Pakistan-despite failed NY attack, change will be slow in coming

May 6, 2010

karachiAfter the media frenzy following last weekend’s failed car bomb attack on Times Square, you would be forgiven for thinking that something dramatic is about to change in Pakistan. The reality, however, is probably going to be much greyer.

Much attention has naturally focused on North Waziristan, a bastion for al Qaeda, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Afghan fighters including those in the Haqqani network, and the so-called “Punjabi Taliban” - militants from Punjab-based groups who have joined the battle either in Afghanistan or against the Pakistani state.  The Pakistan Army is expected to come under fresh pressure to launch an offensive in North Waziristan after Faisal Shahzad, who according to U.S. authorities admitted to the failed car-bombing in Times Square, said he had received training in Waziristan. Unlike other parts of the tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghan border, North Waziristan has so far been left largely alone.

But it is by no means clear that the Pakistan Army will be rushed into launching a big offensive in North Waziristan.  It is already stretched fighting in other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), including in South Waziristan, where it embarked on a major operation last year.  Before starting any new offensive, it needs to be sure it is not going to be attacked from the rear, or become so thinly stretched that it loses hard-fought gains elsewhere.  As one senior military official told me, you have to be very sure-footed, consolidate your gains, and make sure your bases are secure.

That said, even before the failed Times Square attack, the New York Times suggested Pakistan was beginning to weigh the possibility of tackling militants in North Waziristan.  But its decision on timing is unlikely to be dictated by one incident, however dramatic. The Pakistan Army has put considerable energy into improving its image after the tarnishing of the Musharraf years, and is determined to show that when it does launch military offensives, it does so to win. And if there is one thing worse than not going into North Waziristan, it is going in there and losing.

Increased drone missile attacks on targets in North Waziristan are another option. But for drone missile strikes to be successful - taking out militant targets while limiting the civilian deaths which make them so unpopular in Pakistan - you need good intelligence on the ground. The killing in North Waziristan last month of former Pakistan intelligence officer Khalid Khawaja, who reportedly had strong contacts with al Qaeda and the Taliban,  leaves a question mark over whether anyone now has really good intelligence on what is happening there.

Meanwhile, uncertainty over the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is not helping – you can already hear Pakistan Army officers wondering aloud why Pakistan is driving militants out of its tribal areas only for them to escape across the border to live to fight another day. 

Nor are tentative peace talks with India likely to lead to a sudden change in Pakistan’s military posture, under which it keeps the bulk of its army on the Indian border.  The Pakistan Army already moved a significant number of troops from its Indian border to fight Taliban militants on its Afghan border last year and is unlikely to redeploy more despite an easing of tensions with India – its army chief is reported to say that the military deals with capabilities rather than intentions.

Moreover, the talks are not expected to yield an early breakthrough on Kashmir, belying hopes the two countries might be able to find their way back to a  compromise roadmap for peace on Kashmir agreed with India by former president Pervez Musharraf.  Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi repeated this week that Pakistan is returning to its historical stand on Kashmir after “wavering” by the Musharraf government.

Beyond Pakistan’s tribal areas is a nexus of militant groups and militant sympathisers, any one of whom could have helped Faisal Shahzad find his way to Waziristan. And that too is unlikely to change soon.

Karachi is full of Pashtun labyrinthine no-go areas where even the police do not dare go.  As one Karachi-based senior journalist graphically put it, at the outer edges of these areas you can still buy CDs and Pashtun porn. Further in, are any number of places where Taliban commanders and other militants can hide.  Yet as is the case everywhere in South Asia, you can always find someone, who knows someone, who knows someone who will lead you to a militant commander if you really want to find them.

 So far it is unclear whether Shahzad was radicalised in the United States and followed that route through Karachi in search of training – if so, as Steve Coll suggests,  he might have been treated as a possible U.S. spy and given only rudimentary training – or whether Pakistan-based militant groups played a more active role in recruiting him. If it is the former, you are stuck with the problem of policing a country of 170 million people with a relatively weak police force. If it is the latter, you come back to the limitations of the North Waziristan offensive.

The country’s heartland Punjab province has long been a base for militant groups, some of whom were originally nurtured to fight India in Kashmir.  Among them, Jaish-e-Mohammed has been linked to Shahzad; while the Lashkar-e-Taiba was blamed by India for the Nov. 2008 attack on Mumbai. But Pakistan is reluctant to open a new front against militants in Punjab, with officials saying they  fear this may make the situation even more unstable by driving some groups together while also further splintering a militant movement whose fragmentation is making it harder and harder to control.

None of that means nothing will change in Pakistan. It just means that whatever happens will be slow, fragile and open to reversal.

Peace talks with India could ease tensions between the two countries over Afghanistan where both have competed for influence for decades. Over the very long haul, a peace agreement with its larger neighbour could help resolve an identity crisis which has gripped Pakistan since Muslim leaders of then British India insisted on creating their own nation in 1947 hoping to build a state which would offer peace, security and democratic rights  to the people of the minority religion of the subcontinent.

Pakistan has also begun a painful transition to democracy after years of on-again off-again military rule.  If the current civilian government serves out its full term and then is replaced by another civilian government in a democratic election, it will be the first time in Pakistan’s history that this has happened.

It is also a country which historically has had a tendency to be heavily affected by external events, not just limited to its immediate neighbourhood, although these have been dramatic, particularly after the Islamic Revolution in neighbouring Iran in 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan later that year.  As a Muslim country, popular sentiment in Pakistan is also strongly influenced by less proximate developments like the situation in Iraq and the Middle East.  So what happens in Afghanistan will be a crucial, but not the only, factor in determining what happens in the months and years to come in Pakistan.

What does seem unlikely is that a country which has been wrestling with many contradictory currents for more than 60 years will change overnight in a way which will make the people of the United States less jumpy whenever they see an SUV parked in a crowded place without a driver.

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