By targeting the Sri Lankan cricket team in the heart of Lahore, Pakistani militants have crossed yet another Red Line. The masked men who killed eight people and injured six cricketers were well-trained terrorists armed with rocket launchers, grenades and automatic weapons. The fact that they engaged the police in 25-minute gunbattle and escaped only proves their professional prowess. The swagger with which they walked away points to their self-confidence.
They clearly didn't target the cricket team because they don't have anything in particular against Sri Lanka. We still don't know the attackers' identity, but they could be one or a combination of different jihadi groups, from Al Qaeda's Afghan offshoots, to Behtullah Mehsud's Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Tayiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. These organisations form a continuum. There is currently a lot of flux between them.
Their motive seems to have been threefold. First, to produce mayhem and insecurity, and show that neither the police, nor ordinary Pakistani citizens, apolitical foreigners, are immune from jihadi depredations, and the government is powerless. Secondly, they wanted to show they haven't been subdued by the recent arrests in Pakistan for the Mumbai attacks and pursuit of legal cases against the LeT militants. They can repeat a mini-Mumbai in Pakistan too.
Last but not least, the attackers wanted to send a signal of bellicose defiance to coincide with the India-Pakistan visit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation chief Robert Mueller. The FBI has collaborated with Indian agencies in investigating the Mumbai attacks. It has reportedly collected strong evidence against the LeT, and its personnel might stand witness in the Mumbai case. An FBI team has been camping in Pakistan to interrogate Zarar Shah and Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, the Mumbai attacks' alleged masterminds.
Lahore's message to the FBI, and the larger world, is to lay off, if not drop the investigation altogether, and concede that Taliban-style militancy has come to stay in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Under its sway, what recently happened in Swat -- where a disgraceful deal to allow the imposition of the Shariah was negotiated -- can be repeated in Lahore, in the heart of Punjab. The fundamentalists are invincible.
The lesson is clear, unambiguous. The more you yield to the jihadis, the more emboldened they will become and come back for more. The Swat deal was, after all, signed by the North-West Frontier Province government, led by two secular parties, the Awami National Party and the Pakistan People's Party. It was the result of complete and utter desperation. Insecurity in Swat is so extreme that ANP leaders dare not step out of their homes or offices.
The plain truth is, the 20,000-strong troops of the Pakistan Army in the NWFP's Malakand division could not defeat the 3,000 militants of the TTP, which is closely aligned with the Afghan Taliban. Meanwhile, the ANP's strategy of countering the fundamentalist Islam of the mullahs of the Tehreek Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammedi with Pushtun nationalism came a cropper. The mullahs prevailed in imposing barbaric practices in the name of Islam and "traditional customs".
The writ of the State no longer runs in Malakand. The TTP and the TNSM under the leadership of Mullah Fazalullah (known as Mullah Radio) have overrun the Swat valley over the past year-and-a-half, closing down girls' schools, turning women into prisoners in their own homes, preventing men from shaving their beards, and generally terrorising a 1.5 million-strong population, causing 350,000 people to flee Swat.
Yet, the NWFP government dishonestly rationalises the deal with the TNSM as the sole means to restore "peace" in keeping with "the people's will".
Worse, senior federal officials including Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureishi have termed it "a local remedy for a local problem". Even PPP leader and Information Minister Sherry Rehman has rationalised the extension of the deal beyond Swat to the other five districts of Malakand.
The aggressive advance by the jihadis through their attack in Lahore coincides with the aggravation of multiple other crises in Pakistan. This includes a severe economic recession, inflation running at 25 percent, and foreign reserves plummeting to less than a month's imports; a massive crisis of governance, with insurgencies raging in volatile border provinces; and growing disintegration of State institutions.
The latest in this is the political crisis precipitated by the Supreme Court's judgment to disqualify former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, now-deposed Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, from holding public office or contesting elections. This has put Pakistan's two largest parties, the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, on a ruinous collision course.
