x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Pakistan is under siege by forces from within

The week's news from Pakistan reminds us that it is a state under assault from within, being attacked by the extremist forces it once nourished. This complex and dangerous situation demands determination within the country, and steady support from friends outside.

Tumult seems to be the norm in Pakistan, but even by that standard this has been a disquieting week. With the shots that killed Osama bin Laden still echoing politically, there was new gunfire this week as a small squad of militants took over a Pakistani naval base for 18 hours, destroying military hardware and embarrassing the military establishment in the process. News about the raid was sketchy yesterday, but it appeared that at least two of the attackers may have escaped.

In faraway Chicago, meanwhile, something almost as explosive was happening. David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American who has confessed to involvement in the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, testified against his former schoolmate Tahawwur Rana and alleged the intimate prior involvement in the attacks of officers of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). It was damning testimony, if Headley can be taken at his word.

At first these events seem to be contradictory: whose side is Pakistan on, anyway? But in fact they illustrate a truth about the country and extremism: divisions within the ranks of the intelligence services, and quite likely the powerful army, are pulling Pakistan apart.

It is a point that seems to elude many of the country's supposed allies, notably vociferous politicians in the US Congress. But this internal struggle has to be understood, even if it is not always clearly defined, if Pakistan is to become a better partner against fanaticism, not to mention a better home for its 187 million people.

As we know, Pakistani society also reflects this split personality and often fails to acknowledge the domestic threat - many will blame the Karachi attack on foreign hands in Washington or New Delhi. We know too that there are historical reasons why some in the ISI were, and are, closely associated with elements of the Taliban. In the halls of the army general headquarters, those reasons have to be reviewed.

It is not a question of being for or against Pakistan, but simply of being for stability and peace. The United States has good reasons to be concerned when its enemies find safe harbour there, and India to be defensive against terrorist plots like Mumbai, but heavy-handed action - such as the Indian troop exercises on the border - will only empower the extremist elements.

Pakistan is a strong and resilient country, and there is every reason to believe that the rational side can win this struggle for the soul of state and society. Pakistan's friends abroad can help, not with threats but with steady support.