Armed violence is now flaring on several fronts in Pakistan: the government is fighting the Taliban in the West, militant groups in the Punjab region are collaborating on attacks in the East, and everyday Pakistanis are caught in the middle. And in Washington, President Barack Obama is deciding whether to escalate the war next door in Afghanistan. To make sense of the increasingly perilous situation, NEWSWEEK's Andrew Bast talked to former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who is now a senior fellow at the Saban Center, part of the nonprofit Brookings Institution. Excerpts:
Stability in Pakistan is an elusive reality. But can we put this in perspective? How bad is it?
This is the worst political violence we've seen in Pakistan in decades.
You say that without qualification?
Unqualified. The only time that was worse was in 1971, when half the country broke apart in a civil war. But in practical terms, all of that political violence took place in what is now Bangladesh. We've never seen levels of political violence in the cities of Pakistan itself of this caliber since partition in 1947.
Our correspondent reports that violence today stems not just from Waziristan in the west but actually from Punjab in the east. Is this a new front the Pakistani government is going to have to fight?
The Pakistani government now faces a coalescence of various jihadist groups, which, in the past, it had always tried to keep separate. But increasingly, we are seeing the antigovernment violence spreading to Punjabi groups, and this probably poses the most significant threat.
Can you put these Punjabi groups in perspective? Who are they?
You have the Pakistani Taliban, which are Pashtun groups that have largely grown up in the border area, influenced heavily by the Afghan Taliban. This is the group that the Pakistani Army has been fighting with on and off for the last several years. Now, Pashtun tribes with an Islamic fervor are pushing into traditionally more settled parts of the country, like Punjab. The more serious threat is when these various Punjabi militant groups—many of which have been nurtured as assets by the Pakistani Army over many years, often to fight India, but also to settle domestic scores—begin to coalesce with the Taliban into a single jihadist front. In a sense, what we have is the Frankenstein that the Pakistani Army has created over many decades now lifting off the table and coming back to life.
Could the Pakistani government fight off this Frankenstein?
The Pakistani Army is composed almost entirely of Punjabis, so now you're asking them to take on their brothers and their cousins. That's a much more risky proposition. In addition, you'll also find that these groups have many sympathizers in the Army.
Why did the Frankenstein flip, if you will, right now?
As the Taliban moves into more and more of the settled areas, it is forcing—it's not clear yet if it will go all the way—a kind of showdown between the jihadists on the one side and the government. President Zadari can be accused of many things, but one thing is for sure: he knows these kinds of jihadist groups, especially the Taliban ones, as they killed his wife. And now he is target No. 1. For him, this is a real fight to the finish. For the Army, they've tried to avoid it becoming a fight to the finish, but the attack on Army headquarters is now galvanizing Army minds that they have to do something to bring this under greater control.
Some say that Zadari's government is essentially split into two. Zadari and his interior ministry are on one side. The Army, the foreign office, and the prime minister's office are on the other. Is that sensible logic?
There is certainly a great deal of tension between the Army and the president. We saw that in the reaction to the Kerry-Lugar legislation [which makes U.S. aid to Pakistan dependent on the nation's continuing battling of extremism], in which the Army basically said that we find a lot of these American requirements unacceptable.
Does this rift complicate the battle with Frankenstein?
In the past, when the Army has come to the conclusion that the situation is getting out of control, it steps in and takes control. Zadari is extremely unpopular right now. His approval rating is virtually negligible. It is conceivable that if the situation got bad enough, we might see the Army impose martial law. I think we are still a bit away from that, but it's conceivable. It's certainly the history of Pakistan.
If the Pakistanis don't like Zadari, and they don't like the United States, what does that mean for the $7.5 billion in aid that President Obama just approved?
The Pakistani people are extremely disenchanted with the U.S. They believe we are an unreliable ally, because, quite frankly, we have been. We have gone from being madly in love with them to divorcing them, back in love, to divorcing them, and the Pakistanis, especially the Army, have come to the conclusion that the Americans are schizophrenic. That said, Pakistan also desperately needs all the assistance it can get, and $7.5 billion is a lot of money in Pakistan. Cooler heads in the Pakistani government will say, "Let's take the money, and we don't have to take every American complaint."
How does this figure into Obama's Afghanistan strategy? If it is indeed an Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, it's obviously affecting the president's decision making.
Of course it is. The Obama administration is watching all of this. They are encouraged by what they see as a more robust military response to the Frankenstein, but they are also very nervous about the levels of violence, and we can expect the unexpected in the days ahead. What the militants have shown is the capacity to strike virtually anywhere in the country, so we could see some unpleasant surprises.
Is there room for optimism anywhere?
There is some good news here. First of all, the Army is really taking on some of these jihadists for the first time. The war in the Swat Valley was a serious military engagement. Going into South Waziristan promises to be a major development. That will be a very bloody and difficult fight, but if the Army can impose law and order or something approaching that on Waziristan, that will be a significant accomplishment in this war. The other piece of good news is the polling in Pakistan. It can only be taken so far, but it shows a real mood swing among many Pakistanis in the last six months, and there has been a backlash against things like beheading prisoners, beating girls, and things like that. And a backlash against the jihadists is important.