The sustained wave of attacks on Pakistan’s cities and markets, police and army over the past two weeks is a lethal display of jihadi power that looks chillingly like the beginnings of a war for the future of the country, which is in real danger of failing as a state.
The jihadi offensive follows the killing of Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and comes as the army has started to attack their south Waziristan sanctuary on the lawless frontier with Afghanistan. Yet, if this were just a conflict between the army and one militant group – however difficult the terrain – we would surely be worrying a lot less about it.
The Punjab, target of recent jihadi assaults, is rich, powerful and pluralist, home to more than half the population and source of the civil and military elites. The Tehrik-i-Taliban represents a radical fraction of the rural Pashtun, just over a 10th of the population on the fringe of the fringes of society and power. Surely no contest?
Mainstream Islamist parties, moreover, have only once got more than 10 per cent at the polls, and that was with an assist from the former military-backed government of General Pervez Musharraf.
If only that was all there was to it. The equivocal role of the army reveals another political equation.
Pakistan’s soldiers and spies have selectively licensed jihadi groups as asymmetric weapons against arch-rival India – to tie down half the Indian army in Kashmir and develop “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. This has created a Frankenstein’s monster.
The security establishment’s belief it could “run” discrete operations and keep a firm grip on the operators has proved delusional. Yet, despite the assassination of Benazir Bhutto (and attempts on Mr Musharraf’s life), attacks on police units, UN offices and hotels – and even the infiltration of army headquarters in Rawalpindi 10 days ago – the military mind-set has only partly changed.
Even as it goes after the Taliban, or the Punjabi jihadi group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, it still dallies with the originally Kashmiri jihadi group Lashkar-e-Taiba – said by India to be behind last November’s lethal assault on Mumbai.
These groups now overlap and reinforce each other. They all need to be confronted and defeated because they, rather than India, are the mortal threat to the nation.
No doubt the army would breathe easier if there were a real prospect of detente with India. But the generals must surely realise they are now in a fight to the death. If not now, when?
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