x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A state of disarray

the takeaway It's hard to know which is the worse fate for Pakistan: the depth of its own insuperable problems, or the increasing attention of the rest of the world.

It's hard to know which is the worse fate for Pakistan: the depth of its own insuperable problems, or the increasing attention of the rest of the world to those same problems. To enumerate the country's woes would fill this column 20 times over, and it's hard to know where to start with a short sketch: runaway terrorism, rising religious extremism, a broken and corrupt government unable to defeat terrorism, protect its own citizens or defend its borders. The United States drops bombs on the tribal areas from pilotless drones in a programme that both governments deny exists; the state exerts little to no control, except through sporadic violence, in vast swathes of the country.

On Friday the terrorists of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed their latest victims, in a campaign that has already taken the lives of some 10,000 Pakistanis. The targets this time were a pair of mosques in Lahore belonging to members of the Ahmadi sect, a religious minority within Pakistan whose members are forbidden from calling themselves Muslims or "behaving as Muslims" - thanks to laws first introduced by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father of Benazir, and reiterated with extra harshness by the former president Zia ul Haq.

In the wake of the attacks this weekend, Pakistani liberals mourned the dead and lamented the broken state of affairs that gave implicit sanction to their killers - and excoriated the government that failed to extend protection to the Ahmadis, even after members of one of the targeted mosques appealed to the Lahore authorities for increased protection. But one strains to see this disturbing attack as a wake-up call: no politician of note bothered to attend the funeral of the victims, apparently fearful of seeming sympathetic to the deaths of non-Muslims. Newspapers and television reports, wary of the legal sanctions against Ahmadis, generally declined to call the sites of the attacks "mosques", while other establishment figures and Urdu columnists set about speculating on the "foreign agencies" that might have staged the attack to discredit Pakistan - even as the Taliban issued a triumphant press release claiming responsibility.

The rise of "conspiratorial thinking" in Pakistan took centre stage in a front-page New York Times report last week, which depicted an entire country in the throes of a "narrative of national victimhood that is a nearly impenetrable barrier to any candid discussion of the problems here". Critics attacked the Times for condensing the opinions of 170 million people rather too neatly into a monolithic bloc of Islamist paranoia and denial, though the paper did observe, rightly, that "nearly all of American policy toward Pakistan is conducted in secret, a fact that further serves to feed conspiracies. American military leaders slip in and out of the capital; the Pentagon uses networks of private spies; and the main tool of American policy here, the drone programme, is not even publicly acknowledged to exist".

It is too frequently implied - especially in America - that the cause of Pakistan's crisis is the state's failure to confront its own demons; that, as the Times suggested in an editorial last week, citing its own conspiracy-theory story, Islamabad needs to "fully commit to the fight against extremists." This seems a grave misapprehension. Pakistan is fighting terrorism, often with the sort of brutality that many western commentators would applaud. The problem, however, is that right now it appears to be losing.