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Pakistan in Doldrums

Captain Alok Bansal was Member, Navy at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 02, 2008

    Pakistan today presents the picture of a nation at war with itself. It is not very often that one sees the armed forces of a state pounding its own citizens with helicopter gunships and heavy artillery. The inferno that had been ablaze in South Waziristan and North Waziristan for some time has now engulfed all the seven agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and the flames from FATA have set almost the entire North West Frontier Province (NWFP) on fire. The predominantly Pakhtoon militants, sometimes supported by foreign militants, now feel emboldened enough to attack security forces in well-fortified garrisons and have succeeded in capturing at least three of them. They have even succeeded in attacking and inflicting casualties in Razmak camp in North Waziristan Agency, the largest fortified garrison in FATA. They are not only attacking security forces personnel but are also taking away arms and ammunition in the process. In one daring operation, militants captured four truckloads of arms and ammunition from the security forces.

    Swat Valley in N.W.F.P., which had been taken over by the militants a few months ago, has not yet returned to normalcy. Despite large scale army operations, the government’s hold on the region remains at best tenuous. Maulana Fazlullah, the religious leader heading the militants, remains at large and militants still manage to publicly behead government collaborators in the region, although the security forces claim to be in complete control of the valley. The militancy has now spread to Bannu and Kohat. In Bannu, the militants took school children as hostage and had to be given safe passage to facilitate the release of the students. In Kohat, the militants attacked army posts and the ‘Friendship Tunnel’, a crucial link that connects the region with the rest of Pakistan and had been built with Japanese collaboration. They have even threatened to blow up the tunnel using explosive laden trucks manned by suicide bombers. Shops in Darra Adamkhel, the largest market for illegal arms and ammunition in the world, have been broken into by militants, and guns and ammunitions have been taken away. The security forces lost 23 men and killed over 60 militants before they could regain a modicum of control over the region. Over 30,000 residents of the region, who have taken shelter in Peshawar and other towns, are still reluctant to return as the militants are still hiding in the mountains.

    While the militants have been taking on the security forces in open combat in FATA and the adjoining regions of NWFP, suicide bombers have been targeting them in the rest of the province as well as in other Pakistani cities. Bomb blasts and rocket firings have become a common phenomenon throughout the NWFP. According to media reports, even Peshawar, the capital and seat of the provincial administration, presents the picture of a terrorised city. On January 30, 2008, three bomb blasts ripped through the city and three rockets were fired on Peshawar Airport, within a span of less than nine hours.

    Outside NWFP and FATA, militants are making their presence felt in the cities of Punjab. The ease with which they managed to assassinate Benazir Bhutto and carry out attacks on Musharraf in Rawalpindi clearly indicates that this garrison city has become a militant stronghold. The recent capture of arms and ammunition in Karachi indicates that militants are quite active in Pakistan’s largest city and commercial hub. The menace of sectarianism, an offshoot of Islamic radicalism, has been raising its ugly head quite often and in the recent past resulted in a number of violent incidents in the days preceding Muharram. Besides religious extremism, the insurgency in Balochistan continues to simmer, even though the media glare has moved away from it.

    Besides security, Pakistan is being plagued by other problems as well. There have been severe shortages of flour, which affects the common man the most. The situation was so grave that the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid), which had been administering Pakistan for the last five years, did not hesitate to distance itself from the interim administration and blamed it for the shortages. Similarly Pakistan, which at one stage had surplus power, is facing acute power shortages and had to resort to forcible closure of some industries to conserve power. Even now most of the industries including steel mills are getting power for only 10 to 14 hours a day, resulting in enormous financial losses. Some industries have become bankrupt and have closed permanently.

    In the political arena, Musharraf is losing support with each passing day and is undoubtedly amongst the most unpopular leaders in the world today. Despite having the firm support of the higher Army leadership, his position is becoming untenable. Recent statements by a large number of retired defence officers point towards an anti-Musharraf undercurrent within the Army, especially amongst the rank and file. Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has deprived the state of an option to make a smooth transition to a somewhat democratic and moderate state. Benazir had been brought back at the behest of the United States by issuing a National Reconciliation Ordinance, which gave her immunity from prosecution for all the acts of omission and commission committed during her two tenures as Prime Minister. The United States believed that her presence in Pakistan will help to channel popular opposition to the regime through her party, which had hitherto been resulting in support for religious forces in the absence of both Benazir and Nawaz Sharif.

    Benazir’s exit has created a major problem for the US-sponsored plan for a democratic transition. If the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had decided to boycott the elections and gone along with the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML(N)), it would have created an even bigger problem for Musharraf and the state of Pakistan. But the PPP’s decision to participate in the elections has salvaged the situation somewhat. It has not only forced PML (N) to participate in the elections but has also given the state a chance to facilitate a smooth transition to democracy. However, at the moment, it does not appear that elections will be totally free and fair. The extent of rigging will decide the eventual outcome and credibility of the elections. Radical elements will gain further ground if the public does not perceive the elections as credible.

    The ascendance of radical elements at this juncture will have a catastrophic effect on the global war on terror, especially in light of the fact that the possibility of these elements gaining some sort of access to Pakistan’s nuclear establishment cannot be totally ruled out. The international community needs to ensure the security of Pakistan’s stockpile of radioactive material to prevent it being used in a ‘dirty bomb’. It also needs to prevent Pakistan’s radicalisation by pressurising Musharraf to usher in a genuine democratic and federal structure in Pakistan. At present, the Pakistani establishment appears to be trying to buy peace by appeasing the militants and as part of its policy is trying to promulgate Shariah Regulations in seven districts of NWFP, namely, Dir Upper, Dir Lower, Swat, Shangla, Buner, Malakand and Chitral. But appeasement will only help to foster greater radicalisation in long term, as was clearly evident in the case of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad and Swat Valley, where ignoring of fundamentalist sermons being broadcast through FM radio proved catastrophic subsequently. The situation in Pakistan appears to be grave and requires drastic measures from the state and the international community to prevent further deterioration.