By Fram Dinshaw
When I was very young, about five years old, I went to Karachi with my family, where my dad’s cousin used to live and was getting married. Of the few things I remember from that time long ago, there was the colour, life, and vitality of a subcontinental city, with teeming bazaars, traffic clogging the streets, beautiful sunsets, and distant crackling sounds at night that were slightly scary. I asked what they were, and was told it was firecrackers.
Years later, I learned what those sounds really were – most likely Kalashnikov fire as Karachi’s rival sectarian and ethnic gangs fought brutal turf wars on the city’s streets. Today at the start of 2008, that once distant crackle has grown into a deafening roar with the slaying of Benazir Bhutto by a suicide assassin on December 27 last year, while Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf has struggled to maintain some semblence of control against both Islamic insurgents based near the Afghan border, and the democratic secular-minded opposition based in cities like Karachi and Lahore.
The Bhutto assassination did not cause this current crisis, but catapaulted it to a new level with street riots, bombings, and furious anti-government protests across the country. This situation has been brewing for over 60 years, with corrupt military governments, an unstable economy, the sponsoring of Islamist militant groups, and US intervention against first the Soviets and the Taliban in Afghanistan, using Pakistan as a logistical base for its efforts.
It’s these three forces – Musharraf’s military government, the Islamic militants, and secular democrats – that threaten to pull the country apart, much like 1930s Germany was beset by Nazi and Communist rivalry, while a central government crippled by inflation and mass unemployment struggled vainly to keep the Weimar Republic alive.
At best, a genuinely democratic government will take power in the next five or so years, ushering in economic growth and prosperity. The worst outcome will be the current government collapsing and the secular democrats sidelined, as Taliban style Islamic militants seize power in Islamabad after waging a violent guerrilla war against the central government. Already, the Islamists have seized most of the North West Frontier, capturing and killing Pakistani Army troops, and briefly took over Islamabad’s Red Mosque last year.
Should Pakistan and its nuclear weapons ever fall into their hands, then the result could be a disaster not only for Pakistan and its people, subjected to a tyrannical Taliban-style regime, but also for the West, as years of intervention come back to haunt it, in the spectre of nuclear terrorism threatening cities from London to Los Angeles. The resulting conflict will draw in the USA, UK, India, China, and other world powers, the potential start of a global nuclear holocaust.