I returned from Pakistan last week, and I’m still trying to sort through my impressions from the trip. The mood was somber. The recent spate of bombings in Peshawar, Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi have struck a far deeper nerve than the violence in the Northwest Frontier ever had. Pakistan’s urban middle and upper class now palpably confronts the chaos and extremism tearing at the seams of the state. No matter how much they wish the Taliban problem away, it now stares them in the face. And because there are no easy answers, despair reigns. Out of this despair and horror, Pakistanis understandably want it all over–get the military out of the tribal areas, stop fighting the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Disturbingly, though, this catharsis is transforming into argument.

The likes of Imran Khan have repeatedly called for negotiations with the Taliban. Although Imran Khan represents somewhat of a fringe–his party and ideas aren’t taken too seriously–his logic has appeal. I’ve heard some very smart Pakistanis, both in Pakistan and the diaspora, decry the Pakistani military’s operations in Swat and Waziristan. And rightfully so: a million have been internally displaced; houses destroyed; lives ruined; and innocent lives lost. But these concerns about the humanitarian toll, though very important, aren’t justification enough to halt the military’s operation. More significantly, militarily confronting the Pakistani Taliban is justified.

Various Pakistani English-language columnists and various other Pakistani liberals have outright supported the American drone strikes and the Pakistani army’s counterinsurgency. They, like I, argue that the Taliban are killing innocents and challenging the writ of the state. Underlying these refrains is a fear that the insurgents and terrorists want to roll back modernity itself and transform the Pakistani state into a purely Islamic state–which is actually a stated goal of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.

The Islamic right in Pakistan and a few Pakistani nationalists have crudely labeled columnist Irfan Husain and physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy–who are staunch secular liberals–“native informers,” who as stooges of the West, unjustly vilify Islam as “irrational” and advocate a Manichean, if not neoconservative, worldview. Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, a sociologist and a critic of the pro-military camp, argues that Husain, Hoodbhoy, and their ilk suffer from “the cast of mind that sees political problems as military ones, and deems force as the sole means of resolving them.” They are, in his words, “brown sahibs” who senselessly call for blood. The name-calling and biting rhetoric aside, which only serve to remind us that the anti-war camp relies more on pathos than analysis, the critique in this instance is unfounded. He assumes that there is a viable political solution to the mess in the tribal areas. He sounds like Imran Khan. And he’s dead wrong. My riposte to every critique against military action in the tribal areas is this: do you have an alternative? The onus is on the anti-war camp to tell us why a political solution would work when it never has, and quite frankly never can. When prodded with this simple question, most people in Pakistan recite the blameAmericaforAlQaedaandtheTaliban story. Then they recount a selective history, pointing out that America created the Mujahideen but failing to recognize that the Pakistani state cultivated the modern entity called the Taliban. History is interesting but it seldom gives answers. The other fantasy the Islamic right, Pakistani nationalists, and most Pakistanis harbour is that the country can actually defy the United States. Their main solution is to stop ‘fighting America’s war.” Geewhiz, that’d be nice. Telling the world’s hegemon to fuck off– whose aid literally props up the crumbling Pakistani economy–sounds like a fantastic idea!

Simply put, Pakistani liberals, by demanding a proper response to the Taliban, are defending a certain vision of Pakistan–one that’s secular, progressive, and no longer a pariah. The Islamic right, the anti-war folk, and their supporters, on the other hand, offer no realistic solution.

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