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Pakistan Can No Longer Control Its Monster

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Hours before Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng landed in Islamabad for an event marking a decade of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), another reminder came about the perpetual abyss that Pakistan has been staring at for the past several years. At least 45 people were killed and more than 200 injured in a suicide bombing at a political rally earlier this week.

The rally was called by the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) in the tribal district of Bajaur, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, near the border with Afghanistan. JUI-F is part of the governing coalition in Pakistan, the Pakistan Democratic Alliance, and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif underlined his government’s commitment to eliminate terrorists “from the face of existence” as they have “targeted those who speak for Islam, the Quran and Pakistan”.

While the Pakistan Taliban, or TTP, have been carrying out a spate of attacks across the country after ending their cease-fire with the Pakistani government in November, they were quick to respond after the latest attack and said it was aimed at setting Islamists against each other. The Afghan Taliban also criticised the bombing. It is the Islamic State Khorasan in Pakistan (ISKP) that finally took the responsibility for the attack, which it said was part of an “ongoing war against democracy.” The ISKP has been quite active in the region and has targeted JUI-F’s officials in the past.

The challenges are mounting for Pakistan on multiple fronts and the latest attack, one of the worst in northwestern Pakistan since 2014, underscores that the country that was quite blasé about using terrorism as an instrument of state policy in the past is today struggling to confront a rising terrorism challenge. Pakistan’s state institutions, be it the military or the government, do not seem capable of managing internal security threats.

At a time when the economic situation in Pakistan remains precarious, this state weakness can be particularly damaging. While China has helped Pakistan in avoiding its debt default, a Pakistan perpetually on the brink is not a healthy sign for the China-Pakistan partnership. In his message to celebrate a decade of CPEC, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “No matter how the international landscape may change, China will always stand firmly with Pakistan.” While he suggested that the project is a “vivid testament to the all-weather friendship between China and Pakistan”, and provides “an important underpinning for building an even closer China-Pakistan community with a shared future in the new era,” it has been clear for quite some time that the internal security challenge facing Pakistan is also impacting the pace of CPEC. In fact, there has been hardly any movement on various projects over the last few years.

The northwestern region of Pakistan has been opposing CPEC, with Chinese nationals also targeted in recent years. In an attempt to deflect responsibility, Pakistani authorities have been blaming Afghanistan and its Taliban regime for providing safe havens to insurgents targeting their country. This is a remarkable turnaround for a nation that has been at the forefront of exporting terrorism to its neighbouring states. Pakistan’s ties with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan have also suffered because of this challenge.

The visit by Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng saw Pakistan and China sign six more pacts to enhance cooperation and to give a new momentum to CPEC projects. In the absence of state capacity in Pakistan to tackle internal security challenges more effectively, how the signing of new pacts helps the CPEC is anybody’s guess. However, Beijing has also been asking Islamabad directly to protect its nationals and assets, which have been repeatedly targeted by the insurgents.

The absence of political consensus in the country at a critical moment remains Pakistan’s biggest vulnerability. Political polarisation has made it almost impossible for Pakistan’s security establishment to forge a national approach on countering terrorism. The lack of effective domestic governance by the ruling coalition has engendered widespread disenchantment, especially among the youth, making them gravitate towards extremist ideologies and tactics.

For the Pakistani military intelligence complex, the assets that they thought could be used effectively against external actors are now effectively targeting their own. The Frankenstein’s monster can no longer be managed, let alone controlled. Pakistan is lurching from one crisis to another with no sense of direction and the political elite seems clueless about getting the nation back on track. If during the Cold War, it was the US that was viewed by Islamabad as the last report option, it is China that has taken on the mantle today. A nation that at one time dreamt of challenging India for regional leadership today finds itself at the margins of regional development discourse. Globally, the interest in Pakistan is at its minimum, further aggravating the challenge for the crisis-infected nation to get its act together. With the impending general elections in Pakistan, the security situation is only likely to deteriorate. India and the world should be prepared for the worst.

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