The phrase "power abhors a vacuum" never rang so true. The Taliban continue to regroup in Baluchistan, bomb NATO convoys near Peshawar, and consolidate control over parallel micro-emirates ever closer to Islamabad. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton caused a stir by accusing Pakistan of " abdicating to the Taliban," but in places like the Swat valley, the Taliban has come in where the state never bothered to be. Give them an inch and they are taking a yard. In Buner, which fell under Taliban control on April 23, Taliban forces have looted every building standing for supplies for themselves and any supporters. Allegedly a negotiation has just taken place today by which the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, known as TSNM, might vacate Buner and not seek further movement toward Malakand, but as the Taliban builds strength, this deal is no more likely to hold than previous "peace" deals.
Not nearly enough attention is being paid to the situation from the point of view of local Pakistanis.
Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf was praised for strengthening the state and buttressing the Army as the only institution capable of holding the country together. Both assumptions were gravely wrong. Musharraf's malign neglect of the country's agricultural heartland, co-optation of lands for army pensioners, usurping of the economy by colonels, and relentless aggression against Baluchi minorities did nothing to unify an ethnically fragmented nation now teetering on the brink. The new Pakistan army chief, General Kiyani, lives in a classic leadership bubble, seemingly unaware that his vaunted institution has lost the plot.
Add to this Musharraf's replacement by the distracted bumbling of recycled civilian elites, and the door has been left wide open. The do-nothing parliament has yet to resolve to constitutionally integrate the Federally Administered Tribal Areas into Northwest Frontier Province and schedule elections there, which could at least justify an increased Frontier Corps' presence for the legitimate purpose of securing the voting stations. Things need to be shaken up: The government needs to be the one that agitates and dislodges the existing order. If the government—through the police and army—can up its game in the NWFP and create a stability buffer around Peshawar, it could potentially cut off the TSNM elements which are getting too comfortable in Swat.
Not nearly enough attention is being paid to the situation from the point of view of local Pakistanis. They are not pawns to be traded among sides: "taken" by the Taliban, then "liberated" by the army. That Pakistani villagers in the NWFP or Northern Areas crave a stable system of justice doesn't mean they accept the Taliban and its Sharia courts will have staying power. Videos of public floggings have aroused ire around the country, and hopefully galvanized the vaunted "secular core" of Pakistanis who tend to vent only on op-ed pages and at regal Lahore dinners.
Yet there are places where aid can work and is desired now. In North Waziristan, tribal councils have indicated a desire for development assistance that is administered jointly by themselves and political agents, with the only conditions being minimal military involvement and delivery in accordance with Muslim customs. During a lull in fighting in Kurram agency, Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute ramped up building girls' schools at the request of local elders. Getting in now to win local hearts and minds is the only way to prevent this war of attrition from worsening further.
Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and author of the international bestseller The Second World: How Emerging Powers are Redefining Global Competition in the 21st Century (Random House).