A hyphenated word has hung like a shroud over Pakistan ever since its founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, vocalized what Great Britain produced in its hasty retreat from empire: a moth-eaten state. In 1947, a British barrister, new to the subcontinent, drew artificial lines on a map that carved up the Punjab, Bengal and Kashmir, producing a hopelessly divided independent state of Pakistan.
Pakistan remains a moth-eaten country, only now, the spaces beyond the writ of the state are home to extremist groups. They can be found in Pakistan’s heartland as well as on its periphery. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services nurtured them with the expectation of gaining leverage against India and within Afghanistan. Now, these quasi-independent fiefdoms fill the spaces vacated by poor governance, economic stagnation, corruption, flimsy social services, and a deteriorating educational system.
Among these groups, the Lashkar-e-Taiba has focused primarily on Indian targets – so far. The Afghan Taliban fire primarily at U.S. and NATO forces – so far. Currently, the biggest threat to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services is the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella group of tribal fighters mobilized after President Pervez Musharraf ordered commando units to seize control of the “Red Mosque” in Islamabad, whose clerics were openly defying the state. A ten-day siege resulted in approximately 100 deaths, prompting a war of vengeance.
This war regularly takes a toll of innocent bystanders in shops and bazaars. Schools for girls are regular targets. The latest targeted victim of violence — a 14-year old school girl riding in a bus — has generated a moment of national introspection. Malala Yousufzai gained global attention as a champion of education for girls, which is considered a crime by obscurantists with guns in Pakistan. She wanted to be a doctor. Now she is in a hospital bed, fighting to recover from bullet wound to her head.
The TTP’s home base is in the tribal lands of Waziristan, but its reach extends all over Pakistan. Whenever Pakistan’s military forces turn up the heat, the TTP reacts by carrying out mass-casualty acts of violence. No city in Pakistan is exempt. Prosecutions and judicial findings are hard to come by in Pakistan, but the TTP may have been behind the December, 2007 assassination of Benazir in Rawalpindi, the September, 2008 truck bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, and the failed Times Square bombing in May 2010.
The TTP has also been implicated in brazen suicide missions directed at Pakistani military installations. Three are of particular note: the October, 2009 attack on Army headquarters in Rawalpindi, the May 2010 Mehran Navy base attack in Karachi, soon after the Osama bin Laden raid, and the August 2012 Kamra Air Force base attack in the Punjab. Local security forces, reinforced by commando units, repulsed these attacks. Additional strikes have been directed at soft targets, such as buses outside defense production compounds and military facilities. Regional ISI offices have also been hit.
More attacks are likely, especially if Pakistan’s armed forces ratchet up their operations against the TTP in North Waziristan. Those who demand that the Pakistan Army confront without further delay the LeT, the Afghan Taliban, as well as the TTP, might bear this in mind. The process of reclaiming Pakistan’s moth-eaten spaces will be painfully slow, and the results will be uncertain. Malala was shot in Swat, where the Pakistan Army is very much present, after carrying out a campaign to push back the Taliban. Even if the Pakistan Army seizes and holds moth-eaten spaces, it cannot prevent violent, extremist acts. Long-term successes require the return of governance and local commerce.
Pakistan’s plight has been magnified by misconceived regional ambitions, especially efforts to place India on the back foot in Kashmir and to limit Indian inroads into Afghanistan. Rawalpindi’s calculation that every addition to Indian strength would make Pakistan weaker has become true – less by Indian design than by Pakistani missteps. To become whole again, Pakistan requires many remedies, one of which is normal relations with its neighbors. Movement in this direction, however, is likely to spark new explosions.
There is no quick or easy way out of this vicious circle. Every explosion that originates in Pakistan’s moth-eaten parts works at cross-purposes with Pakistan’s interests – regardless of where it occurs and who is victimized. Because of prior links to the perpetrators by Pakistan’s intelligence services, complicity is assumed whenever attacks occur in India or Afghanistan – even when this conclusion is unjustified. With each mass-casualty attack, Pakistan’s standing and its economy are further damaged. Pakistan loses without a single shot being fired in retaliation. If these realizations take hold, Pakistan and India will eventually have fewer explosions to deal with. In the meantime, Pakistan has no choice but to methodically reclaim its moth-eaten parts, one piece at a time.
The only way out of this morass is to keep moving forward. Pakistan cannot repair its economy, international standing, and sovereignty until its military and intelligence services change their posture toward India and Afghanistan. Intelligence cooperation is one way to help repair ties, but this requires trust where it is most lacking. And even if progress can be made, it won’t stop the explosions, at least in the near term. Direct cross-border trade between Pakistan and India also won’t prevent explosions, but it could be a harbinger of Rawalpindi’s revised security calculus. Is this a tactical or a strategic move? Time will tell. In the meantime, New Delhi has a choice to make: whether to reciprocate Pakistan’s trade initiatives haltingly, or in full measure.
A version of this essay appeared in the Oct. 13 edition of The Tribune.