Embroiled in continuing political turbulence, judicial activism, internal instability and a stagnating economy, Pakistan appears to be hurtling inexorably downhill. The terrorist strike on Minhas airbase in Kamra on August 16, in which one Pakistani soldier and nine terrorists were killed, is but the latest manifestation of the state’s inability to protect even its vital military installations. The fact that nuclear warheads are stored at the airbase makes the attack even more ominous. The strike was launched by fighters of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a terrorist organisation that is committed to the establishment of a “true Islamic state” in Pakistan.
Incidentally, this was the fourth such attack on Minhas airbase. Earlier attacks on the base had been launched by suicide bombers in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The attack was similar to the one launched by well-trained terrorists at the Mehran naval aviation base near Karachi soon after the US Special Forces had killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011. In both cases insider help is suspected. The material damage caused has been extensive – one airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft was damaged at Minhas and two P3C Orion AEW aircraft were destroyed at Mehran and 18 military personnel were killed.
Terrorist organisations inimical to the Pakistani state have repeatedly proved their ability to launch strikes against well guarded military targets at will. They have also demonstrated their ability to infiltrate the rank and file of the armed forces and are getting close to their real objective of seizing a few nuclear warheads.
The Pakistan Army is facing perhaps its deepest crisis since its strategic blunder in Kargil. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the Chief of Army Staff, appears to lack both initiative and ideas to deal with the deteriorating internal security situation. Insurgency in the Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa (NWFP) and FATA is proving difficult for the Army to handle. Its counter-insurgency policy has been unsuccessful and casualties have been mounting. The use of air strikes and helicopter gunships to attack terrorist hideouts has proved to be counter-productive. The Army has been forced by the TTP to wage a three-front "war": against the TTP and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in South Waziristan; against the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) in the sensitive Darra Adam Khel-Kohat area of NWFP and the Shia-dominated Kurram Agency of FATA; and, against the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), headed by Maulana Fazlullah, and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) sheltering across the Durand Line in Afghanistan.
Although it has flirted with peace deals with the militants, the Army finds it impossible to meet the demands of the TTP and TNSM. According to B. Raman, a noted counter-terrorism expert, these demands include: the suspension of all military operations in the tribal areas; the withdrawal of army posts from the FATA; the release of all tribals arrested under the Anti-Terrorism Act; the release of Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi and tribal students arrested during the commando action in the Lal Masjid of Islamabad in July 2007; and, enforcement of the Sharia in the tribal areas.
US-Pakistan cooperation in the joint war against terror is at an all time low. Though NATO-ISAF supply routes have been re-opened and the ISI chief visited Washington recently, General Kayani has failed to take action against the Haqqani network, which has been operating against NATO-ISAF forces in Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan. Despite repeated US demands to address the insurgency in North Waziristan, the Pakistan Army has not yet launched counter-insurgency operations in this restive area, which is the hub of the TTP. It appears to be both unable and unwilling to do so.
The US and allies have become increasingly frustrated by Pakistan’s failure to deal with al Qaeda and Taliban militants launching raids on US and NATO troops across the Durand Line. The Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States and other officials have been meeting General Kayani frequently to impress upon him the need to be more pro-active in counter-insurgency operations. Unilateral trans-border intervention against militants inside Pakistani territory by the United States is continuing through drone strikes. Trans-border ground action through Special Forces is likely to be approved if President Obama wins the November election.
The continuing stand-off between the Pakistan government and the judiciary over the prosecution of President Asif Ali Zardari for allegedly stashing huge sums of money in Swiss bank accounts is undermining political stability and adversely impacting governance. The underperformance of Pakistan’s tottering economy is another cause for concern. Inflation is still raging in double digits and is having a crippling impact on the economy. If economic conditions continue to spin out of control, there is a possibility of much greater popular discontent and violence spreading across Pakistan.
The ruling party in Pakistan needs to make determined efforts to rein in the ISI from continuing to appease the Taliban, provide good governance and formulate sustainable economic policies. It must also initiate a consultation process with all the stakeholders for the formulation of a holistic and comprehensive national-level counter-insurgency strategy. At this juncture, the Pakistani military is in no shape to step into a potential political quagmire. However, if historical evidence is any guide, such restraint on the part of the military may yet prove to be fleeting if conditions in the country continue to deteriorate.
Pakistan is not yet a failed state, but it is a state with a failed leadership. Now that Musharraf is out of the way and Nawaz Shariff’s urge to avenge his humiliation in 1999 has been satisfied, he should behave in a more statesman-like manner in the larger interests of his country. However, going by past experience, he is unlikely to do so. Political turmoil, internal instability, a floundering economy and weak institutions make for an explosive mix. The only deduction that can conceivably be drawn is that Pakistan is in for even greater difficulties ahead. The emerging situation does not augur well for strategic stability in Southern Asia.