National insecurity

From the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, the armed forces of the states located in the world's most intense conflict zone are stacked together like a dangerous house of cards. They plan, plot and puzzle, as embattled military establishments always do. Yet the most important decisions are arguably those that face the army least often mentioned in discussion - that of Pakistan.

For the Pakistani army has to decide how to save itself and the country it has dominated for so long. In the struggle across the region, it could even be said that decisions made in Rawalpindi, the army's headquarters, may turn out to be more important than those made in Washington, Baghdad, Tehran or Tel Aviv. And this army is highly autonomous. It has frequently been the government, and remains by far the most powerful institution in the country.

The regional war on whose name nobody can agree - terror, occupation, invasion - has shifted its shape in recent years. In western eyes, anyway, it was in the beginning about Afghanistan, then Iraq was its epicentre, until the focus shifted to Iran and its nuclear ambitions, and then back to Afghanistan. Pakistan always figured when Afghanistan was in the spotlight because failure to deal effectively with the Taliban and al-Qaida in the border areas puts Nato forces at a disadvantage. Pakistan was seen as a dimension of the Afghan problem, and was again presented in those terms yesterday when the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Galani, assured George Bush in Washington that Pakistan would strive to secure the Afghan border.

Now you could put it the other way round. As insurgents have moved from the border strip to some settled areas of Pakistan in recent months, it is at least an open question as to which country is the sideshow and which the main event. Without demonising these movements - which mix tribalism, jihadism, Pashtun national feeling and criminality, and are also the product of social breakdown resulting from decades of war - it cannot be right that parts of Pakistan are ruled by parallel governments, judged by parallel courts, and make war on their own terms whenever they wish. Militants are even now encroaching on the environs of Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province. In Mohmand, the Taliban controls economic enterprises. The number of foreign fighters entering Pakistan is said to be now much higher than those entering Iraq. And they are coming to Pakistan not only to fight in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan itself.

The Pakistani army, however, is still following a strategy of negotiations and ceasefires, punctuated by well-signalled and often bloodless sweeps by the local Frontier Corps. True, this is also the policy of the new national government and of the Peshawar provincial government. It is also true that heavy-handed military operations are not the best counter to insurgency. But in the army's case, the softly, softly approach has been shaped by the defeats and setbacks it suffered in earlier efforts to deal with insurgents and by its own involvement in backing extremist movements. Such movements were useful tools in the confrontation with India in Kashmir, and in influencing events in Afghanistan.

It is less a question of the army's tactical choices than of whether it still cannot give up the idea of "keeping" the militant movements as a card in future conflicts. But the militants are out of control. They tried to kill Parvez Musharraf, they probably killed Benazir Bhutto, they have bombed army offices and even the headquarters of Inter-Services Intelligence. The attempt to outwit India, the rationale of the Pakistani armed forces since independence, is outdated. As Ahmed Rashid says in his book on the regional crisis, Descent into Chaos: "The army's insecurity ... has now come full circle, for Pakistan's very future is at stake as extremists threaten to undermine Pakistan itself."

That threat comes at a time when Pakistan is otherwise in a process of renewal, as evidenced by the success of liberal and secular candidates in recent elections. An expanding urban middle class wants a new kind of country, and feudal and tribal dominance in rural areas is fading. Overprivileged and muddle-headed, the army needs to follow suit. If it does so, the moment of opportunity for extremism in Pakistan will be brief - and that could have a transforming effect on the rest of the region.

Martin Woollacott