x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 September 2017

Pakistan will decide this defining battle

If Pakistan's nuclear weapons are in danger, only the Pakistani government can solve the problem.

Kamra airbase, 40 kilometres north-west of Islamabad, is believed to host components of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons programme, although officials deny it. The attack on Kamra in the early hours of yesterday morning, claimed by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan militants, will raise further concerns about the country's ability to safeguard its nuclear arsenal.

In a sense, such attacks are meant to send just that signal. Although a TTP spokesman told The Dawn newspaper that the raid was a success, and made a very dubious claim about "scores" of casualties, more reliable reports indicate the raid was a tactical dead end. Nine militants were killed, along with one soldier. Some aircraft may have been damaged.

It is the message, however, that preoccupies Pakistan. Militants like to say that they can strike "any where, any time". After high-profile assassinations of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and Punjab's Governor Salman Taseer last year, and a seemingly endless string of terrorist attacks, Pakistan faces a security crisis - in which the TTP is certainly not the only culprit - that threatens the country's survival.

The latest attack is a reminder of a Taliban raid last year on a naval base in Karachi. Both attacks were rebuffed after hours of fighting, both bases were believed to be involved the country's nuclear programme, and both incidents gave rise to speculation about the incompetence of, or even collusion by, members of Pakistan's security forces.

This is the material of nightmares for Pakistan's allies and rivals alike. Reports about the country's nuclear-arsenal security protocols, featured in The Atlantic magazine last year, raised serious concerns with details about nuclear weapons being transported, without any obvious security detail, in civilian delivery vehicles on city streets.

It might seem perfectly reasonable for the United States to draft contingency plans to "secure" Pakistan's weapons in a crisis. If the past 11 years have shown anything, however, it is that US influence in Pakistan is largely destabilising. Fears that Washington wants to control Islamabad's weapons cripple the bilateral relationship, and foster extremism within the ranks of Pakistan's security and intelligence services.

The TTP claims that the recent attack was revenge for the killings of Osama bin Laden and of its former leader Baitullah Mehsud. This is nonsense. Pakistan is in a battle to defend the pluralistic and modern society that the vast majority of its citizens want. It should be assisted in that fight, but this is ultimately Pakistan's fight to win or lose.