The judgment has been widely condemned as a rigged verdict delivered by hand-picked judges appointed by President Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari has packed the Supreme Court and high courts with judges appointed under the Provisional Constitutional Order passed by former president Pervez Musharraf. The judges in the present case refused to answer the many arguments advanced for recusing themselves from the hearing. Even Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, of Zardari's PPP, regretted the verdict as unfortunate.
Zardari wants to control the Punjab and crush any challenge to the collusive National Reconciliation Ordinance which brought him to power after freeing him of corruption cases. He has shamefully betrayed his promise to restore dismissed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chowdhry, for whose reinstatement the Pakistani lawyers' movement is about to launch a mass agitation.
This is likely to lead to a confrontation between the government and the PML-N and other opposition parties. The confrontation potentially has grave consequences for Pakistan's stability, and for the always-precarious balance between military and civilian power.
However, it's not as if the army or the Inter Services Intelligence has a coherent strategy to deal with the biggest problem Pakistan faces, the rising tide of terrorism and religious extremism. The army has allowed the Afghan Taliban's Quetta Shura to flourish and provided sanctuary to its militants in the Pushtun areas at the border. But its calculation that it would achieve its objective of creating "strategic depth" in Afghanistan through Mullah Omar and still control the Pakistan jihadi militancy has gone awry. Benazir Bhutto's assassination, the Marriott Hotel attack, and the ghastly Lahore episode all bear testimony to this.
The plain truth is that the army is either unwilling, or worse, unable to throw its weight fully into the fight against the Taliban and contain the militancy within Pakistan. Nor is it really cooperating with the US-led forces in Afghanistan, which would help break the nexus between the Al Qaeda-Taliban in Afghanistan and the TTP-TNSM in Pakistan, now a deadly threat to its state. This has only aggravated the crisis of legitimacy of the army and the State.
With all its institutions in disarray, the Pakistani State is becoming dysfunctional and is unraveling. It may be too early to talk of Pakistan imploding, but power in Pakistan is increasingly fragmented and the State doesn't control large swathes of Pakistan' territory.
The commonest image of this phenomenon is that of the failed or failing State. Pakistan figures at rank nine in the Failed States Index compiled for 2008 by Foreign Policy magazine of the Fund for Peace, US. Somalia holds the first rank, Sudan the second, and Zimbabwe the third. Pakistan is just two ranks below Afghanistan, and marginally higher than war-ravaged Central African Republic and Guinea.
The index may not be perfect, but it's a good pointer. Twelve criteria are used to compile it, including the State's criminalisation and delegitimisation, progressive deterioration of public services, widespread human rights violations, "a State within a State" security apparatus, legacy of vengeance-seeking groups, the rise of factionalised elites, uneven economic development along group lines, sharp and/or severe economic decline, and movement of refugees and internally displaced persons, etc.
Pakistan scores badly on (8 or higher on a worsening scale of 10) on all but two of these criteria. This is a sure sign of Pakistan's slow unravelling. This will have dreadful consequences for the entire South Asian region, including Afghanistan. We cannot afford to be indifferent to this, nor react to Lahore by pointing fingers at India, as some Pakistani leaders did, nor adopt smug "we-told-you-so" postures, as India's Home Minister P Chidambaram did.
The US cannot sort out Pakistan, and shouldn't be trusted to. It has a myopic and parochial agenda -- witness its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 after creating the deadly mujahideen network there. Defence Secretary Robert Gates now says the US "would be very open" in Afghanistan to a Swat-style agreement with the Taliban. The strategy of a "troops surge", which President Barack Obama is keen on, coupled with appeasement/bribery of jihadis, is bad news.
The only sensible alternative is a regional approach to isolate the jihadis who menace all of South Asia. For this to materialise, the Pakistani State must summon up the will to crack down on and prosecute groups like LeT and their domestic and Afghan collaborators.
Lahore is the final wake-up call. It must be answered it before it's too late.