Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Pakistan declares: 'We are at war.'

I watched Channel Four News last night with my mouth agape as a spokesman for the government of Pakistan attempted to claim that the Sri Lanken cricket team had been given "presidential security".

The president of Pakistan is not very secure at all if a dozen gunmen can get that near him and cause the chaos and destruction which was visited upon the Sri Lankan cricket team.

The spectacular military-style raid in Lahore bore marked similarities to the assault in Mumbai last year, which left 172 people dead. Pakistani officials suggested the Islamist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for the carnage in the Indian city, also carried out the attack in Lahore.

What happened yesterday is certain to stop sports teams from abroad visiting Pakistan for the foreseeable future and deals a grave blow to the country's plans to host the World Cup in 2011. It also highlights how security is disintegrating, with the civilian government seemingly unable to cope with the tide of violence unleashed by militants.

This should be a worry to all of us. The government in Pakistan doesn't appear to have control and the militant groups are certainly behaving as if they are feeling more emboldened by the day.

Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari, said he "strongly condemned" the attack and pledged that those responsible would be caught. Rehman Malik, the Interior Minister, said the country was in a "state of war... Be patient, we will flush all these terrorists out of the country".

Salmaan Taseer, the Punjab province's Governor, said: "It was the same terrorists who attacked Mumbai. It was the same pattern, the kind of weaponry they had, the way they attacked, they were obviously trained." He added that the gunmen had been chased into a nearby shopping area after the attack where police had lost track of them. The province's police chief, Khawaja Farooq, said "some" arrests had been made but refused to say whether they included any of those who had taken part in the attack.

Obama has, rightly, addressed Pakistan as a major concern and highlighted the fact that we need to proceed with great sensitivity and care when addressing the issues in Pakistan, but we do urgently need to engage there.

The problem is that much of the populace are against the idea that the Pakistan government should take on al Qaeda:

Just 44 percent of urban Pakistanis favor sending the Pakistani army to the Northwestern tribal areas to "pursue and capture al Qaeda fighters." Only 48 percent would allow the Pakistan army to act against "Taliban insurgents who have crossed over from Afghanistan." In both cases, about a third oppose such military action and a fifth decline to answer. The poll was conducted by in collaboration with, and with financial support from, the U.S. Institute of Peace.

PakAlQaeda_Oct07_graph1.jpgPakistanis reject overwhelmingly the idea of permitting foreign troops to attack al Qaeda on Pakistani territory. Four out of five (80%) say their government should not allow American or other foreign troops to enter Pakistan to pursue and capture al Qaeda fighters. Three out of four (77%) oppose allowing foreign troops to attack Taliban insurgents based in Pakistan.

This leaves Asif Ali Zardari in a precarious position.

If he continues to pursue al Qaeda, then there is every chance that the army will turn on him, and that another coup will take place.

But the situation can't be left as it is where gunmen can roam the streets attacking visiting cricket teams. I actually think that Zardari might, at this moment, have some wriggle room as I am sure most Pakistanis recognise the damage which will have been done to their international reputation by this attack. And, indeed, to their chances of being able to hold the World Cup in 2011.

Cricket is their national sport, but even they must recognise that no cricketing teams will be visiting Pakistan for a long time after what took place yesterday.

Perhaps this might give Zardari the room he needs to act.

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