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Friday, 6 August 2010

6 August 2010

Once upon a time, not such a long time ago, Asif Ali Zardari was known to his fellow-countrymen as Mr 10 per cent.

He was in jail, facing corruption charges, relating to allegations that he had skimmed huge commission payments off government contracts while his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister.

Then, in December 2007, she was assassinated. Within a year, he had been elected President. Last night, as Pakistan faced what the UN is now calling a “major catastrophe” – the devastating floods that are laying waste to huge swathes of the country – he was dining at Chequers with David Cameron.

Over the past three years, I have written on this blog more often about Pakistan than almost any other country.

After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, I wrote: “Pakistan now becomes the most dangerous of all current global flash-points. It is a nuclear power; and it harbours jihadists who in the past have played a major role in the disintegration of neighbouring Afghanistan and have offered finance, training and organisational infrastructure to bombers in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.”

Less than two years later, after another spate of violence, I wrote: “Pakistan is in a permanent state of crisis. It is used to weak government, rampant corruption and insecurity. I've lost count of the number of times I've read - or even written - that Pakistan is teetering on the brink of collapse.”

This week, The Economist writes: “Pakistan is lurching from crisis to crisis, with an anaemic economy, religious extremism and an uncertain political dispensation.”

How’s this for a litany of disaster? Pakistan’s worst ever air crash, 152 people killed. The worst floods for 80 years, at least 1,600 people killed, four million people affected. Three days of violence in Karachi, the country’s business centre and largest city, at least 80 dead.

That’s just in the past nine days. Oh, and did I mention the Taliban insurgency along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan? The 12,000-plus people who were killed in political or sectarian violence last year alone?

And as if all that wasn’t enough, along comes David Cameron and chooses – in India, Pakistan’s giant neighbour and rival – to accuse it of “looking two ways” on terrorism.

Regional analysts have been arguing for quite a while now that Pakistan may well turn out to be a much bigger international security threat than Afghanistan. (We hear so much more about Afghanistan becuse that’s where US and British soldiers are dying. This week New Zealand suffered its first fatality there.)

When suspected jihadi terrorists are arrested in the UK, they’re far more likely to have links to Pakistan than to Afghanistan. Even Osama bin Laden, if he’s still alive, is more likely to be in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. At our counter-terrorism conference at Chatham House last month, Pakistan was the word on nearly everyone’s lips.

But bear this in mind: to the Pashtuns who live along the Afghan-Pakistani border, there is no border. The Durand Line, drawn up by the British colonial diplomat Henry Mortimer Durand in the 1890s, slices through the Pashtun tribal area – and it exists more in the imagination of cartographers than on the ground.

On the Afghan side, the Afghan Taliban fight to remove foreign troops from their land and avoid domination by Tajiks (who make up more than half of the Afghan National Army) and other non-Pashtuns. On the Pakistani side, the Pakistani Taliban fight to preserve their rule over the border areas and keep the central government weak.

When President Zardari insists that Pakistan is fighting terrorism with all its might, he’s thinking of the Pakistani, not the Afghan, Taliban. And when David Cameron says he’s not doing enough, he’s thinking of the other lot.

It’s a mess – and it’s dangerous.

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