Omar Waraich: A country on the brink must break from its troubled past

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The Independent Online

Yet again, Pakistan has been convulsed. The powerful earthquake in Baluchistan in the early hours of yesterday morning is the latest in an unremitting series of disasters that have pushed this poor country of 175 million further along the precipice.

As the residents of Ziarat and other villages bury their dead, the country's nervous government is desperately casting about for the billions it needs within the next six days to stave off financial ruin.

After being rebuffed by what it considered to be close allies, Islamabad has now turned to the International Monetary Fund – an indignity it must swallow in the face of fast-depleting foreign exchange reserves.

And the attendant conditions may only compound the deepening misery of ordinary Pakistanis. Prices for food and fuel, it is popularly lamented, are "talking to the clouds"; electricity shortages routinely plunge cities into darkness; and as unemployment rises, so does the number of those who rage in the streets or commit suicide in their homes.

All of which piles on the burden that President Asif Ali Zardari is already struggling to shoulder. The political turmoil has momentarily settled but only to bring into sharper focus the vast swaths of territory that are slipping out of Islamabad's grip.

Images of the burials in Baluchistan were a rare sight in the vast and impoverished province. For years, the region has bled under a media blackout as a nationalist insurgency has simmered in its mountains and the Afghan Taliban leadership has established a foothold near its border.

Their local counterparts, the Pakistan Taliban, are emboldened – capturing greater territory from which they have authored the bulk of nearly 100 suicide attacks that have killed over 1,400 people since July 2007.

The Pakistan army, which has lost more than 1,500 troops since 2001, insists that it now has the upper hand in Bajaur, one of the seven tribal areas along the Afghan border. But in the scenic Swat valley, local government officials concede that they have lost all but 15 per cent of the area.

It bears remembering, that three years on from the earthquake that struck Kashmir, survivors are still huddled in their tented camps, waiting for schools to be rebuilt for their children. Zardari's challenge now is to break with that past and respond to Baluchistan's plight – if only to offer other Pakistanis hope amid fears that the country is, literally as well as politically, caving in.