Pakistan's military and intelligence establishments need to wake up to the fact that their own interests are not compatible with those of the Taliban. There is some evidence that this is at last happening, fighting between the armed forces and the Islamist militants having intensified in the past two days, in the Buner valley of the North-West Frontier Province.
Asif Ali Zardari, the President of Pakistan, weakly and unwisely agreed to the application of Islamic law, as interpreted and administered by the Taliban, to the Swat valley of NWFP. That encouraged the Taliban to expand into other districts of NWFP, only 100 kilometres away from the country's capital, Islamabad.
Mr. Zardari is meeting tomorrow in Washington with President Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, but this event is unlikely to be a turning point; Mr. Zardari's hold on power is not strong enough.
Pakistan will not wholeheartedly embrace any regime in Afghanistan that is not under its own influence, but the Taliban, which it helped create, are now demonstrating that they are to the Pakistani establishment as the monster of Mary Shelley's novel was to Dr. Frankenstein, rather than a manipulable puppet.
The armed forces of Pakistan and the Inter-Services Intelligence are nationalistic, not a set of radical Islamists, and they cannot welcome the anarchy that now threatens their country, let alone the possibility of the seizure of their nuclear weapons. But their long-term orientation has been to oppose the power of India; they remember all too well how India's conventional military strength was decisive in the breaking off of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971. They have little skill in counterinsurgency, but they need to acquire some quickly.
Islamabad was created as the new capital, instead of Pakistan's original metropolis, Karachi, which is close to the Indian Ocean and was felt to be too exposed to external threats. Islamabad seemed more secure, close to the army's headquarters in Rawalpindi and to the mountains. Proximity to the NWFP has turned into a liability. Though the Taliban are not so well-organized an army as to be able to seize power in Islamabad, they are eminently capable of spreading chaos.
Maulana Fazlullah, the Taliban's leader in Swat, has invited Osama bin Laden to come to live there, as if to bait the United States.
The U.S. should not be tempted into heavy-handed action, however, and should not invest much hope in Wednesday's Washington meeting. It has some influence on Pakistan, but cannot change the country's direction by money or by pressure. It will be much more persuasive for the U.S. and other Western powers to point out that Pakistan's real interests lie in reasserting its national unity.