Powder Keg Chronicles: The real trouble, Pakistan

By J Brooks Spector 11 November 2009

For the current “great game” in Southern Asia, Pakistan is central to the region’s future stability. Created in 1947, out of predominantly Muslim areas of the old Indian Raj, it has never fully achieved a stable political system.

Its society is fractured between a variety of ethnic groups that transcend its various borders; its political system alternates between repressive military rule, unstable democratic intervals and periods such as now that have an awkward balancing act between civilians and the military. In the past several decades, two of its presidents have been assassinated. Furthermore, while the country was formally established as a state for the Muslims of South Asia, Pakistan has yet to evolve a stable social agreement on the role of Islam in Pakistani politics. Moreover, Islamic fundamentalists have continued to operate out of Pakistan to carry out terror attacks in Pakistan’s major neighbour, India, most recently in the coordinated assaults in Mumbai.

Beyond all these concerns, however, it must not be forgotten that Pakistan is a nuclear power. Pakistan has a population six times larger than Afghanistan’s, it borders on Iran, India and China, and it has a clutch of nuclear warheads. Its neighbours and allies alike may worry that its missiles, nuclear warheads – and the technology and knowledge to create more of them – are not or might not be under full security and control. Should things begin to spin out of control, they could be dispersed surreptitiously to others.

Except for some technological improvements, contemporary descriptions of the ongoing military campaign in Pakistan’s northwest frontier regions might just as well have come from Winston Churchill’s memoir of his time with the Malakand Field Force on their mountain manoeuvres in the same region.  The military forces roll forward, artillery fires into the hills and soldiers set up check points to inspect the baggage of long lines of civilians or refugees from the fighting. Then, too, there are those inevitable communiqués pointing to the military’s successes in capturing insurgents, strategic villages and towns – or in pushing the warrior tribes back into the distant hills.

These days, most of al-Qaeda’s leadership is ensconced in Pakistan’s mountainous northwest frontier, not in Afghanistan. In recent months, US Vice President Joe Biden has quietly become the major proponent within the Obama administration to recalibrate America’s primary attention in the region on Pakistan, rather than, as has been the case for the past eight years, on Afghanistan. In strategic terms, it may be a no-brainer.

From their side, once again, Pakistan’s army is moving northward to carry out its earlier promise – this time with more finality than in several previous campaigns – to deal with the insurgents in this mountainous region. This time, however, their effort comes just as there has been a shattering wave of coordinated attacks, not only against top Pakistani security installations, markets and schools scattered all over the northern half of the country and in Lahore, as well as at army headquarters in Rawalpindi and the capital, Islamabad, itself.

Photo: A policeman points a gun at an unruly crowd, comprising of people uprooted by the military offensive in South Waziristan, as they gather at a distribution point for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Dera Ismail Khan, located in Pakistan’s restive North West Frontier Province, November 6, 2009. Pakistani soldiers have entered an important militant bastion in South Waziristan, security officials said on Friday, as gunmen wounded an army brigadier and his driver in a drive-by shooting in the capital. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

To many analysts, these attacks may indicate al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant groups (some once actually nurtured by the Pakistani government) are coming together in a loose alliance with the goal of bringing the Pakistani state to its knees. For example, an umbrella group for the Pakistani Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban, ultimately claimed responsibility for the recent attacks in Lahore. But the style of the attacks may also be revealing growing ties between the Taliban and al-Qaeda – as well as what are known as “jihadi” groups operating out of southern Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, analysts said.

For years, the Pakistani government turned a blind eye to some of these Punjabi groups, including Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi operating in India. Part of the problem seems to be that many Pakistani citizens consider these groups to be allies in just causes such as fighting India, the US and Shiite Muslims. But, concurrently, they have become entwined with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and in the process they seem to have turned back on the state that permitted them to exist in the first place.

These new attacks also highlight the expanding challenges for the Obama administration as it tries to bolster Pakistan’s civilian government, as well as encourage the military to press its campaign against the Taliban. In October, Obama signed the legislation that provided aid to Pakistan to the tune of some $7.5 billion over five years. The offer of the aid package prompted friction between Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership over the conditions for the aid —greater civilian oversight of the military and halting support for militant groups in India — which some army officers and politicians considered infringements on Pakistan’s sovereignty. The White House noted the shared interests of the countries in its statement on the aid signing, but there was no signing ceremony – an apparent response to a distinct lack of appreciation for all that money.

The wave of attacks inside Pakistan may now be adding more pressure on the Pakistani government to really crack down on the militants. Says Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of North-West Frontier Province, “The national narrative in support of jihad has confused the Pakistani mind. All along we’ve been saying these people are trying to fight a war of Islam, but there is a need to transform the national narrative.” 

The recent attacks also drove home the point that the government can no longer hide the alliance between the Taliban in South Waziristan and the forces in Southern Punjab, said Zaffar Abbas, a prominent journalist at the English-language newspaper, Dawn. And, according to Farrukh Saleem, executive director for the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad, too many Pakistanis do not see the “jihadi” groups as the enemy. Says Saleem, “They feel America is in the region, the Pakistani Army is fighting for an American army and the ‘jihadis’ have a right to retaliate.”

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when Pakistan joined the US in the campaign against terrorism, then-president Pervez Musharraf’s government formally banned those “jihadi” groups. But the groups have entrenched domestic and political constituencies, as well as shadowy ties to former military officials and their families, analysts said. Punjab is the major recruiting centre for the Pakistani Army and it hosts more army divisions than any other province. But the insurgent groups as well “proliferate and operate with impunity, literally under the nose of Pakistan’s army,” said Georgetown University’s Christine Fair.

The current offensive, by itself, however, is unlikely to be a deathblow to the entrenched militants, who have networks across the country, including with groups once nurtured by the state as proxies in efforts against India. The militants under attack now could escape to other parts of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal belt or cities in its heartland.

Since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Pakistani army’s three attempts to dislodge Taliban fighters from South Waziristan have ended in truces that left the Taliban largely in control of that region. This time, the military has said there will be no deals, although there have apparently been some, to avoid jeopardising gains won earlier this year when Pakistani soldiers overpowered the Taliban in Swat.

One can only imagine what might happen if the Pakistani government or military command and control truly came under siege and state collapse loomed. Or if some portions of its nuclear technology and weaponry were seen to be in danger of coming under the control of religious insurgents.  India, the self-proclaimed hegemonic power on the subcontinent, would assuredly be thinking about pre-emptive action.  Should that happen, how would China respond, or the many Muslim fundamentalist irregular groups, for that matter?

More than a century ago, Otto von Bismarck, contemplating the European security order he had largely created after the unification of Germany, mused that “some damn thing in the Balkans” had the power to upset his carefully contrived balance of power.  For Americans – and for Indians – it may not be Afghanistan that is the most difficult question to contemplate. As Biden has been advocating within Obama administration councils, it is Pakistan’s future that is the one to watch most closely. And it doesn’t look good at all.

By Brooks Spector

Main Photo: Firefighters extinguish a fire as rescue workers and residents watch in the aftermath of a bomb explosion in Peshawar, located in Pakistan’s restive North West Frontier Province, October 28, 2009. A car bomb ripped through a crowded market killing 90 people in Pakistan’s city of Peshawar on Wednesday, just hours after Washington’s top diplomat arrived pledging a fresh start in sometimes strained relations. REUTERS/K.Parvez


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