Pakistan locked into a tragic cycle of violence

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The Independent Online
IT IS more an eyesore than a school. In this ostentatious middle- class suburb of Islamabad, where the concrete villas are clad in fancy tiles, sits a huddle of half-finished structures separated by a stretch of mud.

There is a mosque of rude cement, a hovel of whitewashed brick In the dormitory two small children doze under quilts. In the crude, pitch-dark kitchen, older boys squat in the dirt to prepare the lentil curry that will end the day's fast.

This primitive school represents the most pressing problem for Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. It is an Islamic fundamentalist school, and there are 25,000 like it across the country. It is poverty stricken, because this and previous governments have done everything they could to cut its sources of funding.

Its headteacher, in long black robes and with a sweeping beard, disavows any involvement in politics; but he is an active member of an extreme Islamist party, the Jamiyat Ulema Islam. And it is the country boys graduating from schools like these who go on to become the footsoldiers of Afghanistan's Taliban and their ultra-violent equivalents in Pakistan, notably the Sipa Sahaba Pakistan - the group held responsible for shooting 18 Shia Muslims dead in a mosque in central Pakistan last week.

Pakistan is locked in a cycle of violence. Karachi is the notorious case, where descendants of migrants from India have shoot-outs on a daily basis. But, thanks to the Afghan war, the whole country is saturated with weapons and bloody mayhem is all too common.

In normal times, Mr Sharif might manage to live with violence at this level. It is, after all, restricted to professional terrorists: in the long attrition between Sunni and Shia terrorists, sparked by the Islamic revolution in Iran, each massacre has been followed by predictions that the communities would take up arms against each other - but it has never happened.

But these are not normal times. When Mr Sharif ordered Pakistan's nuclear tests in May, he set a clock ticking towards economic disaster. This was clearly understood at the time, because of the predictable effects of sanctions and the low level of foreign reserves. But he went ahead with the tests.

He then pushed the hands of the clock further towards midnight when he initiated aggressive action against Hudco, a London-based power company which owns and runs the biggest private power plant in the country. Claiming that the company was guilty of corruption in its dealings with the government of his predecessor, Benazir Bhutto, he raided its offices and had arrest warrants issued for its executives. A better way of scaring off foreign investors is hard to imagine.

Foreign business continues to fight shy of the country, and one compelling reason is law and order. Moeen Qureshi, a former caretaker prime minister now in business in Washington DC, said this was a "very serious" situation. "How many factories in Karachi stay in operation for the whole month? You will find all of them remain closed for one-third of the time [due to large-scale extortion]... the problem is spreading in the interior of the country as well."

It was in October that Mr Sharif first indicated his determination to tackle the problem when he severed his party's ties with its ally Mohajir Qaumi Movement, which is both the dominant political party in Karachi and the city's main terrorist organisation. He clamped martial law on the city, and set up special military courts to try those accused of terrorist crimes. The first two men to be sentenced to death by the courts were hanged last week.

The approach was draconian, but many believe it was long overdue. Mr Sharif's harsh action may be a first step towards restoring government control.

But last week's atrocities - the massacre in the mosque and the bridge bomb two days earlier that was believed to be an assassination attempt on Mr Sharif but killed four others - are seen by some as a sign that the war against the terrorists is not going to be won easily.

Pakistan's hope of braving the present economic storm depends substantially on Mr Sharif holding his nerve. If his courage fails and the terrorists regain the upper hand, it is likely a means will be found to remove the government. If law and order improves, bringing signs of an economic spring, he may become the first Pakistani prime minister since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to serve his full term.

n After months of deepening gloom following the two countries' nuclear tests, a chink of light entered Indo-Pakistani relations yesterday when the first bus from India since partition arrived in Pakistan's city of Lahore.

Agreement to inaugurate a regular bus service between Delhi and Lahore was practically the only positive outcome of recent talks between the two old enemies, which have fought three bitter wars in the past 50 years. Threats by Shiv Sena, the Bombay-based Hindu extremists, to disrupt the service "by all possible means, including violence," failed to materialise.