Why the Obama Administration is So Worried About Pakistan

The Taliban are advancing in Pakistan and it's unclear whether the government can push them back.

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The Obama administration is sounding a loud alarm over deteriorating security in Pakistan, particularly the movement of Taliban militiamen closer to the capital city of Islamabad and the attempt by Pakistani officials to buy domestic peace by making concessions. "I think the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned on Capitol Hill last week. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the Taliban an "existential threat" to Pakistan's weak democratic government, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Islamabad for the second time in two weeks to talk with top military and intelligence officials.

What set off the latest alarm was the penetration of Taliban units into the Buner district, just 60 miles from the capital. They set up checkpoints, broadcast radio sermons, and skirmished with police. The Taliban advanced from the adjacent Swat Valley, a scenic former tourist destination where two years of fighting have left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands uprooted. After a few days, the Taliban units in Buner appeared to be withdrawing, at least partially. In a controversial bid for peace in the area, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari recently approved a deal that exchanges a Taliban cease-fire promise for the imposition of sharia, strict Islamic law.

U.S. officials fear that such government concessions will only embolden the Taliban. Already, Taliban leaders in Swat, for instance, say they want to see sharia eventually instituted throughout Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation that is key to U.S. strategy to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda in next-door Afghanistan. Other signs of rising militancy include recent terrorist attacks in the Pakistani heartland of Punjab and the public return of a hard-line cleric to Islamabad's Red Mosque, the scene of a 2007 fight in which the complex was stormed by Pakistani troops and at least 100 people died.