Con Coughlin / The Daily Telegraph – 2008-10-10 23:05:27
(October 10, 2008) — Just when it was looking as if the situation in Pakistan could not get any worse, along comes the global credit crisis. As if the newly appointed administration of President Ali Zardari didn’t have enough on its plate already trying to establish its political authority while waging war against a determined Islamist insurgency. But Pakistan now finds itself on the cusp of a financial crisis that could have repercussions far beyond the world of high finance — it is the one thing that could push the country over the abyss, into total collapse.
Thanks to the recent efforts of Islamist suicide bombers, Pakistan was already experiencing severe financial difficulties, as middle-class deposit holders, fearful that the country might descend into all-out civil war, withdrew their funds to the safety of the Gulf. Now Islamabad faces a massive challenge to raise funds to cover government spending, and Mr Zardari has been prompted to launch an international appeal for $100 billion to save the country from going bankrupt.
This week, he warned that the whole future of the West’s military campaign against the Taliban and Islamist terror groups would be in jeopardy if the money was not forthcoming. “I need your help,” he pleaded. “If we fall, if we can’t do it, you can’t do it” — by which he meant the West stood no chance of defeating the militants based along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
In a week during which the doom-mongers have had a field day outlining the hopelessness of the Afghan cause, the prospect of neighbouring Pakistan collapsing into chaos is by far the most troubling development. The endemic corruption that has severely inhibited the effectiveness of the Afghan government in Kabul, and the seemingly never-ending supply of young Muslim fighters prepared to sacrifice their lives fighting coalition troops, are undoubtedly challenges that make Nato’s attempts to bring stability and security to Afghanistan immensely difficult.
But these and the other challenges the coalition forces face would be completely overshadowed if the Pakistani government were no longer able to fulfill its role as a key ally in the war against Islamist-inspired terror.
So far as Britain is concerned, all roads in the war on terror inevitably lead to Pakistan, whether these are the trails left by terror groups planning to carry out attacks against British airports or the endless supply of radicalised young Muslims making their way across Pakistan’s lawless borders to attack British and other Nato forces based in Afghanistan.
So far as the overall security picture is concerned, the strategy is working, not least because of the help the West receives from Pakistan in foiling potential terrorist attacks. With the tragic exception of the July 7 attacks on London’s transport system in 2005, the vast majority of Islamist terror attacks have either been foiled, such as the plot to blow up a number of aircraft flying from Heathrow to the United States, or have failed to achieve their objectives, such as last year’s abortive attempt to bomb a London nightclub.
But Pakistan has paid a heavy price for assisting Britain and its allies in the battle against radical Islamist groups. As General Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, the new head of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service, told the country’s parliament during a closed briefing session this week, the Taliban now has complete control of large swaths of the North-West Frontier province.
Moreover, rather than concentrating their energies on attacking Nato forces across the border in Afghanistan, Pakistani militants are now carrying out high-profile attacks against the government in an attempt to force it to ditch its policy of supporting the West. In two separate attacks yesterday, 10 people were killed by a roadside bomb that exploded close to a prison van and a school bus, while eight others were wounded by a suicide bomb attack on the headquarters of an anti-terrorist squad in Islamabad.
What is even more troubling is that support for the insurgents in Pakistan appears to be growing at an alarming rate. Dr Anatol Lieven, a terrorism expert from King’s College London, who has just returned from a six-week tour of the region, said yesterday that virtually every local Pashtun tribesman he encountered expressed their support for the Taliban and their allies in their war against “the infidel occupier”. There was also widespread sympathy for the attacks on the Pakistani government for allying itself so closely with the West.
The fact that, because of Pakistan’s dire economic situation, Taliban fighters are today paid more than Pakistani policemen is another reason why Islamabad is struggling to deal with its home-grown insurgency, which in the past two years has gone from strength to strength.
For the moment, the government is prepared to take the fight to the insurgents, and the Pakistani military has responded to this mounting threat to the government by deploying F-16s to bomb Taliban positions.
But how long the Pakistani government can sustain such a level of military activity against the Taliban in some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain is another matter. Fighting military campaigns is an expensive business and, unless the Pakistani government gets the crucial funds it needs to stave off bankruptcy, the Taliban will gain the upper hand. And that will not be good news for the West, either in Afghanistan or on the streets of London.
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