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Friday, 6 March 2009

6 March 2009

Regular readers with long memories will recall that I have been worrying about Pakistan since well before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

I’ve been worrying about Pakistan even more this week after the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.

Here’s why: first, the attack was brazen, audacious, and well-planned. Like the attackers in Mumbai last November, the gunmen in Lahore were well-equipped and apparently well-trained. Unlike the attackers in Mumbai, they all escaped.

Second, if the emails that flooded into the BBC from Pakistan were typical, many people reacted by blaming the government as much as the attackers themselves. That, of course, was the aim of the exercise – to weaken the authority of the government (to be honest, it didn’t have much authority anyway).

Third, it raised tensions yet further on the sub-continent. And anything that draws attention away from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is a plus for the jihadis – it relieves the pressure on their sanctuaries and allows them more freedom to concentrate on destabilising Afghanistan.

The top US diplomat in Afghanistan, Christopher Dell, was quoted yesterday as saying that he now regards Pakistan as a greater security threat to America than Afghanistan. I can see why he might say that.

Let me count the ways, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in a somewhat different context. Domestic security is now close to break-down – the attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team may well have been facilitated by co-conspirators in the police, and huge chunks of the border area with Afghanistan are beyond central government control.

It’s true that this has long been the case, but now with local tribal leaders openly making common cause with Pakistani Taliban groups, it’s a major threat both to internal security and to Afghanistan.

The economy is in melt-down: after a boom lasting nearly a decade, now the good times
are over, and the government has had to go cap in hand to the IMF to ask for a bail-out.

(I was struck, by the way, when I spoke to the Pakistani high commissioner in London on the day of the Sri Lanka attack, that he went out of his way to emphasise the urgent need for international help in providing basic education and health services. Winning hearts and minds, he said, was as important as beating the jihadi insurgents militarily.)

The government is in a mess. Yes, it’s a civilian government, and it was elected. But President Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, has gained next to no respect from voters since taking office. Mr Zardari himself comes with a substantial amount of political baggage dating back to the days when he was known as “Mr Fifteen Per Cent” because of allegations that he took massive commission payments on government contracts, and his Pakistan People’s Party seems much more interested in scoring points against their political rivals in the Muslim League than in doing anything to improve the lives of voters.

And the military? Well, the men in uniform have a habit of stepping in whenever civilian governments look incapable of governing – Pakistan has been ruled by soldiers for nearly half of its life (here’s the roll-call: General Ayub Khan, General Yahya Khan, General Zia-Ul-Haq, General Pervez Musharraf).

And finally … well, finally, Pakistan is a nuclear nation. The world has never seen a failed nuclear state before – and there are real fears about what might happen if the country collapses into chaos.

Pakistan needs a lot of help from its friends these days – but don’t be too surprised if you wake up in a few months’ time to hear that, yet again, the army is back in charge in Islamabad.

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