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 for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
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.
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