The Pakistani government may have sincerely believed it could contain the Taliban by giving the extremist group a district to rule, but Pakistani Christians understand the Taliban's ultimate agenda. Taliban militants in Karachi's Taiser Town-hundreds of miles from the Taliban's newly obtained Swat Valley-chalked the homes and churches of local Christians with threats and slogans demanding that they pay the jizra, an Islamic tax for the protection of non-converts. When the Christian community washed the slogans from the buildings, dozens of armed militants arrived and shot three people execution style on April 22, including 11-year-old Irfan Masih, who died a few hours later.
Pakistan's Taliban-once limited in power to the semiautonomous tribal belts-has made daunting advances in recent months, emboldened by the government's abdication of the Swat district. The idyllic valley is now under Shariah law, and the Taliban has used its new base to infiltrate the districts of Lower Dir and Buner-just 60 miles from Islamabad. These advances, coupled with new signs of Taliban infiltration in the strategic southern port city of Karachi, have raised global alarm over the prospect of a nuclear-armed Pakistan falling into the hands of the Taliban, and analysts question the country's capability and will to fight the growing threat within its borders.
Nestled in the North-West Frontier Province, the Swat Valley is known as the "Switzerland of Pakistan" for its snow-capped mountains, lush meadows, and crystal-clear lakes. But few tourists have visited this region since the Taliban burned down its ski resort, banned education for girls, and destroyed more than 200 schools. In February the Pakistani government ended its campaign to take back the valley and instead accepted Taliban demands for Shariah law in the region, hoping the Taliban would live up to their end of the bargain and disarm.
They didn't, and their mission didn't stop in Swat. In April the Taliban captured Lower Dir and Buner-dangerously close to Islamabad-where they set up checkpoints, imposed Islamist restrictions on women, held hostage more than 50 security personnel, and killed several members of the police force. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Pakistan of abdicating to the Taliban and claimed the beleaguered country now poses a "mortal threat" to the world.
Counterattacks in late April pushed back militants in some parts of Buner, but doubt over Pakistan's will to fight insurgents and battle terror began to surface on the home front and abroad. "Islamists do make up a significant portion of the Pakistani public. Though much of the religiously and socially conservative segment of Pakistani society opposes the Taliban approach, they do not necessarily oppose calls for 'Islamic' law. This is a key factor preventing Islamabad from going on the offensive," the global intelligence firm STRATFOR noted in a recent report.
Victor Gill, a Pakistani-American commentator, says Pakistan is at a crucial crossroads: "People may lean toward the Taliban because of their love for religion, but at the same time there are other people who would be selective."
Nazir Bhatti, president of the Pakistan Christian Congress, concurs with Gill: "If Pakistan forces don't take a strong stance against the Taliban, then it's feared that they can take over Pakistan at any time because there are a lot of religious political parties . . . that are fully supporting them now that didn't support them before."
The military's reasonably successful campaigns at the end of April to stop Taliban advancement earned accolades from international leaders eager to see a stronger show of will. But questions still remain about Pakistan's ability to ward off further incursions. "The army will go in, the army will take some ground and then they will eventually cede ground, usually through a peace agreement. Then the militants come right back," senior political analyst Christine Fair of the RAND Corporation said. "The police are inadequate in numbers and in terms of quality, and the Pakistan army actually has very serious moral issues from being used in this way. So I think we really do need to be concerned."
The other part of the equation is that the country's intelligence services have not properly dealt with the jihadists it trained to fight against India and against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Those remnants added younger jihadists to their ranks and turned their guns on their own country-a threat Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari has yet to find a solution for. This problem is no longer about a single group of people, according to Bhatti, but an ideology that has been creeping into cities like Karachi for 20 years, peaking in recent months. When asked about the potential for a Taliban takeover of Islamabad, Fair replied that they're already there.
During the past 15 months, more than 1,395 people have died in 1,842 terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil. A suicide attack in December 2007 killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a secular leader who returned from exile to campaign in elections. In September 2008, militants bombed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, killing 54 people in an attack labeled by some as Pakistan's 9/11, and more recently, extremists attacked a visiting Sri Lankan cricket team and a police academy in the eastern city of Lahore.
But many of the Pakistanis willing to speak out against these attacks are also critical of U.S. air strikes against militants in the border regions with Afghanistan. Anti-Americanism is strong in Pakistan, contributing to the complexity of U.S.-Pakistan relations. U.S. President Barack Obama, who said he is "gravely concerned" about Pakistan's stability, met with Zardari and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai last week to discuss a new strategy he hopes will cripple al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in both countries.
Meanwhile, Christians in Pakistan are on edge, and those who have been victims of the recent violence in Karachi hope their government will maintain a strong stance. "The Taliban have encircled Karachi and can launch a massive attack to capture Karachi, but they are waiting for the right moment," Bhatti said.
Christians in the Swat Valley have already had a taste of life under the Taliban-mandatory head coverings, destroyed schools, and severe restrictions are now the norm. Many have joined the 500,000 Pakistanis who have fled the Swat Valley and surrounding areas. "Shariah law could have many shades, but there is severe Shariah law in Saudi Arabia. I don't know if that is ever going to happen in Pakistan, but people are scared because this is the first time this danger is overshadowing them and they are really thinking hard about which way to go," Gill said.
The pro-Taliban leader who brokered the Swat Valley deal, Sufi Muhammad, indicated the direction he plans to go during a public meeting last month when he denounced democracy and Pakistan's judicial system as un-Islamic. Perhaps these glimpses of the Taliban's true colors will awaken Pakistan to the mortal threat creeping into positions of power right before its eyes.