Why the Taliban's U.S. Consulate Bombing Could Backfire

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The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed credit for a devastating attack on the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan, a city of three million just miles from the Afghan border. Could the Taliban group, despite its aim to topple Pakistan and expel the U.S., unintentionally do what the last three U.S. presidents have been unable to: Align Pakistani and U.S. interests against the Taliban and al-Qaeda? As recently as October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointedly accused Pakistani officials of tolerating Osama bin Laden's presence in their country. Her complaints, just like those made privately by her husband during his presidency, brought no apparent action on Pakistan's part. But Pakistan has been enduring a rising tide of terrorist violence for almost twenty years. In October, a car bomb in Peshawar killed 80, reinforcing fears that political violence could start to threaten the stability of the Pakistani state: Prominent Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote in the Times of India that the TTP "aimed to topple the government, impose an Islamic state and, if possible, get hold of Pakistan's nuclear weapons."

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Ironically, the militants that so threaten Pakistan are the state's own creation. During the Afghan civil war of the 1990s, Pakistan constructed along the Afghan border a vast infrastructure of madrassas and Islamic charities meant to train and fund an endless stream of militants. Why? As Steve Coll documents in Ghost Wars, Pakistan hoped the fighters it poured across the border would force out Ahmad Shah Massoud, the anti-Soviet mujahideen occupying the capital, who was friendly to the U.S., Iran and India but not to Pakistan. The Islamist fighters, Pakistan hoped, would establish a devoutly religious and pro-Pakistan government in Kabul. But in the years since, with Massoud now long gone, the fundamentalist insurgents have increasingly turned their efforts against Pakistan itself, which the insurgents see as too secular and too close to the U.S. The madrassa-opium-insurgency triangle functions as a self-sustaining and independent fighting force, which has careened out of Pakistan's control. Like Frankenstein's monster, the creation has grown too strong and turned against its creator.

The better the U.S. does in Afghanistan, the worse the violence in Pakistan is likely to get. The myriad insurgencies of South Asia, which include the TTP as well as the Afghan Taliban and other groups, are all based in the same lawless border regions. As the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) weakens the Afghan groups, the center of gravity among insurgents will continue to shift toward groups that primarily target Pakistan. Training, funding, control of the lucrative opium trade, and the allegiance of deadly Arab fighters will continue to move from the Afghan Taliban, which is waning, to groups like the TTP. This means more attacks in Pakistan, deadlier attacks against Pakistan-based targets including Americans, and rising chaos in the massive Pakistani border cities.

The good news is that these attacks are spurring Pakistan to finally turn against the pro-Pakistan militants they've long supported or tolerated. In recent weeks, Pakistan has won praise from U.S. officials for arresting a string of Afghan Taliban leaders. As anti-Pakistan groups like the TTP continue to intermingle with state-nurtured militants like Jalaluddin Haqqani, Pakistan will no longer be able to turn a blind eye. Since the 1998 attacks on American embassies in Kenya, the U.S. has struggled and failed in lobbying Pakistan to turn against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. aid money could not bring Pakistan around, but a common enemy just might.

Image: Blast strikes Peshawar, Pakistan. Hasham Ahmed / Getty Images.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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