Leading article: In need of security – and a strategy to tackle the terror

Pakistan is in peril. Its survival depends on democracy and the rule of law

The terror attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in central Lahore earlier this month was a mighty blow to the sporting culture that unites the subcontinent. But yesterday's assault by militants on a police station on the outskirts of the same city was just as bold in its ambition. This was a direct assault on the authority of the Pakistani state and an ominous echo of the targeting of police recruits in Iraq's vicious civil war.

The militant violence in Pakistan in recent years has been concentrated near the Afghan border. But insurgents are increasingly bringing their terror operations into Pakistan's cities. Whichever group was behind this latest outrage it is clear that domestic militants feel emboldened. The security situation in this nuclear-armed state of 170 million souls is deteriorating alarmingly.

In the immediate term, there plainly needs to be a tightening up of security in Pakistan's major cities. Even if the terrorists themselves are arriving from outlying regions, they are clearly getting logistical help from within these urban centres. That said, more security in Lahore and Islamabad will not address the broader problem of domestic terrorism and separatist insurgency in Pakistan. The country needs a strategy that will get to the roots of this crisis.

The central problem is that the country's civilian leadership, which took power from General Musharraf's military rule a year ago, has thus far failed lamentably to rise to the security challenge. Despite the rising number of militant attacks, President Asif Ali Zardari has been more concerned with harassing his political rival, Nawaz Sharif, through the courts than disrupting and crushing the militants.

The United States, which is a substantial aid donor to Pakistan, has a crucial role to play here. The US needs to put pressure on Pakistan to root out those in its intelligence services who are aiding the Pashtun Taliban and the anti-Indian militants of Kashmir.

Yet the US also needs to exert its leverage carefully. If it pushes too clumsily for change it could provoke an anti-American backlash and deepen the country's economic crisis. There is plenty of scope for foolish policy to make a bad situation even worse.

Thankfully, there are signs of a sensible new approach from the White House, and one which will deploy both stick and carrot. As well as recent pressure on Pakistan to exert greater control over its intelligence agents, President Obama promised last week to consult with Islamabad when launching drone strikes on Taliban leaders from across the Afghan border. And, on the civilian front, it is believed that US pressure was a factor in the reinstatement of the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry; something President Zardari had been determined to block.

Mr Zardari should also be encouraged to forge another coalition with Mr Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League to inject some much-needed stability into the country's political system. At the very least, such an alliance ought to boost security in Mr Sharif's political power base of Lahore.

Ultimately, the policy of America and all other nations with an interest in stability in south Asia should be directed towards rebuilding democracy, protecting the rule of law and shoring up responsible civilian politicians in Pakistan. This will be a gradual and frustrating process, but it is the only realistic way to restore stability to this crucial and dangerous state.