The chilling video released this past July is proof of just how potentially dangerous Pakistan is to itself, the region, and the world. It shows would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-born American citizen, embracing Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, patting him warmly on the back and then vigorously pumping his hand. A voice-over deadpans: “We are planning to wage an attack on your side, inshallah.” Mercifully, the car bomb that Shahzad had learned to fashion last year while visiting the militants’ stronghold in North Waziristan, one of Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal areas, failed to detonate on May 1. But as James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation think tank put it, “We are just one car bomb away from a major crisis with Pakistan.”
Indeed, three years after NEWSWEEK published its controversial cover naming Pakistan the world’s most dangerous nation, it seems to be even worse off. This past January, Pakistani tribal militants released another video, this one showing Mehsud sending Jordanian double agent Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi on his suicide mission to blow up seven CIA operatives at Camp Chapman, near Khost, on Dec. 30. Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi didn’t leave behind a video that we know of, but after receiving training in a Qaeda-affiliated camp in the tribal zone two years ago, he returned to his workaday life in the U.S. while planning to be part of a coordinated suicide bombing on New York City’s subway system. He was arrested before he could act. Then there is the massacre in Mumbai in November 2008, in which 160 people died, an operation carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants in Pakistan. India seems to have shown self-restraint. But if there is a next time, public opinion may force New Delhi to retaliate, which could bring both nations to the brink of nuclear war.
The great danger is that there almost certainly will be a next time. Pakistan’s leaders have failed to come to grips with what’s lurking in their country. To be fair, the Pakistani military has acted forcefully over the past 18 months in both Swat and South Waziristan, and in other tribal areas, to confront and smash militant networks. But it hasn’t done enough. The militants are agile and deeply rooted after enjoying years of free rein. North Waziristan has become the magnet for myriad would-be jihadists: tribal Pakistanis, Afghans, Kashmiris, Punjabis, Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks, Britons, and even Americans. They come to receive inspiration, to train, to study, to plot, and to attack. These jihadists may be diverse, disunited, and pursuing their own agendas, but there is a common denominator: destabilizing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India—and scheming against the West.
They may also be getting stronger. Almost as soon as the devastating floods struck in late July, they began filling a void left by the government’s disorganized initial response. Taiba’s charity wing, and those of several other Islamist and jihadi groups, were out there distributing tents, water, and medicine long before government teams began appearing. And the recently released WikiLeaks documents suggest that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence is giving not only shelter to the Afghan Taliban but also assisting and advising the insurgents.
The space in which militants operate may have shrunk in Swat and parts of South Waziristan, but, disturbingly, it has expanded in other areas inside and outside the tribal belt, including the Punjab, the country’s most populous and perhaps most politically important province. Once relatively free of militant violence, it is now a gathering place, where sectarian, anti-Indian, and jihadist groups have emerged seemingly stronger than ever, says Lahore political scientist Hasan Askari Rizvi. Suicide and ground assaults against the police, intelligence agencies, and civilians, including an ambush of the Sri Lankan cricket team in March 2009, are on the increase there. This past week suicide bombers killed more than 30 Shiites during a religious procession in Lahore. Taiba is believed to have ambitions far beyond India, says America’s top military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, and is becoming “a significant regional and global threat.”
Operating out of the space ceded to them, and by exploiting the country’s modern telecommunications, transport, and financial systems, the Taliban, the Lashkars, and the Harakats arguably can plant a bomb in New York, Mumbai, and Kabul almost as easily as they can send a suicide bomber to Karachi or Islamabad. As long as that remains true, Pakistan will be widely viewed as the country presenting the most danger to regional and global security—and to its own stability.