Pakistan’s civil society is gradually being torn apart by radical extremism and sectarian violence and its powerful army seems incapable of stemming the rot. The daring attack by terrorists of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on the naval aviation base at Mehran, Karachi is the latest case in point. The hypothesis that Pakistan’s nuclear warheads may fall into Jihadi hands has once again gained currency.
Pakistan has been besieged by creeping Talibanization. Ground attack fighter aircraft, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery had to be used in 2007-08 to liberate the Swat Valley and Buner from the Sharia rule imposed by Maulana Fazlullah‘s militants. It took major military operations and large-scale army casualties to drive TTP extremists out of South Waziristan in 2009. Though TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone strike, the extremists simply moved into North Waziristan and still operate from there. The Army HQ at Rawalpindi and ISI headquarters in Lahore have been successfully attacked by the Taliban in league with al-Qaeda. Bomb blasts in Peshawar and elsewhere are a daily occurrence. Bahawalpur in south Punjab has become a hub for ideological indoctrination.
The Pakistan army and its rogue intelligence agency, the ISI, are having a tough time living up to their carefully cultivated hype as the self-appointed ‘defenders of the faith’ and the custodians of Pakistan’s ‘ideological frontiers’. The rank and file supports the Taliban cause and is unwilling to forgive the generals for allying with the U.S. in its war on terror. The troops are reluctant to operate against fellow Sunni Muslims. The Pushtuns, in particular, are unwilling to fight fellow Pushtuns. In 2007, an army company surrendered to the Taliban. Desertions are commonplace; cases of fratricide are often reported and many weapons have been lost to the Taliban. Apprehensions have been expressed about the radicalization of the officer cadre. Nearly six army divisions are employed in counter-insurgency operations in the Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa and FATA areas but progress in eliminating the Taliban has been painfully slow.
Despite being in tight spot, the Pakistan army and ISI continue to make facetious distinctions between the good Taliban—’strategic’ assets for employment against India and in Afghanistan—and bad Taliban. Their support for the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed is undiminished. In Afghanistan they are running with the hares and hunting with the hounds and are still looking for strategic depth. If Pakistan has earned the dubious distinction of having become the epicentre of fundamentalist terrorism, it is because the army and ISI, driven by their hatred for India, have blundered so badly.
The worst case scenario for Pakistan over the next two to three years will be a Jihadi-led coup from within the army. Radicalized officers owing allegiance to the TTP variety of Taliban could come to power. The probability of this is low but the steady deterioration in the security situation and the army’s unwillingness and inability to fight the scourge of Talibanization means the possibility cannot be ruled out. In such a nightmarish scenario, with near civil war conditions prevailing, nuclear weapons may actually be used against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan and targets in India. This would mean a holocaust on the Indian subcontinent.
It is time the international community seriously considered neutralizing Pakistan’s nuclear warhead storage sites and the delivery systems. It would be in India’s interest to join such an initiative. India should be prepared to provide military assistance, including direct intervention. The U.S. must lead the international community in efforts to convince General Kayani that the only way forward is to launch determined counter-terrorism operations to weed out the TTP, LeT, JeM and other terrorist groups that have enjoyed state patronage. The consequences of not doing so are too horrendous to contemplate.