The attack on Pakistan's strongest naval base not only exposed the shaky security situation in Karachi, but emphasised how far the military's once-revered status in the country has fallen.
An unaccountable army in Pakistan faces end of an era
The terrorist attack on PNS Mehran, Pakistan's premier naval air base, is a devastating new low for Pakistan. It exposes and deepens the crisis of credibility faced by the Pakistani military. Clearly, the military's age-old claims of having the capacity to deal with any threats to national security within the country seem even weaker than they traditionally have been.
That is saying something for a country that was split in two after a humiliating defeat to India in 1971. When, in 1999, it lost a short war with India in the Kargil region, it was the product of unnecessary and dangerous bravado on the part of Pakistan's unaccountable and reckless generals at the time.
Those generals and their leader, Pervez Musharraf, were the ones that President George W Bush adopted as his dearest and most valued allies in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11. An Pakistani leader who managed to have his country kicked out of the benign Commonwealth of Nations, the post-September 11 Gen Musharraf achieved fame, fortune and popularity across the West, and in the unlikeliest of places, the country of his birth and the target of his Kargil disaster: India.
Pakistan's military strength has been presented as the prize that American support has delivered during three military dictatorships, all of which enjoyed immense political and military support from the United States. Since the generals who managed these relationships have never been asked any questions, the Pakistani military, as an institution, has become accustomed to the notion of unmitigated freedom - free from accountability to the taxpayer and citizens at large; free from reciprocity to friends and benefactors abroad; and free from the consequences of relationships with violent extremists like the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, or the Jamaat ud Dawa across Pakistan. Thanks to technology, and the laws of physics, the era of unmitigated freedoms is over.
Violent extremists are not singularly committed to the hand that has fed them, but to the ideas upon which that extremism was founded. While a version of Islam has simply been an instrument leveraged by the Pakistani military, it is much more than that for the extremists who the military has used since 1979. That is why the blowback from operations such as the one conducted at the Red Mosque in 2007 represents an inter-generational problem. And that is, at least partially, why the Pakistani army cannot magically rid itself of the Haqqani network. For the short and medium term, Pakistan's military is stuck with having to deal with its former allies.
Friends and benefactors like the United States and Saudi Arabia are not singularly committed to financing the Pakistani military ad infinitum. They are committed to their own constituents and their own people.
Pakistani military planners, both for reasons of capacity and strategy, cannot do everything that is asked of them by foreign benefactors. That is why it has taken on extremists selectively. And that is why financial aid and political support from the US in particular is becoming the subject of increasingly bitter wrangling between Pakistan and Washington. These transactional "relationships" have limits, but as long as both parties need something from the other, they shall endure. Like it or not, Pakistan's military will continue to have to deal with and be answerable to the US and other countries that provide it with material support.
Finally, Pakistani taxpayers and citizens are not singularly committed to a military that cannot live up to the carefully constructed image of a faultless, corruption-free fighting force that can defend the country. Since Gen Musharraf's poorly planned sacking of Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court, backfired in 2007, the military has faced a spectre it never thought imaginable - a deep and pervasive unpopularity. It isn't unpopular in the manner of President Asif Ali Zardari, or the US government. It is unpopular in a much deeper way. The Pakistani people have never expected great things from Mr Zardari or from the US. But they have always expected miracles from their men in uniform. The military has to regain the reverence of the Pakistani people.
In short, the military has to deal with violent extremism, which is a byproduct of its own decisions. It has to deal with tough and demanding clients such as the US, from whom it has benefitted materially over the years. Most of all, it has to become accountable and subservient to the Pakistani people, to whom it owes its existence, and for whose protection it exists. In every way, the Pakistani military has to become more capable, more responsive and more accountable.
After the attack on army general headquarters in 2009, and the very different but also deeply embarrassing events in Abbottabad, PNS Mehran represents the kind of breach of the military's stature that is difficult to recover from. These multiple black eyes can be mitigated, in part, through a coordinated campaign to pin blame for these attacks elsewhere: India, Israel, foreign countries' financing of radical groups and of course the uber-villain US. But these manoeuvres cannot hold public opinion at bay forever. The dam has been breached. Pakistan's military, and particularly the military leadership, will have to begin to invest in far-reaching reforms, publicly, openly and without much delay.
Luckily, that will not only be good news for Pakistan's military. It might also be of enduring benefit to the countries that have supported it over the years. Most of all, it will be good news for its most important constituents, the Pakistani people.
Mosharraf Zaidi is a Pakistani analyst and policy development adviser