ISLAMABAD — Five years after democratic rule was restored in Pakistan, the country is still without a policy to confront its huge terrorism problem, leaving this nuclear-armed country vulnerable to ever more punishing bloodshed.
The civilian government seems all but certain to complete its term in office next week – the first time in Pakistani history that that’s happened. But there’s still no consensus on how to deal with terrorist attacks, which take a nearly daily toll.
The bombing of a residential street last weekend in Karachi, the country’s biggest city, killed at least 50 people and injured well over 100. But instead of statements of unity against the attack, which targeted the country’s minority Shiite Muslim community, the result was political discord, with politicians blaming each other for the terrorism menace.
And many are anticipating more mayhem, even as the government marks a moment unprecedented in Pakistan – the completion of a civilian government’s term in office, without a military coup – on March 16. Yet the election campaign that milestone ushers in – elections are likely in May – is expected to be violent and chaotic.
In a country with a poisonous history of civilian-military relations, the military blames the lack of political consensus on terrorism for its inability to take action against extremists, while politicians suspect that the armed forces continue to see value in working with some militant Islamist groups.
There is a heavy doze of cynicism. Every major political party already has backed unconditional peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, an al Qaida-linked group that works closely with the sectarian outfit likely to have carried out the attack in Karachi. Privately, military officials, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, regard the politicians’ desire for talks with the Pakistani Taliban as an ill-considered attempt to prevent their candidates from coming under attack in the election campaign.
Analysts say the broad failing to confront terrorism head on simply means that bombings, attempted assassinations and mayhem will continue – even as a democratic transition takes place.
“The courts have failed to convict terrorists, the police have failed to prevent attacks, the intelligence services have failed to pre-empt attacks, the military has failed to see through a counterinsurgency strategy, the politicians have failed to lead on this,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, an analyst who was formerly a senior government adviser.
“There’s no end in sight to this problem because there’s no leadership.”
Events like the three bombings this year against Pakistan’s Shiites, which claimed at least 250 lives, and last year’s shooting by the Pakistani Taliban of a schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, because she campaigned for education for girls, has brought public revulsion but no mass movement against the violence.
Military operations are piecemeal and have not tackled the region of North Waziristan, where domestic and international extremist groups are based.
The dysfunction of the state is such that the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, led by President Asif Zardari, admits that it has not been able to bring to justice the conspirators behind the assassination of its former leader and Zardari’s wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was killed by a suicide bomber in December 2007.
Some analysts suggest that Pakistan’s military, which has a long history of working with Islamist groups as proxy warriors in both Afghanistan and India, is simply biding its time until 2014, when U.S. and NATO soldiers are scheduled to leave neighboring Afghanistan.
“We are keeping the militants in a holding pattern,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, author of “Military Inc.,” a book on the Pakistani army. “The idea is that once we reach 2014, the bulk of those creating problems in Pakistan can be pushed into Afghanistan, and then it will be calmer here.”
With U.S-led combat forces out of Afghanistan, the way will be open for Afghan insurgents based in Pakistan to return to their country, either by retaking Afghanistan by force or as part of a political settlement. The leadership of the Afghan Taliban and its allied Haqqani Network enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan.
Many Pakistanis also have fought in Afghanistan over the last 30 years – against the Soviet occupation, the subsequent civil war that led to the Taliban government, and against the Americans in the post-9/11 conflict.
For those who return to Pakistan after fighting in Afghanistan, there is no program for reintegrating them back into society as peaceful citizens. They are so numerous that police refer to them as “ATBs,” or Afghan Trained Boys.
In September last year, Tariq Khosa, formerly head of the Federal Investigation Agency, a civilian law enforcement organization, told a parliamentary committee that an estimated 25,000 young men who had been trained in Afghanistan were living in Punjab province alone, Pakistan’s most stable and prosperous region, which lies across the other side of the country from the Afghan border.
Meanwhile, there’s much to suggest that the country’s political classes tolerate the presence of extremists.
The group likely responsible for the carnage in Karachi on Sunday, where a car bomb ripped the face off two apartment blocks, is Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, though it has yet to claim credit. The group previously has said it was responsible for two massive bombings in the western city of Quetta this year that also hit that city’s Shiite population.
Yet its political wing, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, remains part of mainstream politics. Its leaders enjoy armed police protection – a McClatchy reporter witnessed in November a police escort given to the party’s Karachi chief, Aurangzeb Farooqi.
Karachi’s biggest political party, the avowedly secular Muttahida Qaumi Movement, recently held talks with Farooqi. In Punjab, the political party that rules the government, Pakistan Muslim League-N, has reportedly negotiated with Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat about an alliance for the upcoming election. Pakistan Muslim League-N is likely to lead the country’s next coalition government, if polls turn out to be accurate.
The Karachi attack brought out naked electioneering and political stunts. Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party blamed the provincial government of Punjab for harboring Laskhar-e-Jhangvi. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement meanwhile blamed the government in Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, for inaction. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement was part of the Sindh government until last month.
Such political rancor in the face of attacks that kill dozens leaves many disheartened.
“Politicians have failed. The government has failed,” said Raja Nasir Abbas, a leader of Pakistan’s Shiite community.
He sees more violence as likely. “Either the army should come in or our people will take up arms themselves, to save Pakistan,” he said.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.