Farzana Shaikh: Pakistan's fight is only just beginning

As the army launches its major offensive in Waziristan, the population must decide where it stands on the country's militants

Related Topics

Will Pakistan finally buckle? After a week that has witnessed some of the boldest and deadliest militant attacks against the Pakistani state and the headquarters of its most potent institution, the army, the question is asked increasingly widely. The short answer is no. But the country must brace itself for many more months, if not years, of traumatic conflict, especially as the army launches a major offensive in South Waziristan. This will deepen the conditions of chronic insecurity and political dysfunctionality to which its people have long been accustomed.

This is not to minimise the impact of the latest strikes that have convulsed Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Kohat, or to play down the appalling loss of lives resulting from the attacks. Both have left the country in a state of shock not dissimilar to that which followed the terrorist attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September 2008. Many had hoped that the Marriott attack would finally bring the country together and help to forge a real national consensus to tackle militancy. Those expectations have long since disappeared.

Yet there were initially some grounds for optimism. The newly elected government with cross-party support that took power in February 2008 boldly declared that it would "take ownership" of the controversial "war on terror" to defend Pakistan. A climate of political reconciliation between President Asif Ali Zardari and his erstwhile foe, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, reinforced the mood of optimism when both sides also agreed to form a coalition government.

The military, too, seemed to have turned a page. The new army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, sent out strong signals that he intended to refrain from politics and keep his men focused squarely on military matters. Although tensions between the military and ministers were never far from the surface, they were judged to be mere teething problems.

By the time the army launched its ferocious military operation against militant strongholds in Swat in May this year – with endorsement from the government, political parties and the public at large – many assumed Pakistan had turned the corner and that state and society were finally in synch. And with the US ever ready to oblige with drone strikes, military success against the Taliban appeared to be a foregone conclusion. Confidence was further boosted after a US missile in August successfully targeted Pakistan's most wanted militant leader, Baitullah Mehsud.

His death was claimed as heralding the emergence of a real national consensus against militancy and the imminent demise of the Taliban. Neither, as recent events have demonstrated, was at all warranted. Signs of disarray were already in evidence. The first warnings were sounded in August 2008 after Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League, withdrew from the ruling coalition headed by President Zardari's Pakistan People's Party. At issue was not only the reinstatement of the former chief justice, but also important constitutional amendments that would restrict the extraordinary powers of the president – a measure Zardari is as yet unwilling seriously to countenance. The mistrust generated by this issue, many now fear, has irreversibly damaged the prospects of co-operation between the two parties.

More ominously still have been signs of growing disaffection in the army over Zardari's leadership. While it is no secret that the military has always harboured a deep dislike of the People's Party, it has now taken umbrage at Zardari's attempts in recent months to encourage dialogue with India – an area over which the army is used to exercising its prerogative.

But it is Zardari's efforts to call on externally borrowed power from the US to rein in the military that has most infuriated the army's high command. In the months leading up to the enactment of the enhanced partnership with Pakistan (the so-called Kerry-Lugar bill), the government had worked closely with US lawmakers to ensure that the interests of Pakistan's civil society were not made subservient to those of the military.

By early September it was clear that the military was set to challenge these moves and step into the political fray. In a meeting last week, senior corps commanders expressed "serious concerns" over the bill. Reports indicated, however, that the army had taken grave exception to provisions of the bill calling for civilian oversight of the military and the defence budget. Differences have since been papered over by an "explanatory note" attached to the bill designed to reassure the military. But expectations of a smooth working relationship between the two sides are in question.

Though the militants were dealt a severe blow by the loss of Baitullah Mehsud, they have regrouped under his successor, Hakeemullah Mehsud. They have also shown themselves to be adept at extending their reach and forging a nexus that now involves Islamic militants from Punjab with close links to al-Qa'ida.

While larger numbers of Pakistanis may well stand opposed to militancy, popular ambivalence over the state's relation to Islam continues to thwart the prospects of translating this opposition into a coherent strategy to fight the militants. And with the militants in no doubt about what they stand for, it is now more urgent than ever for government and society to open up an honest debate about what precisely Pakistan stands for.

Farzana Shaikh is an associate fellow of Chatham House and author of Making Sense of Pakistan

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Andy Coulson  

Andy Coulson: With former News of the World editor cleared of perjury charges, what will he do next?

James Cusick James Cusick
Jack Warner  

Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Tom Peck
Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause