Brink of collapse

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 March, 2009, 12:00am

The classic definition of a failed state is one whose central government is so weak or ineffective that it has little practical control over its territory. I predicted, at the start of the year, that this would be the fate to befall Pakistan in 2009. Such a development comes in marked incremental stages, and the nation has some way to go yet. Nonetheless, a significant move down that path came on Tuesday when masked gunmen attacked the touring Sri Lankan cricket team in the city of Lahore.

Pakistanis love their cricket. The sport is one of the few in which they truly shine at an international level. They have a right to be proud of their achievements and were looking forward to a rare top-level match on home soil. It is inconceivable that a patriotic Pakistani would be behind such an outrage.

Lahore is the country's cultural capital. The city was where Pakistani independence from the British Raj was declared, but there could be no more inoffensive place. Its citizens are liberal in outlook; they are devotees of film, music and poetry. History resides all around them, testament to a diversity of religion, a festive spirit and the fact that their city has been the seat of the Mughal and Sikh empires, as well as for the Raj. Until the attack, Lahore had been immune to the extremism creeping across Pakistan for a decade.

The gunmen fled after firing their Kalashnikov rifles and rockets, and hurling grenades. Exactly who they are, and why they targeted the Sri Lankans, remains a matter of conjecture. A scan of South Asian blogs reveals any number of theories. There could be a connection to the civil war in Sri Lanka, Pakistan's disgruntled military or the political feud between President Asif Ali Zardari and the opposition Sharif brothers, who have been disqualified from holding office. Lahore is just a stone's throw from the Indian border; terrorist activity there, coming so soon after November's massacre in Mumbai, would seem to send a clear message.

All suggestions are wrong. Only one group would so despise the sport of cricket that it would attack a visiting foreign team at the gates to the stadium where a game was to take place. Striking in a city famed for culture, history and religion of all types is the work of only that same organisation. Without doubt, the perpetrators represented the Taleban.

Lahore is a long way from the Afghan border, where the fundamentalist Muslim extremists have been plotting their strategy. From Pakistan's lawless frontier provinces, they are fighting to return to power in Afghanistan and working to win the hearts and minds of Pakistanis. Through a combination of fear and back-to-basics preaching, they are making substantial inroads. The weak central government, at the mercy of their bomb attacks and seemingly unable to pull the country out of bankruptcy, had little choice last month but to give in to their demands to allow strict adherence to the Islamic sharia law in the northern Swat district.

Pakistan cannot be considered to have failed because of its gradual Talebanisation. A weak democracy is better than no democracy. But it is obvious that the government, military and police have lost the ability to ensure security and stability. The extremists have got ever-bolder with their targets.

Zones that should be safe no longer are. Rawalpindi and the nearby capital, Islamabad, and now Lahore are as prone to violence as the port city of Karachi and the western and northern provinces. The uppermost echelon of political leaders, buildings in supposedly high-security areas and now even the beloved game of cricket cannot be considered safe from attack.

The ramifications are wider than a blow against a popular sport. Jolts are being felt in India and across South Asia. America's fight against the Taleban and al-Qaeda is being lost. Pakistan, which has been slipping, bit by bit, down the precipice of failure, is now tumbling. The extremists would seem to be able to do anything they like; it is only a matter of time before they are in control.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post