The Fight for Pakistan’s Soul

CAMBRIDGE – As its army confronts, ever more bloodily, the Taliban in the Swat Valley, Pakistan is fighting for its very soul. The army appears to be winning this time around, in marked contrast to its recent half-hearted confrontations with Taliban forces in neighboring tribal areas.

For now, the Taliban are on the run, some with shaved beards and some in burqas , to avoid being recognized and thrashed. The reason is simple: increasingly, people across Pakistan support the army’s action. This support persists despite the terrible humanitarian cost: more than 1.5 million internal refugees.

This round of fighting was preceded by a negotiated calm, as the government sought to quell militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas by striking a deal with the Taliban leader, Sufi Mohammad. The deal, which instituted a version of Sharia law in the region in exchange for a commitment that militants would lay down their weapons, was blessed by the comparatively liberal Awami National Party (ANP), which governs the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where Swat is located.

But the Taliban’s assurances of a lower profile were upended by two incidents that exposed its real face. First, private news channels broadcast across the country a video clip recorded on a cell phone of the public flogging of a 17-year-old Swat girl. This gave the public a stark sense of what Taliban justice really meant.