by Ralph Peters [author, novelist]

Faced with catastrophe, Pakistan still has time to play the dead-man’s hand it holds. The question is whether its leaders are betting or bluffing.

The recent, belated military response to the Taliban’s dissection of the country, combined with the disgust locals feel over extremist excesses, offers a potential winning formula.

Unless Pakistan’s government chooses to lose.

First, consider the current offensive to drive Taliban fighters from Buner and parts of the Swat Valley. Sounds great. But we’ve already bought that used car, only to see it break down pulling out of the lot.

Yes, the Pakistani army and its paramilitary Rangers are fighting. But the key questions are “For how long?” and “How far will they go?” A limited operation will have limited results. The religious extremists must be destroyed if Islamabad wants a return of peace and order.

Overheated news reports focus on refugees and distant air strikes. But every battle seems like the big one to the inexperienced. You can’t tell what’s really gone down until the dust settles.

It sounds impressive that Pakistan attacked the fanatics with 15,000 troops. But that’s a mere 1.5 percent of Islamabad’s defense establishment of 1 million men in the armed forces and paramilitary rangers (and that doesn’t count another half-million reservists).

Would a state intent upon decisive victory limit its commitment to less than 2 percent of its forces?

And will the government fight on this time, until it drives the fundamentalist remnants back into their remote valleys? Or will it call off the fight again, declaring victory as the Taliban regroup?

Once you have the extremists on the defensive, you’ve got to keep hounding them. Otherwise, you’ve only bought a little time with your blood.

Of course, pressure will mount from the “world community” to cut another “peace deal.” I just heard our millionth “counterinsurgency expert” tell a TV audience that military force won’t work, that it only alienates the population.

That’s a wild misreading of Pakistan’s situation. The loudest complaint from the residents of the Taliban-occupied territories is that the army failed to defend them, that it abandoned them to the fanatics. The people of Swat and Buner want the Taliban gone.

Which brings us to Pakistan’s second chance: Religious extremists, once in power, inevitably alienate the people. Suffering under a corrupt government — such as Pakistan’s — citizens may long for a change. But the changes religious fanatics deliver soon horrify the man in the street (to say nothing of the woman to whom the street’s forbidden).

That’s what happened with al Qaeda in Iraq and with the Taliban in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. Religious fanatics rapidly wear out their welcome.

But there’s also the danger of the “Iranian model,” in which extremists manage to consolidate their power. Today, many Iranians wish they could be rid of their nuthouse government and its medieval approach to life. But the Islamists command the means of violence. Citizens are powerless.

Which circles back to the first point: Pakistan can’t afford to fight piecemeal, re-taking a slice of one province, only to lose another. One thing “classic” counterinsurgency theory gets right is that dependable security for the population is essential.

That means driving out the Taliban and doing whatever it takes to keep them out. Excuses won’t do. I, for one, am puking sick of hearing that Pakistan’s million-man military needs more arms and training.

The army thinks it could take on India but can’t fight the ragtag Taliban?

The fanatics don’t have a massive defense industry (which Pakistan does). The Talibs fight with limited arms — but with unlimited determination. The extremists will sacrifice everything. Pakistan’s generals want to commute to the war.

Nor can the Taliban invest hundreds of millions of dollars in sophisticated training programs of the sort the Pakistanis insist they need. Instead, the Taliban has a vision: Its fighters die with zeal to serve their god. But who wants to die for Pakistan’s shyster president, Asif Ali Zardari?

The people who’ve tasted Taliban rule don’t want it. They want their government to protect them. If Pakistan’s government won’t, it has no justification for existing.

These are decisive times for Pakistan. The question is whether that miserable country’s leaders can act decisively. ExileStreet

NY Post / copyright 2009 NY Post

Ralph Peters is Fox News’ strategic analyst. His latest book is “Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World.”

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of 19 books, as well as of hundreds of essays and articles, written both under his own name and as Owen Parry. He is a frequent columnist for the New York Post and other publications.

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