Pakistan’s war within

October 25, 2009

A spate of gun and bomb attacks seen as a response to the Pakistan Army’s offensive in South Waziristan has sent jitters across Pakistan, including in the normally peaceful capital Islamabad

Conventional wisdom would have it that the attacks on both security services and civilians would eventually turn the people against Islamist militants rather as happened in Iraq at the height of the violence there. But as yet, there is no sign of a clear and coherent leadership emerging that might be able to forge a consensus against the militants.

“Where are you, our leaders?” asks Cyril Almeida in a column in Dawn newspaper. “As the country burns, parents agonise over whether to send their children to school or not, offices of businesses local and foreign ramp up their security measures, the average citizen thinks twice before venturing into crowded locales or government buildings, a simple question for our leaders: where are you? Where are you, President Zardari? Where are you, Prime Minister Gilani? Where are you, Nawaz Sharif?”

“The limitations of our political class are well known,” he writes. “Our politicians are venal, corrupt and weak. We have to muddle through with them because they are all we have. Expecting statesmanship is futile. But as the country burns and the people cower in fear, we must ask: for the love of God and all things that can be good, can they not for once, if only for a little while, stand up and be counted?”

In a country given to conspiracy theories, the attacks are feeding a rumour mill in which everyone talks about who will be targeted next, writes Fatima Bhutto, the estranged niece of the late Benazir Bhutto.

“There are stories being whispered in Pakistan these days, and their veracity is hard to gauge,” she writes. “No one knows what is real anymore in this country that seems hell-bent on self-destruction. In fact, our chief industry now seems to be the manufacture of fear, and everyone’s on the assembly line. The combination of ever-present violence and lack of reliable information has made us a country of debilitating Chinese whispers.” 

And unlike Iraq, where al Qaeda was largely seen as an outside force, those behind the spate of attacks are from within Pakistan, often from its heartland Punjab province. They spent decades being told, with official sanction, that they were fighting a noble cause, first against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during its 1979-1989 occupation and then against India in Kashmir, only to see the state turn against them.

In Iraq too, the United States skilfully used the power of American money to buy off local Sunni leaders to fight against al Qaeda. In Pakistan the power of American money is working against it, thanks to an uproar over U.S. plans to triple aid to the country, which are seen as carrying conditions which impinge on its sovereignty. 

No matter how much U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke might insist that there are no conditions attached to the American aid, and that U.S. intentions have been misrepresented, the perception lingers that the United States is using its money to threaten, rather than help, Pakistan. And that is a perception that can be exploited by militant groups keen to convince their followers that they alone will stand up to the United States.

The jihadica website says that the row over the Kerry-Lugar Bill, along with persistent rumours – denied by the government – of U.S. security company Blackwater expanding its operations in Pakistan – are recurring themes in Urdu-language jihadi literature.

“Militant scribes are chipping in on the hot topics of mainstream Pakistani media, dangerously aligning their grievances with those of the public – specifically, the latter’s anti-U.S. sentiments,” it says. ”While opinion may be torn on the use of military operations in Pakistan, Pakistanis from all walks of life appear united in perceiving the U.S. as an enemy.”

“So, what is to be done?” asks Pakistan’s News International.  ”We cannot obviously sit back and let our country be destroyed. Far more radical and more far-reaching steps are needed if the problem is to be overcome. The public needs to be involved to a larger extent in the effort against terrorism. This after all is a battle that has an impact on the life of every citizen – man, woman or child. The suicide bombers who strike so frequently have parents, siblings and other relatives somewhere. These people must play a part in stopping them. So too must their neighbours and others aware of the places where they are being trained and prepared for their missions.”

But in a country divided upon itself, who will lead that drive forwards?

(Reuters photos: the grave of a 19-year-old girl killed in an attack on Islamabad University; a child at the grave of Benazir Bhutto)

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