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Story Publication logo January 1, 2010

Pakistan: "Beyond Apathy"

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"The Economics of Security" explores the threat of extremist violence in South Asia, especially...

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Image Courtesy: Reuters

For Pakistan, the aughts did not go out quietly, marked by a suicide bombing in Muzzafarabad, capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, and several explosions in Karachi, culminating in a suicide attack on Monday that left fires raging for days. Both the Karachi and Muzzafarabad blasts were claimed by the TTP, or Pakistan Taliban. But that does precious little to clarify their significance:

The TTP is an umbrella group. Some branches are concerned with the imposition of a strict Islamist regime inside Pakistan and normally target civilian crowds. Others have expansionist ambitions that look westward and normally target the Pakistani military, with no particular concern for Islam. A third set are focused on the political conflict in Kashmir and normally target government presence inside the contested territory. [So fragmented are the groups that while one TTP branch claimed the Karachi attack, another denied it].

This week's attacks, however, don't fit neatly into any of these three categories. They occurred around or during the Shi'a commemoration of Ashura, at a time when sectarian violence between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims is commonplace. Indeed, for about 48 hours, local officials were responding to the blasts as an escalation of that age-old conflict.

Yet the Shi'a-Sunni flare-ups usually involve simpler bombs, more hand-to-hand violence and crucially, no suicide. The use of suicide bombers suggests a link to the Islamists or the regional expansionists. The civilian targets point towards the first. The military-grade chemical fires point towards the latter group, because they have historically had official ties and access to official arms.

If domestic Islamism is behind these blasts, why target religious processions? If regional expansionists are behind these blasts, why target civilians instead of military targets? Why do the groups who usually target the military have military-grade weapons in the first place? And which branch of the TTP is most likely to be targeting Karachi, a city far removed from the core havens in the Frontier, and home to economic, not political or military, power?

These questions remind us that the Pakistani Taliban does not have its eye on a concrete goal or purpose. Structurally, that makes them a weaker adversary than the Afghan Taliban, who are united behind the goal of an Islamist state in Kabul. But strategically, this paradoxical mix of interests makes the TTP harder to fight. In Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies have at least been able to define victory as reclaiming Kabul and making it impossible for the Taliban to regain, even if the strategy for doing so leaves much to be desired. If victory is conclusively denying the enemy his goal, what constitutes a Pakistani victory over the TTP?

Talking over these paradoxes with some Karachi-ites (by phone, as I've left Karachi now), I am struck by the way confusion feeds into frustration and defeatism. "It could be any of the above," says one clothing retailer, "or another party with an agenda we can't imagine. There's more than meets the eye, but there's no logic. I am beyond apathy."

That is why there's a growing consensus that to restore a sense of purpose, security in Pakistan must be approached from something other than a military standpoint. There are those, like former commerce minister Zubair Khan, who say it's best to tackle this as a "crisis of governance," and to focus on provincial administration. There are others, like pop-star-turned-education-reformer Shehzad Roy, who label this a crisis of opportunity: "Fix the schools and the hospitals alone," Roy boldly promised me, "and terrorism will vanish." There is maverick politician Imran Khan, who sees a way out in a Third Way that can bring extremists into the process and neutralize their more radical claims. And there is a business community that insists trade with the region will liberalize Pakistani culture.

These are the developments I've been tracing and will continue to trace in the New Year. I'll be writing from India for the next month, where the economic and security challenges are of a different, but not unrelated, nature. Stay tuned.

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