The attack on the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, which left 11 dead and 65 wounded, is only the latest in the escalating war for the future of Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban and its al Qaeda ally believe they can destabilize the world’s second-largest Muslim state—with the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal —and perhaps even take it over and turn it into a jihadist emirate.
Osama bin Laden made this clear in the statement he issued last week on the eve of President Obama’s visit to the Middle East. Contrary to the impression left by the press, bin Laden’s 24-minute-long tape was not a message about the president’s visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There is no mention in the tape of the president’s stops in Riyadh or Cairo, suggesting it was made before at least the Riyadh visit was announced. Instead, the bin Laden tape is all about Pakistan. For bin Laden, this is the key arena today.
In the tape, bin Laden attacks President Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistani army for the army’s current campaign in the Swat Valley to rid it of Taliban extremists. Zardari is portrayed by bin Laden as the agent of an American-Jewish-Indian plot to suppress the mujahedeen in Pakistan and weaken the Pakistani state, strengthen India, and ultimately steal Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Zardari and Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani are the hired stooges of Obama, who ordered the Swat attack when Zardari visited the White House.
In return for betraying the jihad, bin Laden cleverly says Zardari got much more than his usual “10 percent,” a reference to his nickname for corruption. Bin Laden says all Pakistanis should fight Zardari and the army. Zardari is just another tyrant like General Musharraf and will be overthrown in time. And by ordering the campaign in Swat, Obama has shown he is no different than George W. Bush, and bin Laden promises he will reap “the new seeds of hate that will increase hostility and revenge toward America.” In short, this is not change Muslims should believe in.
Obama took on the al Qaeda challenge in Cairo in a speech that attacked the terrorists’ narrative and ideology brilliantly. The jihadists will fight back with both words and deeds. Pakistan will be the epicenter of that war. At long last, some in Pakistan are recognizing that the existential threat to their country’s freedoms comes from the jihadist Frankenstein created over the last three decades by their own intelligence services. We need to give them the support they need.
Pakistan’s main extremist challenge in 2019 and beyond is no longer a violent insurgency waged by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, as it was a few years ago. Indeed, Pakistan’s new extremists are hardliners who do not (yet) engage in mass-casualty terrorist attacks, but in massive, disruptive protests over the issue of blasphemy. Over the last few years, they have been emboldened by the state’s lack of enforcement against them and the failure to publicly provide a credible counter-narrative.The fight against these extremists, more than any other, will define whether Pakistan changes course for the better.