Chilling strike leaves a nation out in the cold

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The Independent Online

They have assassinated a former prime minister, destroyed an iconic symbol of the country's establishment and hit out lethally at a soft but "spectacular" target in neighbouring India. Now Pakistan's militants – if, indeed, this proves to have been their deadly work – have ripped at another of the threads of the country's fabric and in doing so shaken the entire nation and beyond.

That international cricket will not played in Pakistan for some time to come is the least important consequence of yesterday's attack on the Sri Lankan team. The nature of the strike, the increasingly sophisticated tactics of the militants and the inability of the authorities to halt them pushes the country ever closer to the brink.

The problems confronting this nuclear-armed nation are many and immediate. The beleaguered economy is kept afloat only because of a loan from the IMF, Islamist Taliban fighters are in control of large swathes of the border region, there are shortages of food and electricity and the nation remains in a diplomatic stand-off with India, having been accused and condemned over last November's Mumbai attacks.

The response to these problems from the fragile civilian authorities headed by President Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) he inherited from his murdered wife, Benazir Bhutto, has been inadequate and misguided.

Perhaps it has felt hemmed in by the military, for now standing aside from politics but still a constant presence. But rather than seizing on the goodwill that existed in the aftermath of last year's elections which saw Mr Zardari's party form the government, the PPP has indulged in political warfare with old rivals. Only last week, Shehbaz Sharif, the brother of former premier Nawaz Sharif and the chief minister of the country's largest province, Punjab, was forced to stand down after the Supreme Court ruled his election last year was invalid. Few believe the ruling was not a politically motivated attack on Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), despite Mr Zardari's protestations.

Why Mr Zardari should be acting in this manner – so clumsily, so ineptly – is unclear, as he must realise there are so many more pressing priorities. His own wife narrowly escaped an assassination attempt on her return to Pakistan in October 2007, only to be killed two months later. Since then the security situation has worsened. Yesterday's attack was just the latest entry in a bulging logbook of extremist violence that has included countless suicide bombings, the destruction of the Marriott Hotel in Mumbai, the kidnap and murder of foreign officials and an assassination attempt on the Prime Minister, Yousaf Gilani. Just last month, the government was forced to locally introduce Sharia law to secure a ceasefire with extremists who had swept across the former tourist haven of the Swat Valley, setting fire to girls' schools and beheading dissenters.

Yet it is a telling insight into the mindset and culture in Pakistan that many remain in denial about the genesis of its problems. The country's Minister of State for Shipping, Sardar Nabil Ahmed Gabol, was only the highest ranking person to accuse India yesterday of orchestrating the attacks in Lahore. Indeed, as a friend in Karachi told me last night: "People are very shocked by this incident. But everyone is blaming India, they say it was carried out by RAW (India's external security organisation). They are saying it was revenge for Mumbai."

Despite this, many in Pakistan, a nation where, like India, dusty scraps of land in cities and villages are usually filled with gleeful children playing cricket, will feel this attack as acutely as anything that has gone before. "Pakistan will again be in the dog-house," sighed political analyst, Rasul Bakhsh Rais. "It will be said that Pakistan cannot even handle the situation when friendly cricketers come to play. And Sri Lanka was the only country prepared to send its team. (Australia and India had recently cancelled trips). It was a political decision by Sri Lanka to make Pakistan feel less isolated."

From a geopolitical perspective, it is a twisted blessing that it was Sri Lanka's cricketers and not those of India that were attacked yesterday. Had it been Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni who came under fire, it is terrifying to think how Delhi may have responded and the subsequent reaction that it may have triggered.

Even as it is, this brazen attack can only make Pakistan more isolated – politically, economically and culturally. The country's stock market fell on the news, and no wonder. Who now would invest in Pakistan? Who now would visit the Swat valley, who would not think twice before visiting even Lahore? And who would believe the politicians in Islamabad when they say they are doing everything in their power to confront this menace, experienced on a daily basis by the people of Pakistan? It is they, and not visiting cricketers, who are suffering the most.