Villagers in a remote area of northern Pakistan took a big step last week toward halting the advance of Taliban fighters and fending off a new era of oppressive Islamist rule. What happened in Pakistan's Dir district might not seem terribly relevant from a U.S. vantage point. But these are among the little battles that could head off a much bigger one, involving American tax dollars and thousands of U.S. troops, in coming months or years.
More than a thousand villagers in Dir decided they were fed up after a Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up at a mosque, killing 30-plus people. A rampage reportedly ensued in which village men burned houses and killed dozens of Taliban fighters. The Pakistani military, at the villagers' request, has joined in the counterinsurgency effort.
The area where Dir is located lies adjacent to the Afghanistan border and is believed to have sheltered members of al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban who fled after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Since the invasion, Taliban forces have been steadily re-infiltrating Afghanistan and staging increasingly bold attacks to regain lost territory. Militants have staged 15 major attacks and bombings since February in Pakistan alone, killing more than 250 people. The area's multibillion-dollar heroin trade is helping finance the Taliban resurgence.
In Afghanistan, U.S. military commanders appear to be adapting a strategy they used successfully in 2007 in Iraq to drive a wedge between al-Qaeda militants and their Sunni Muslim allies, when it became apparent that Iraqi Sunnis were tiring of al-Qaeda's harsh tactics and restrictive Islamist lifestyles. In some cases, U.S. military or CIA operatives paid off Sunni tribal leaders and promised training and weapons in exchange for switching allegiances.
It marked a major turning point in the Iraq war. Whether similar efforts are at play in Afghanistan and Pakistan may never be known, but the developments in Dir show that an opportunity has opened that's worth exploiting.
The Taliban's expansion cannot be halted by U.S. forces alone, no matter how sophisticated our weaponry and talented our troops might be. The bulk of the fighting on Pakistani and Afghan soil is best left to those who stand the most to lose if the Taliban pushes its way into power again.
Some, such as the villagers in Dir, know the Taliban's resurgence means a return to prayers at gunpoint, an all-out ban on music and the virtual enslavement of women. If those villagers believe their lifestyles and religious observances are being imposed by coercion, the U.S. and Pakistani governments should seize the chance to help them resist.