Pakistan stares into the abyss

A spiralling conflict, economic collapse and blackouts threaten anarchy

Pakistan was locked in crisis last night, with the government pressed by Washington to deepen its conflict with Islamic militants in the lawless regions on the Afghan border, and obliged to call in the International Monetary Fund to stave off financial catastrophe.

In the rugged north of the country, a major military offensive to root out Taliban militants has created a flood of up to 200,000 refugees and pitched Pakistani against Pakistani, Muslim against Muslim, in a conflict some are beginning to regard as a civil war.

A new US intelligence estimate meanwhile has warned that the renewed insurgency, coupled with energy shortages and political infighting, means that Pakistan, which is the only Muslim nation with nuclear weapons, is "on the edge".

"Pakistan is going through the worst crisis of its history," according to a leaked letter signed by the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the main opposition leader. It is a view shared by Imran Khan, another opposition leader, who says that the political and economic meltdown "is leading to a sort of anarchy in Pakistan".

"How does a country collapse?" the former cricketer asked. "There's increasing uncertainty, economic meltdown, more people on the street, inflation rising between 25 and 30 per cent. Then there's the rupee falling."

Pakistan is experiencing power cuts that have led to hourly blackouts, a doubling of basic food prices and a currency that has lost a third of its value in the past year. "The awful thing is there's no solution in sight – neither in the war on terror nor on the economic side," Mr Khan said during a visit to London. Heightening the sense of national emergency, the government yesterday turned to the International Monetary Fund for $15bn (£9.3bn) to cope with a balance of payments crisis caused by a flight of capital, after previously saying that applying to the IMF would be a last resort.

Almost every day there are retaliatory attacks against police and soldiers and Western targets. Hundreds of soldiers and an unknown number of civilians are losing their lives. The national parliament rejected the US influence on the government by adopting a resolution last night calling for an "independent" foreign policy and urging dialogue with the extremists.

The military operation against the so-called Pakistan Taliban is concentrated in the largely autonomous tribal areas that border Afghanistan. A total of 120,000 troops and paramilitary forces have been deployed against what senior officers say is a skilled and tenacious enemy. "They do not fight in one place, you cannot fight them in one place. It's basically guerrilla warfare," said Lt Col Haider Baseer, a military spokesman. "The area is mountainous, it's vast. And everybody carries a gun. It's the culture."

Long accused of failing to confront the militants, the military angrily points out that up to 1,500 soldiers and many more civilians have been killed in such operations since 2001. America has triggered national anger by dispatching troops from Afghanistan to attack a Pakistani village. At the same time, Pakistani officials point out that US and Nato forces in Afghanistan are looking to negotiate with the Taliban – something they have previously criticised Islamabad for doing.

Mr Khan claimed that the US-led "war on terror" had led to "approximately one million" men taking up arms in the tribal areas. "The total al-Qa'ida who were supposed to be in Pakistan were 800 to 1,200 people. This is the biggest gift of George Bush to al-Qa'ida, what he's done there," said Mr Khan. "It's like a factory of terror, it's producing terrorists, radicalising our society, pushing those people who had nothing to do with al-Qa'ida or Taliban into the arms of militancy and opposing the Americans and the Pakistan army," he said.

Although Mr Khan leads the marginal Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf – which boycotted the last election – his views carry weight because of the strong moral stand he has taken in support of an independent judiciary and against endemic corruption, according to Pakistani analysts.

This week, perhaps partly to try to smooth relations, Richard Boucher, the US Assistant Secretary of State, praised the current military operation, which is said to have killed up to 1,000 militants. "I think it is good Pakistan is taking serious military action against the terrorists," he told reporters during a trip to the country, during which he met the recently elected President, Asif Ali Zardari. But Mr Zardari's coalition government is weak and the civilian president is accused by critics such as Mr Khan of being a "puppet" of the Americans, as was his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.

Suicide bombs have become a near- daily occurrence. There have been more than 100 since July 2007, killing around 1,200 people. In 2006, there were just six such attacks. A report by the Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency suggested that in the first eight months of the year, more people were killed by suicide bombers in Pakistan than in Iraq or Afghanistan.

It remains unclear whether the army will continue to remain on the sidelines, as General Musharraf's successor as army chief-of-staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, has pledged to do. But the army could act as a power broker from behind the scenes.

"I have never known as much uncertainty as this," said Mr Khan, who is based in Lahore and is visiting his children who live with his former wife, Jemima Khan. The security risks are now so grave for Pakistani politicians that for the first time, Mr Khan is considering wearing a bulletproof vest after receiving death threats.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Jerry Seinfeld Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
peopleSitcom star urges men to be more supportive of women than ever
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
health
News
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
Sport
footballLouis van Gaal is watching a different Manchester United and Wenger can still spring a surprise
News
The spider makes its break for freedom
VIDEO
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings Negotiator

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Central London based firm loo...

Recruitment Genius: Events / Conference Operations Manager

£25000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Administrator

£14400 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a multi-d...

Recruitment Genius: Service, Maintenance & Installation Engineers - London

£34000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of Energy Consult...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot