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Insecure cities — The militant threat

April 01, 2013

A REPORT in this newspaper yesterday has once again underlined the growing threat that Pakistan’s cities face from the Taliban and militant activity — a threat that the media has been highlighting without having been able to motivate the state into action. Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta are already reeling from the wave of violence unleashed by militant elements. But the more subtle, though no less dangerous, aspects of the threat are often overlooked. First, in Lahore and Islamabad, the other capital cities, and in smaller cities across Pakistan, the threat also exists — lurking below the surface, but real nevertheless. Second, across the country, the state — the provincial and federal governments and the security and intelligence apparatus, both military and civilian — appear either paralysed or unwilling to confront the threat.

It is the state’s virtual abdication of its responsibility for ensuring law and order that the militants exploit, filling the vacuum with their own ideas and systems. In yesterday’s report in this newspaper on the virtual takeover of some parts of Karachi by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and affiliated militants, the complicity of the police or often just their unwillingness to take on a threat that is organised and lethal with the militants possibly better armed than the law enforcers is revealed in stark detail. In Peshawar, where brave police officers have laid down their lives fighting on the frontlines of the militant threat, the underlying problems have long been laid bare. Inadequate resources, political interference, lack of effective intelligence and treating militancy as a law and order problem instead of using specialised counterterrorism expertise are only some of the reasons why the law enforcers are unable to meet the challenge.

Ultimately, though, the spread of militancy in Pakistan’s cities is not just about one instrument of the state failing to do its job — it’s about a collective, and ongoing, failure. The deeper problem is of a declining state, one that appears to have lost the will to protect or transform for the better the lives of its citizenry. By the time the militants are emboldened enough to annex neighbourhoods, much of the battle would already have been lost and only a stirring rear guard action would be able to salvage the situation. Much of the fight has to be fought before, to identify emerging threats, know how to tamp them down and keep the cities secure. Unhappily, little of that is happening at the moment.