Zakaria: Has Pakistan's Army Changed Its Stripes?

Finally, we are told, the Pakistani military has gotten serious about the threat that militants pose to its country. The Army is now fighting back for real, sending troops to dislodge the jihadists who had spread out of the Swat Valley. We hear this from Pakistani commanders, of course, but also from civilian leaders as well as from U.S. officials, including the secretary of defense, Robert Gates. In an interview with me for CNN, Gates said, "I think the movement of the Taliban so close to Islamabad was a real wake-up call for them."

Maybe. It was only a few years ago that Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani diplomat who recently became ambassador to Washington, wrote a brilliant book arguing that the Pakistani government—despite public and private claims to the contrary—continued "to make a distinction between 'terrorists' … and 'freedom fighters' (the officially preferred label … for Kashmiri militants)." He added: "The Musharraf government also remains tolerant of remnants of Afghanistan's Taliban regime, hoping to use them in resuscitating Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan." The Pakistani military's world view—that it is surrounded by dangers and needs to be active in destabilizing its neighbors— remains central to Pakistan's basic strategy.

While President Musharraf broke with the overt and large-scale support that the military provides to the militant groups, and there have continued to be some moves against some jihadists, there is no evidence of a campaign to rid Pakistan of these groups. The leaders of the Afghan Taliban, headed up by Mullah Mohammed Omar, still work actively out of Quetta. The Army has never launched serious campaigns against the main Taliban-allied groups led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or Jalaluddin Haqqani, both of whose networks are active in Pakistan. The group responsible for the Mumbai attacks, Lashkar-e-Taiba, has evaded any punishment, morphing in name and form but still operating in plain sight in Lahore. Even now, after allowing the Taliban to get within 60 miles of the capital, the Pakistani military has deployed only a few thousand troops to confront them, leaving the bulk of its million-man Army in the east, presumably in case India suddenly invades. And when the Army does attack the Taliban, as it did a couple of years ago in the same Swat Valley, it bombs, declares victory and withdraws—and the jihadists return.

The rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan is not, Ambassador Haqqani writes, "the inadvertent outcome of some governments." It is "rooted in history and [is] a consistent policy of the Pakistani state." The author describes how, from its early years, the Pakistani military developed "a strategic commitment to jihadi ideology." It used Islam to mobilize the country and Army in every conflict with India. A textbook case was the 1965 war, when Pakistan's state-controlled media "generated a frenzy of jihad," complete with stories of heroic suicide missions, martyrdom and divine help.

Pakistan was created as an Islamic state, with a population that shared little geographically, ethnically and linguistically. The country's rulers have maintained power using religion as an ideology. And then the region's geopolitics—the tensions with India and the battle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan—helped create deep links between the Pakistani military and Islamic militant groups. The Pakistani military has lost the wars it has fought via traditional means. But running guerrilla operations—against the Soviets, the Indians and the Afghans—has proved an extremely cost-effective way to keep its neighbors off balance.

Has this all changed? The ambassador's book, "Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military," marshals strong evidence that, at least until recently, the Pakistani military made the pretense of arresting militants in order to get funds from Washington. But it never shut down the networks. "From the point of view of Pakistan's Islamists and their backers in the ISI [Pakistan's military intelligence]," Haqqani writes, "jihad is on hold but not yet over. Pakistan still has an unfinished agenda in Afghanistan and Kashmir."

The book concludes by telling how Pakistan's military has used the threat from these militant groups to maintain power, delegitimize the civilian government and—most crucial of all—keep aid flowing from the United States. And the book's author has now joined in this great game. Last week Ambassador Haqqani wrote an op-ed claiming that Pakistan was fighting these militant groups vigorously. The only problem, he explained, was that Washington was reluctant to provide the weapons, training and funds Pakistan needs. He has become a character out of the pages of his own book.

In truth, Haqqani is a smart and honorable man with an impossible job. In its first months, Pakistan's democratic government has been overruled by the generals every time it has asserted its authority. If Washington hopes to change Pakistan's world view, it will have to take a much tougher line with the military while supporting the country's civilian leaders, whose vision of Pakistan's national interests is broader and less paranoid, and envisions more cooperation with its neighbors. The $15 billion Biden-Lugar bill, designed to help develop Pakistan's civil society, is a big step in that direction.

Perhaps, as Haqqani's op-ed implies, the strategy of the past six decades has suddenly changed. But I recall what Warren Buffett once called the four most dangerous words in investing: "This time it's different."