Can things get any worse for Pakistan?

Pakistan’s military is gearing up for an offensive against Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan, following a week of violence in which militants killed more than 100 people and stormed the army’s headquarters.

On Thursday alone, a suicide car bomber set off his explosives outside a police station in the north-western town of Kohat killing 10 people, gunmen opened fire outside a police agency office in the eastern city of Lahore and a suspected US drone aircraft fired two missiles at a house in North Waziristan.

Here is a summary of the likely scenarios in Pakistan’s conflict against Islamic militants:

Prolonged stalemate, long-term insecurity
The overwhelming likelihood, analysts say, is that Pakistan remains locked in a stalemate for months or years, with militants able to launch frequent destabilising attacks but no real risk that state control will crumble and Islamists will seize power.

The planned Waziristan offensive is likely to begin soon.

“The military has been hesitant to do this because of complex geopolitical considerations and the difficult operational environment in the area—the military has carried out three unsuccessful operations in South Waziristan previously,” said Eurasia Group analyst Maria Kuusisto.

“Now, Rawalpindi does not have any other option but to pursue the operation.”

But the militants fighting the Pakistani state are a loose alliance of several groups, including Islamists in Punjab who are playing an increasingly important role. Even military success in South Waziristan will do little to neutralise the overall threat.

Equally, however, the militants have no prospect of dealing a knock-out blow against the Pakistani state. Even if they expand the areas under their control, or manage to assassinate key political leaders, they cannot score a military victory.

So the likely outcome is prolonged deadlock.
This has already been priced in by markets, which show little reaction to individual attacks. The damage to long-term investment and Pakistan’s risk profile has already been done.

Crushing the militants
Pakistan’s military fostered the birth of the Taliban in Afghanistan and has shown reluctance to launch a determined effort to crush the militants, instead seeking to keep them contained in tribal areas and focused on external enemies.

The audacious attack on the military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi may well spur the military to take a tougher line.

“We’ve seen an unprecedented degree of support among Pakistanis for military action against militants this year,” said Claudine Fry, Pakistan analyst at Control Risks in London. “This could be an opportunity for civilian and military authorities to push hard against the militants.”

But given the nature of asymmetric warfare, the military has little prospect of significantly reducing the capacity of militants to launch destabilising attacks. Markets would welcome a sustained military drive against the Taliban but Pakistan’s risk profile would not change greatly in the short-run.

Attack on nuclear assets
One risk scenario that worries policymakers and analysts is that militants manage to penetrate one of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons sites, and possibly steal some fissile material that could be used to construct a “dirty bomb”—a conventional bomb that also spreads radioactive material over a wide area.

This would represent a serious escalation that could spread panic in Pakistan and also lead to a confrontation with the United States and its allies over how to keep nuclear material out of the hands of al-Qaeda and its allies.

Security analysts say that Pakistan’s nuclear facilities are extremely well defended, and the main risk is not of a militant assault but rather that sympathetic workers inside a nuclear facility manage to smuggle out some fissile material.

The weekend’s attack on the army’s headquarters again raised questions about the military’s ability to prevent attacks. But analysts say the military managed to deal with the incident well.

“The question is whether the government has sufficient security practices in place,” geopolitical and security analysis firm Strafor said in a commentary on the attack.

“In this case, it appears that it did. Despite losses, the layers of security absorbed the attack and held. A perimeter was established around the building in which the hostages were confined, and elite troops trained in hostage rescue operations were quickly brought to bear in an effective rescue attempt.”

Another confrontation with India
A second risk scenario is that Pakistan’s government and military, facing prolonged instability and eager to neutralise the internal threat from militants, fall back on the old strategy of trying to export unrest. In a divided and unstable country, animosity towards India is one of the few unifying factors.

Pakistan’s government has shown eagerness to improve relations with India, but the ruling coalition is weak, and several militant groups are eager to strike again in India.

Pakistani authorities may decide that renewed confrontation is a price worth paying to keep a lid on internal unrest.

If India suffers more attacks like the militant assault on Mumbai last November, and if Pakistan is seen as failing to prevent such attacks, cross-border tensions would spiral and markets across the region would suffer. - Reuters

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