For those used to thinking of Pakistan as the confluence of the three ‘A’s — Allah, Army and America — this is crunch time, since the Army and America are now pitted against each other as never before. And the forces who act in the name of Allah have made known their own intentions by blowing up parts of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad — signalling once more that the Pakistani state is not in control of the war with terrorists. In a three-way face-off, with the army watching as civilian rulers grapple with the situation, Pakistan’s future direction is about to be set.
Beginning earlier this month, the US has launched several attacks on suspected al-Qaeda/Taliban militants on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan — without informing the Pakistanis, since the Americans believe that the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) wing could tip off the Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. Till this new phase, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the US had chosen to go along with Pakistan since it believed the army was in control. On its part, Pakistan under General Musharraf played a careful double-game, not realising that the sword that they were playing with could cut both ways. Indeed, the cross-border attacks on US troops in eastern Afghanistan are being linked to Pakistan shielding Afghan Taliban forces in exchange for promises that they will not attack Pakistani institutions.
The compact between the army and the forces of Allah came apart with the army’s storming of the Lal Masjid to rid it of terrorists in mid-2007, but that had led to a rush of suicide bombings across the country which claimed more than 700 Pakistani lives. The near-fatal attacks on General Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto’s murder, and now the Marriott blast, all point to the same thing — the inability of the Pakistan state to deal with terrorism. What complicates matters is the rift within the democratic forces on how to deal with the problem. While everyone opposes US forces openly operating on Pakistani terrain, President Zardari is adopting a tough line on the militants while Nawaz Sharief, his former partner in the government, favours negotiation and a softer approach.
Will the army, which so far has concentrated on the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan under Baitullah Mehsud — believed to be responsible for the Benazir assassination and the attacks within Pakistan — now try more single-mindedly to contain the Afghan Taliban? Many suggest that the US and Pakistan will reach a modus vivendi since both sides are dependent upon each other. If Pakistan needs US aid to ensure that its economy remains afloat, the Nato forces in Afghanistan get most of their supplies through Pakistan. The agreement suggested is one that allows the US to use ground forces, but not in areas where Pakistani troops are present. But such an arrangement is fragile, and a face-off between the army, the US and the Taliban is almost certain. All right-thinking Pakistanis should worry about the direction in which their country is headed.
As for India, what does the situation offer? At one level, if greater Pakistani attention is focused on the Frontier and Tribal Areas, it might keep Islamabad busy and therefore come in the way of its meddling in the Kashmir valley or smuggling militants across the Line of Control. In the long run, however, an unstable Pakistan and an uncontained Taliban constitute a serious security issue.