America was blindsided yet again. Only, this time some in the mainstream U.S. news media were a bit slow to grasp the perilous impact that U.S. policymakers instantly understood.
The Taliban — facilitators of al-Qaida’s 9/11 terrorist attacks on our homeland — had just scored a major triumph. The sort of victory President George W. Bush had repeatedly vowed they would never enjoy.
Pakistan’s government announced Monday that the Taliban-dominated Swat Valley, would now be self-governing, run according to Islamic law, not Pakistani national law. Pakistan’s army was ending its pathetic effort to defeat the militants, a campaign in which a reported 12,000 troops were undone by some 3,000 Taliban fighters.
Left carefully unsaid was what the announcement really meant: The Taliban — which once ruled Afghanistan, from which it allowed al-Qaida to plan its 9/11 attacks — would again have a sanctuary from which it could rule and scheme with authority and impunity. And this time the Taliban would be running things not in some backwater badlands with impossible terrain, but in Pakistan’s once-famous tourist valley known as the “Switzerland of Pakistan,” just two hours by car from the capital of Islamabad.
Pakistan’s stunning announcement came just after President Barack Obama’s envoy to the region, veteran diplomat and crisis negotiator Richard C. Holbrooke, visited leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While U.S. officials grasped the importance and impact, some U.S. news media luminaries apparently did not.
The Washington Post played the news inside on page A8, in a story that made it seem this was mainly about a new legal system for Swat valley. NBC’s Nightly News put an altogether different lead on its Pakistan story — reporting about some new U.S. drone aircraft strikes against Taliban sites in more remote tribal areas, then adding a shirt-tail about the coming of Taliban-run Islamic law in Swat Valley.
The New York Times, in contrast, got it — playing it as Tuesday’s biggest front-page news. The paper also played prominently on the front page a sidebar about how harsh and brutal ways of Taliban forces in the valley. There have long been reports of kidnappings, beheadings, and the burning of schools (because the Taliban forbids girls to go to them).
To understand the full meaning of the latest news, we need to recall what was big news just after the attacks of 9/11. For example, the way all Americans and most of the world applauded Bush’s address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001. Especially his demand that the Taliban surrender al-Qaida’s terrorists to the United States — and his vow of what would happen if the Taliban failed to do so: “They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate. … We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”
Sadly, Bush’s words proved empty, his promise unfulfilled. Just like his vow that he would get Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.” Al Qaeda’s leaders fled into hiding, next door in Pakistan and so did the Taliban.
Now the revitalized Taliban, threatening anew in Afghanistan and safely harbored in Pakistan — and al Qaida’s leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, still-threatening and videotaping from somewhere in Pakistan, are perilous parts of Bush’s legacy of crises bequeathed to his successor.
Looking ahead, we must now ponder a new chilling global nightmare, one that is still unlikely but no longer unimaginable: A Pakistan in which the Taliban keeps gaining strength against the army that couldn’t defeat it. Until one day, the Islamist militants seize the country and take control of its deadly nuclear arsenal.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.