Mohsin Raza/ReutersPakistani soldiers rush towards the scene of an attack by terrorists in Lahore. Extremists aligned with al-Qaeda and the Taliban have staged many attacks in the South Asian country.
After U.S. lawmakers warned Pakistan was on the verge of becoming a failed state, Islamist terrorists are doing their best to make their prediction come true, operating with seeming impunity in the country’s heartland.
“Pakistan is on a rapid trajectory toward becoming a failing or failed state,” says the report of the Atlantic Council task force, led by Chuck Hagel, the former Nebraska senator, and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.
“We cannot stress the magnitude of the dangers enough nor the need for greater action now. Pakistan faces dire economic and security threats that threaten both the existence of Pakistan as a democratic and stable state and the region as a whole.”
“We’re now reaching the point where, within one to six months, we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state,” adds David Kilcullen, an Australian guerrilla warfare specialist who advised U.S. General David Petraeus in Iraq.
“Pakistan is 173 million people, 100 nuclear weapons, an army bigger than the U.S. Army and al-Qaeda headquarters sitting right there in the two thirds of the country that the government doesn’t control,” he recently told The Washington Post.
“The Pakistani military and police and intelligence service don’t follow the civilian government; they’re essentially a rogue state within a state. The collapse of Pakistan, al-Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons, an extremist takeover – [all these possibilities] would dwarf everything we’ve seen in the war on terror today.”
The warnings come as terrorists are launching operations far from their hideouts in Pakistan’s lawless northwest. Last week, they hit a police barracks near the capital Islamabad, prompting police to throw a new security cordon around the National Assembly, installing extra closed-circuit surveillance cameras, redeploying rapid response and bomb disposal units, and checking all vehicles entering and leaving the capital.
In Karachi, police arrested five suspected terrorists with links to al-Qaeda on Wednesday. They also uncovered a large cache of weapons and explosives to be used in suicide attacks against government offices, a police headquarters and Shiite mosques.
In Lahore, the authorities are advising private schools to develop security plans to cope with possible terrorist attacks against co-educational institutions.
Police in both cities say they fear Islamist suicide bombers may already be in place, waiting to attack.
Mullah Nazeer Ahmed, a Pakistani Taliban commander, boasted on an al-Qaeda Web site this week, “The day is not far when Islamabad will be in the hands of the mujahedeen.”
Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy to Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, said his tribal terrorist group will carry out two suicide bombings a week until the U.S. military stops attacking Taliban targets inside Pakistan with Predator drone aircraft.
The violence and insecurity are adding to Pakistan’s already dire economic problems and chronic political deadlock, raising serious concerns over the continued stability of the nuclear-armed state.
In announcing a change in policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan — boosting troop levels in Afghanistan and military and financial assistance to Pakistan — Barack Obama, the U.S. President, called al-Qaeda and its extremist allies “a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within.”
Even Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistan President, admitted this week his country is “fighting a battle for its own survival.”
In the view of Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, the country needs a US$30-billion Marshal Plan-type aid program, spread over five years, to defeat al-Qaeda, eliminate anti-Americanism and secure it from extremists.
But India’s Institute for Conflict Management, which says 6,715 people were killed in unrest in Pakistan last year, says more than half Pakistan’s territory “has passed outside the realm of civil governance and is currently dominated essentially through military force.”
Emboldened by the government’s failures, Islamist terrorists are stepping up their attacks. They use suicide bombers, car bombs, sophisticated explosives, targeted assassinations and commando-style raids to press into areas far from their traditional hideouts in the lawless tribal lands of the northwest.
According to the Belgian-based International Crisis Group, radical Sunni groups in the Punjab heartland are combining with Pakistani Taliban insurgents from tribal areas to destabilize the entire country.
Suicide squads relentlessly target Pakistan Army convoys and checkpoints, attack rural police stations, burn government schools, assassinate local government officials, and bomb hotels, restaurants and Shiite mosques.
This week, heavily armed Pakistani Taliban insurgents clashed with tribesmen and police in the Buner district of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), just 100 kilometres north of Islamabad.
About 60 insurgents travelling in 20 trucks surged out of the nearby Swat Valley, where Islamists successfully waged a two-year battle against Pakistan’s military, and tried to seize control of the mountaintops surrounding Buner. Local militias opposed to the Taliban tried to repel the invasion, but at week’s end the insurgents were still entrenched in the mountains.
In the past two years, more than 1,500 people have been killed in Swat and at least 100,000 made homeless. In February, the provincial and national governments accepted the Islamists’ offer of a ceasefire in exchange for a promise to impose Sharia on NWFP’s Malakand region.
Critics of the deal complain it implicitly sanctions a Taliban takeover of the area and could offer the Islamists and their al-Qaeda allies a sanctuary practically on Islamabad’s doorstep.
This week, the hardline Muslim cleric who negotiated the Swat ceasefire, stormed out of a “peace camp” in the former tourist area known as “Pakistan’s Switzerland.” He accused Islamabad of reneging on the peace deal and dragging its feet in implementing state-sanctioned Sharia courts.
“Pakistan’s western tribal regions, a natural buffer of defence, have been eroded,” writes Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“In 2007 alone, Pakistan suffered at least 45 suicide bombings, more than double the number that took place between 2002 and 2006, and the deaths of a number of political leaders, including Benazir Bhutto. After Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan has suffered more fatalities from suicide terrorism than any other country.”
Pakistan’s Institute for Peace Studies says 679 people died and 915 were injured in February as a direct result of terrorist attacks and clashes between security forces and insurgents.
With the country deeply divided between a strong military and weak civilian governments, along different ethnic lines and between Sunnis and Shiite, and Islamists and secularists, there is now a growing threat the growing insecurity will continue to spread from tribal areas to its very heart.
Washington hopes the danger will cause Pakistanis to recognize the “war on terror” is a shared concern, not simply a U.S. war.
For now, serious tensions remain between the two countries over the growing number of U.S. missile strikes against suspected terrorists on Pakistani soil.
Washington claims to have killed 13 of the top 20 al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in this way, but Islamabad sees the use of Predator drones as infringing its sovereignty.
The latest drone attack came on Wednesday, when four insurgents were killed near Wana, South Waziristan.
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, said the attacks are fueling resentment toward Washington and strengthen the Taliban, while Pakistani newspapers claim they are driving Islamist terrorists deeper into the country, where they pose a more serious threat to national security.
While Pakistan has rejected any suggestion of “foreign boots on Pakistan soil,” it has asked Washington to provide drone technology so it can carry out the attacks itself.
But the United States, worried by links between Pakistan’s top military intelligence agency and the Taliban, has refused.
That standoff may bode ill for future co-operation in a rapidly expanding and increasingly complicated war.
“We can only work together, if we respect each other and trust each other,” Mr. Qureshi said this week at a news conference with Richard Holbrooke, the visiting U.S. special envoy.
“There is no other way and nothing else will work.”