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Pakistan: On the brink again

By Gurmeet Kanwal
March 30, 2009 20:54 IST
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Allah, army and America have worked together to save Pakistan again! President Asif Ali Zardari's stubbornness and political immaturity and Nawaz Sharif's all or nothing gamble had brought the shaky civilian government to the verge of collapse and ominous portents of another round of army rule were in the air. However, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, personally urged restraint and General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, the chief of army staff, effectively stepped in to nip any such moves in the bud.

Though Pakistan's civil society has re-asserted itself, the country continues to be in a complete mess and is once again reaching the tipping point on the way to becoming a failed state. The last thing Pakistan needs at this juncture in its troubled history is political instability. After Sharif's 'long march' politics and the lawyers' agitation, President Zardari has come out much weaker and will be forced to shed some of the President's disproportionately high powers to Prime Minster Yousuf Raza Gilani and his cabinet ministers.

Sharif has gained in strength and when elections to the National Assembly are held again soon -- the Zardari government is unlikely to last its full term -- his party PML (Nawaz) may gain enough seats to form the government. General Kayani has redeemed himself and reinforced his democratic credentials by convincing President Zardari to reach a compromise with the opposition.

Notwithstanding the political truce, Pakistan's troubles are far from over. Its economy has failed to weather the ongoing financial storm; inflation is ruling in double digits; the Pakistani rupee has fallen to record lows against the US dollar and unemployment is at an all time high. Pakistan has become a rentier state that is surviving on US dole for services being rendered for logistics support -- a euphemism for allowing US and NATO countries to use its territory for supplying their forces fighting the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine in Afghanistan. Since the amounts being received are far in excess of the cost of fuel and other services that Pakistan is providing, monetary compensation is obviously being given to Pakistan for silently suffering missile and air strikes launched from across its border with Afghanistan by US and NATO forces against the terrorists in the NWFP and FATA. While unveiling his new Af-Pak policy, President Barack Obama has demanded greater accountability from Pakistan in the so-called global war on terrorism. This will put even greater pressure on the Pakistan army to show tangible results.

The Pakistan army has claimed victory in the Bajaur area after months of heavy fighting, but only time will tell whether the radical extremists of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan have actually been rooted out permanently. The capitulation to Maulana Fazlullah's TNSM in the Swat Valley does not augur well for the Pakistan army's ability to fight insurgency effectively. Besides troops of the Frontier Corps who are mainly tribesmen with personal loyalty to TTP leaders like Baitullah Mehsud, regular Pakistani soldiers have been deserting their battalions and some have refused to fight fellow Sunni Muslims.

The army also lacks counter-insurgency weaponry and equipment as it has been investing in upgrading its war fighting capability for conventional war with India, which is at worst a distant threat. The army has also not yet succeeded in fine tuning its tactics, techniques and procedures for dealing with internal security challenges, which require uniquely different preparation. The army will take at least another two to three years to upgrade its capabilities to the level necessary to face the new challenges provided it begins now in earnest and makes a determined effort to succeed.

Meanwhile, urban terrorism is gradually gaining momentum and cities like Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi have witnessed large-scale terrorist strikes in the recent past. Radical mullahs are springing up with alarming regularity and people are being forced to pay heed to their diktats. CDs of films and music cassettes have disappeared from the shelves of shops in all but the most upscale markets. Attacks by suicide bombers have become commonplace and every new day brings news of many casualties.

The Frankenstein monster created by the Pakistan army and the ISI to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and wage a proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir has grown completely out of control. Pakistan's civilian and military leaders must work together to formulate a comprehensive internal security strategy to fight radical extremism. Such a strategy must of necessity include good governance, socio-economic development and pro-active military measures against hard core extremist elements.

The international community, including India, must offer the Pakistan government all the help and encouragement that it needs to fight and root out the menace of radical extremism, or else the terrorists will spread their tentacles far and wide -- including, eventually, into India.  

Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare, Studies, New Delhi.

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