Pakistan pays a price for being the battlefield

Islamabad must not allow foreign forces to undermine its authority if it is to heal its homegrown problems.

The announced assassination this week of Al Qaeda's latest "number two", Atiyah Abd Al Rahman, had something to offer everyone. Washington, New Delhi and Kabul will argue again that the real battlefield - and problem - is in Pakistan. In turn, many Pakistanis will seethe at another drone assassination on their soil. It's also worth noting how readily militant groups throw up new leaders after rounds of US assassinations.

Almost 10 years after the invasion of Afghanistan, supported by Gen Pervez Musharraf, the shaky US-Pakistan alliance is an old story. One certainty is that relations have progressively soured. Another is that security all over Pakistan, even in areas untouched by Al Qaeda, is getting steadily worse.

The United States has obvious interests in targeting attacks against Al Qaeda leaders, and is likely to continue to do so. The outrage over Osama bin Laden's hideout in the Abbottabad cantonment will not soon be forgotten. So the drone strikes, cross-border raids and CIA operations will go on, even at the price of Pakistani public goodwill.

There are also good reasons for a different policy in Islamabad - or, rather, among the competing powers in Pakistan's military, civilian government and intelligence services. Mistakenly, many generals still view India as the paramount security threat. The tribal areas where US operations are most common have been semi-autonomous since pre-independence and resist federal control.

So the policy stalemate will remain. Forced into a marriage of convenience, Islamabad and Washington have taken their disagreements more public since the killing of bin Laden. The United States froze military aid and Pakistan expelled US military trainers. But for all of the acrimony, both sides need each other and are, for the foreseeable future, bound to make up in private at least.

What is more worrying is the unrelenting violence elsewhere. The north-western city of Peshawar, relatively quiet a few years ago, is hit by bombings almost weekly; targeting of religious minorities, particularly Shiite mosques, has spiked; and in recent months political thuggery in Karachi has killed scores.

Washington cannot be blamed for all, or even most, of Pakistan's many ills. Chronic economic weakness, sectarian and ethnic divides and corrupt leadership have been constant companions since independence.

More information will show how important the assassination of Rahman was in the long term. But what is certain is that Pakistan cannot begin to really heal its homegrown problems while it remains a battlefield for foreign forces.

Published: August 29, 2011 04:00 AM


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