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A Pakistan Primer

A comment iconThe last two years have been turbulent, even by Pakistan's standards. 

The following essay offers a short history of Pakistan and its struggles with the Taliban since the ousting of General Musharaff. You can also read an analysis of Pakistan's current crisis situation, by Anita Weiss, head of the International Studies Department.


Pakistan was established on 1947 as a Muslim state, when it was partitioned from India at the end of British rule. Officially known as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, its history has been marked with turbulence and upheaval, with four coups since its founding 62 years ago.

Driving this instability is the ongoing internal struggle between Pakistan’s secular and Islamic factions, which has only escalated in recent years. In fact, according to the New York Times, “the last two years have been tumultuous even by Pakistan's standards.”

In 2007, Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, was forced from power. His likely successor was ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated shortly before the scheduled elections. Her party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) rallied around her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who was elected president in September, 2008.

Zardari inherited a volatile legacy of increased Taliban infiltration along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, and a complicated relationship with the U.S., an ally which provides Pakistan with billions in aid but has also been sending unmanned drones into the western tribal areas to bomb suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda outposts, resulting in civilian casualties and widespread ill-will among the Pakistani people.

Over the first few months of Zardari’s presidency, the Taliban further extended its reach into Pakistan, infiltrating eastward from the remote mountains along the Afghanistan border to the Swat Valley, formerly a tourist paradise not far from the capital, Islamabad. The Taliban terrorized and intimidated the local citizens, but government attempts to stem the violence were inadequate, and in early 2009 Zardari signed a truce with the militants. This agreement imposed Islamic law in the Swat Valley, a concession that was supposedly exchanged for a promise of stepped-down extremism. But the violence escalated. 

The Taliban soon seized Buner, only 60 miles from Islamabad. This proximity struck fear into the heart of the capital and outraged the middle- and upper-classes, inspiring even liberals to call for the destruction of the extremists. U.S. officials also strenuously pressured Pakistan to act. The ensuing campaign by the Pakistani Army has been rigorous and sustained, suggesting a shift in the army’s unofficial alliance with militant forces.

More than three million people have fled the Swat Valley to avoid the fighting, creating a massive humanitarian crisis and growing concern that the refugee camps may provide convenient recruiting opportunities for terrorist groups. This calamity is on a scale of the one Pakistan faced in October 2005 when jolted by a massive earthquake, a disaster that engendered goodwill from the international donor community. But that community is not as willing to respond now — to a crisis caused by the inaction of the government. Those three million displaced persons are not fleeing the aftermath of a natural force or an attack by a foreign power, but rather their own cousins, their own neighbors, their own people.

- Lisa Raleigh

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