Leading article: Tolerance for Pakistan's double game must end

Wednesday 04 May 2011 00:00

It beggars belief that Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted man, has been living just 800 yards from Pakistan's equivalent of Sandhurst, without the military, intelligence or civilian authorities knowing he was there.

There can be little doubt that Pakistan faces both ways on terrorism, as David Cameron once put it. Everyone knows that, not least the United States, which spends $2bn a year arming the Pakistan military and $7bn on civilian aid there. For years the West has tolerated Pakistan's double game because it needs its support, even half-heartedly, in Afghanistan. That is more true than ever if Washington is to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan this summer.

Pakistan has lost more civilians than any other nation to Islamist terror attacks, but it also has high levels of support for extremists in its population. With its nuclear weapons Pakistan would be a far greater prize for al-Qa'ida than arid Afghanistan. The generals and spymasters who are seeking to appease both sides are playing a dangerous game and could yet become the terrorists' next victims. Yet civilian rule is a fragile flower in Pakistan. The ruling coalition is fragmenting, the economy is in crisis and the Taliban is conducting a homegrown campaign of suicide bombings. The danger is that post-Bin Laden pressures will lead Washington to bypass the government and deal direct with the army, which is Pakistan's only strong institution.

That would be a mistake. The delicate task is to support the government while pressurising it to do more to combat Pashtun terrorism, to assert democratic values, tackle corruption, build a modern taxation system and reform the blasphemy laws.

Britain has made the right moves in increasing aid to education in Pakistan, where more than 40 per cent of children under nine do not go to school. Improving education is the way to make youngsters less vulnerable to radicalisation. But that aid has been "backloaded" so that it will only continue if the first tranches show good results. We must not flinch from turning off that aid if necessary. The Pakistani state must know we are serious about our support, but also about the need to see progress.

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