Commentary by Henry Srebrnik
Throughout its turbulent history, Pakistan, a country of 180 million people — the second largest Muslim state in the world — has been subject to periodic military coups, often the result of mismanagement by corrupt civilian politicians.
It also suffers from a homegrown Taliban-led insurgency in the Pashtun-inhabited Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan, and mounting anger over CIA drone strikes, especially in North Waziristan.
Six police officers were killed on Jan. 12 in back-to-back bombings targeting an adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Martoong area of the Swat valley, which the Taliban controlled from 2007-2009.
Other parts of the country also experience terrorism. In the large port city of Karachi, with its 17 million people, ethnic and political divisions fan the violence. There is considerable animosity between the native Sindis, Pashtuns from the war-torn region along the Afghan border, and Muhajirs, the term for Muslims from elsewhere in India who moved into what became Pakistan after the 1947 partition dividing India. From 2010 through 2013, some 3,900 people were killed in terror and crime related activities.
There has also been deadly violence against Shi’ite Muslims, who comprise about 15-20 per cent of the population, by Sunni extremists. Last year there were 687 sectarian killings, a 22 per cent increase over 2012, according to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies; most of the victims were Shi’ites.
Sectarian unrest is spreading throughout the country and becoming routine in heavily populated areas, the group concluded. Last November, Sunnis and Shi’ites clashed in Rawalpindi, a military garrison city adjacent to Islamabad.
On Jan. 6, a suicide bomber tried to enter a school filled with several hundred students in a Shi’ite-dominated village in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, but was stopped by a ninth-grader, who is being hailed as a national hero after he died when the bomb went off in the ensuing scuffle.
Extremists are apparently trying to intimidate educated Shi’ites into leaving the country, asserted Salman Zaidi, a deputy director of the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. All told, the toll of violence and terrorism in Pakistan caused 4,725 fatalities last year.
What makes this all the worse is that Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state, and there is always the danger that such weapons could conceivably fall into the hands of extremist groups should the country implode.
“Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal probably consists of approximately 90-110 nuclear warheads, although it could be larger,” according to a report released last year by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), an independent research wing of the U.S. Congress.
“Islamabad is producing fissile material, adding to related production facilities, and deploying additional delivery vehicles. These steps could enable Pakistan to undertake both quantitative and qualitative improvements to its nuclear arsenal,” the report said.
Though Pakistan has in recent years taken a number of steps to increase international confidence in the security of its nuclear arsenal, the CRS report cautioned that increased instability in Pakistan has called the extent and durability of these precautions into question.
Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Sharif, both elected last summer, clearly have their hands full.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.