holding off the extremists in some places, in others it has recently notched up a string of surprising successes—victories that offer a way forward for the nation as a whole.
Ground zero for the turnaround is Bajaur, a northern tribal district abutting Afghanistan and, until recently, a Taliban stronghold. Last fall, the military sent Gen. Tariq Khan to take charge of operations there. It wasn't an easy job: Qaeda operatives had been operating there for years, since escaping U.S. firepower during the initial Afghan campaign. These jihadists bankrolled the Pakistani Taliban and used kangaroo courts, public beheadings and other forms of terror to extend their sway.
At first, the Pakistani military's response to the Islamists had been disastrous. Caught off guard by their onslaught, the Army had responded with brute force, trying, in the words of one officer, to "out-terrorize the terrorist." Such heavy-handed tactics had alienated locals, even while the intelligence services played a double game, trying to crack down on local Taliban while supporting them in Afghanistan so as to counter Indian influence there.
On arrival, General Khan realized he needed a new approach, one that emphasized holding and building areas after freeing them of Taliban gunmen. He began eating and bunking with his men to improve morale, and seeking the counsel of his officers—not a common practice in the hierarchical Pakistani military—on how best to engage the enemy and attract local support. In August 2008 he launched Operation Shirdil ("lion heart"), similar to the U.S. "surge" strategy in Iraq. Khan encouraged his troops to work with local tribes, shrewdly dividing pro-Taliban from pro-government elements, and, to gain legitimacy, backed tribal militias and sought the acquiescence of local jirgas (tribal councils).
I visited the region in March and spoke off the record to officers involved in Operation Shirdil then and again last week. They say the new strategy has brought Bajaur and the neighboring district of Mohmand back "under the writ of the government," setting up a "counterwave" of government victories that has prevented "the Taliban marching to the capital." In March, several key Taliban warlords surrendered, disbanding their militias and handing over heavy weapons. And some 200,000 internally displaced people have returned home. "Our mantra for too long was, kill one insurgent and produce a hundred, but keep killing hundreds and they will run out," says one officer. "We finally learned the value of killing none and producing a thousand friendly tribesmen that do the killing for you."
Now the Pakistani military is trying to export the Bajaur experiment to other areas. The Army is moving Bajaur veterans into Swat, for example, to some effect: "We're seeing troops that have tasted success. They know what victory should look like," says a senior military officer.
The Bajaur formula is not guaranteed to work elsewhere: more urbanized Pashtuns, for example, may prove less willing to cooperate than their tribal cousins because of the reduced clout of jirgas in populous areas. The Pakistani military has also seen its advances rolled back before. So the government needs to adopt a nationwide, comprehensive counterinsurgency policy to defend and expand its progress.
First, the nation's leaders should start explaining and selling the war to the people. The Taliban has appealed to the masses by exploiting their legitimate frustrations and promising to offer effective governance and speedy justice on its own. To counter such appeals, Pakistan needs administrative and legal reform. The country's recently reinstated chief justice is attempting to meet that need by placing time limits on land disputes and introducing new courts that work 14 hours a day, six days a week to get rid of the massive backload. Such efforts should be reinforced. In addition, the government should do a better job of showing the public the ugly reality of the Taliban alternative: brutal punishments and nepotistic land deals. On the political front, Islamabad needs to address local grievances, for example by granting constitutionally promised autonomy to Baluchistan.
The United States can help by pushing Islamabad to make such changes. Pakistan may not yet have reached a state of full-blown civil war, but the ongoing insurgency is a product of the country's deficiencies, broken promises and its incompleteness as a nation-state. As one senior official recently told me, "with complete dedication, my jawans [soldiers] have fought for an incomplete country." It is time to complete Pakistan—and America can help.