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The wild, wild north-west

india Updated: Sep 16, 2008 20:10 IST
Amit Baruah
Amit Baruah
Hindustan Times
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This is Pakistan’s most dangerous moment since the loss of its eastern wing in 1971. The country faces a crisis that is threatening its nationhood, the way of life of its growing middle-class and the survival of its brittle State structures.

With Islamabad unable to get its own people to support its ‘war on terror’, it’s more than evident that Pakistan is the new international front in the battle against extremism — along with Afghanistan and Iraq. The numbers themselves are staggering: a 500 per cent increase in terror deaths in 2007 compared to 2005. And the number is increasing by the day: the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the other out-of-control tribal areas have been turned into killing fields.

Islamist radicals are multiplying due to the inability of the State to provide education and jobs to a growing population. This radicalisation, in turn, is supplying a steady stream of recruits to foreign and domestic jehadi outfits. The rest of the world is beginning to look at the country’s north-west frontier as a continuum of Afghanistan — one seamless, large swathe, of territory that spells trouble for the world.

The Islamists, long diverted to Afghanistan and Kashmir, are now concentrating on Pakistan. This is a country that has long lent support to all kinds of jehadis and has maintained a militarised foreign policy based on the supply of weapons and cash to those battling the ‘infidels’.

Now, seven years after September 11, 2001, its decades-old friend, the United States, which embraced the country as a frontline ally in the ‘war against terror’, has launched its own limited military operations on Pakistani soil. There could have been no greater vote of no-confidence in Islamabad’s ability to meet American benchmarks in this war than the launch of its own ground assaults against terror targets inside the country. “In my view, these two nations [Pakistan and Afghanistan] are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them,” said US military commander Admiral Mike Mullen on September 10. “We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan. But until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming,” he stressed. Mullen’s boss, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, was equally categorical. “The war on terror started in this region [Afghanistan-Pakistan]. It must end there,” Gates stressed before the House Armed Services Committee on September 10.

As Pakistan scrambles to protect its sovereignty, Army HQ in Rawalpindi must be aware that its image as the defender of the country has taken a beating. Now, its very credibility is at stake. It’s likely that Pakistani talk of retaliation against American strikes will turn out to be bluster. After all, striking back at the Americans will invite its own consequences.

If Rawalpindi is unable to respond to this challenge against its sovereignty, Pakistan will be seen as a client state of the US — much like Afghan President Hamid Karzai criticising civilian deaths at American hands, but being able to do precious little about it.

In the past seven years, as the permanent establishment in Pakistan delivered scores of al-Qaeda operatives to the US, there was a sharp increase in attacks within the country — a nosedive in the security situation within Pakistan. Striking from the air or sending special forces to get al-Qaeda operatives may have yielded results, but it ended up in policy disaster — many more jehadis have been created than eliminated in Pakistan.

For India, there’s a greater disaster in the making in Pakistan unless the military and civilian leadership act to arrest extremism — both by the use of effective and intelligent force and a political campaign that backs an integrated strategy. “Imagine, it’s like India sharing a border with Afghanistan,” one source said. “The country is facing chaos, anarchy”.

If this assessment is realistic, then India might have to deal with a State that is unable to deal with the challenges it faces or meet the needs of its population. This could be a worst-case scenario, but one which is no longer in the realm of the impossible. Pakistan needs strong leadership — with both military and civilian wings working together. Other fissures accompany the spectre of extremism: inter-provincial distrust and a lack of governance. There’s little doubt that the Bush administration, in its last days, is putting the squeeze on Army Chief Pervez Ashfaq Kayani. It wants him to do more on terror. But the ‘more’ is likely to make his position at home untenable.

From the attack on the Wah ordnance factory to the Air Force bus in Peshawar, Pakistan’s extremists this year have hit just about anything of import, including a recent, unsuccessful attack on the motorcade of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. The challenge to Pakistan is well-defined. The response is not.