Pakistan has been in serious trouble. Ever since President Zardari replaced Parvez Musharaf in September 2008, the situation has only deteriorated. This summer, especially, the young nation has gone through tremendous pain. And if the two recent bloody attacks are any indication, there is more bad news to come out of there.
In the past three days, two bloody suicide attacks targeted Shiite Muslims in two different cities. The first attack, in the city of Lahore, killed 25 people and wounded at least 200. The second, only two days later, killed 53 and wounded over 150 in the southern city of Quetta.
Quetta remained under police lock down today as the families proceeded with the funerals.
The increase in violence comes at a time when Pakistan is already suffering from the worst flooding its history. The country’s leading newspaper, Dawn, summarized the devastation caused by the floods:
The massive floods that began to hit Pakistan in late July have afflicted the country extremely. Seventy-nine of the country’s124 districts (24 in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, 19 in Sindh, 12 in Punjab, 10 in Balochistan and seven each in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan) have been affected. Official estimates say 1,600 people have been killed and more than 17 million are affected by the catastrophe. The disaster has not only led to losses in terms of human casualties and large scale displacement but has also damaged the agricultural country’s major crops over an estimated area of more than 1.38 million acres which constitutes 30 per cent of Pakistan’s agricultural land.
The response to the natural disaster and the recent violence has only further highlighted the incompetence of the Pakistani government that faces progressively difficult challenges. Waqar Gillani wrote in New York Times:
The unrest and anger set off by the attacks seemed to underline Pakistan’s flagging support for local and national governments, which are struggling to cope with rising militant violence and the aftermath of the worst flooding in the country’s history.
As the news of floods started hitting headlines, President Zardari was nowhere to be seen. He, with his children on his side, had decided to continue on with a trip to Europe despite the gravity of the situation at home. This angered Pakistanis who were losing patience with Zardari already. Ikram Sehgal, a defense and political analyst, told the New York Times:
“I think he [President Zardari] is in serious trouble. It was extremely insensitive of him to leave the country. It has gone down very badly and has left the country shaken.”
Can Zardari Face Up to the Challenges?
Ever since President Zardari took office after a tremendously confusing and bizarre turn of events, the troubles of Pakistan have escalated. The militancy, especially, has spiraled out of control. Pakistanis have suffered in the past year through the cowardly act of suicide bombs almost on daily basis.
In the face of all this, President Zardari has flashed his smile of helplessness.
General Musharraf, it is well known by now, was impeding the progress in war on terror. It has been argued that as long as Musharaf was in power, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan would not deter because he was doing business with both sides, the US and the Taliban. But as the situation in Pakistan exasperates dramatically, a sense of nostalgia for Musharaf days is growing there. While Musharaf was not a help in the war against terror, at least he had a tight grip over the Pakistani Army and by extension over the country. Mr. Zardari, it becomes more obvious every day, is struggling to control the country. And his civilian government has not been able to impose its agenda on Ashfaq Kayani’s army. Pakistan, increasingly, is turning into a dangerous state vulnerable in the face of a growing militancy.
In the wake of the two recent attacks, Mr. Zardari’s government faces its most difficult challenge so far: the scare of full-fledged sectarian violence. The Sunnis and Shiites have had a troubled history in Pakistan, often falling for skirmishes with each other. But as the Shiites find the Pakistani Taliban also siding with Sunnis and carrying out bloody attacks against them, one cannot rule out the dramatic increase in sectarian violence. Even Zardari’s own Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, seems fearful of it, as Dawn reports :
“Sectarianism that has been there for 62 years (since the creation of Pakistan), they [militants who carried out the recent attacks] stoked it again,” he told reporters in Islamabad. Malik said the TTP, al-Qaeda and the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), one of the most violent anti-Shia groups with roots in the central Punjab province, were all part of the same organisation.
“Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, al-Qaeda, TTP; they are one,” he said.
“And the TTP are there whenever there is suicide bombing.”
If sectarian violence breaks out across the country, I doubt that Mr. Zardari and his government can be any help in tackling it.