After Lahore

Tariq Ali

The immediate casualty of the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this month will be the future of cricket in Pakistan. A few optimists point out that the Munich massacre didn’t bring the 1972 Olympics to a halt. But I doubt whether even Zimbabwe could now be induced to come and play at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. Who can blame them? Pakistan’s captain, Younus Khan, who scored a triple century in the Karachi test a few days before the atrocity, is in mourning. ‘When I was a boy,’ he said,

I loved watching Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Wasim Akram playing against great teams from overseas. It is because of them, seeing them play, that I also played the game. But what if no one comes to Pakistan? How will the youngsters know about the game? What will they do? It would be very easy right now for the ICC and the bosses to say there will be no cricket in Pakistan, but the future will not be good if cricket is taken away from my country.

Many from less educated backgrounds would say the same. Cricket is extremely popular in the slums. Pakistan will now play against foreign teams only in foreign countries, every home match now also an away match. Many poor families have no electricity, let alone television sets. No cricket for them.

Who did this and why? Many questions (as with the murder of Benazir Bhutto) will remain unanswered. Who unleashed these monsters and, more important, was any intelligence operative aware of what was being plotted? Pakistan’s intelligence-gathering agencies, civilian and military, employ more than a quarter of a million people. Their agents have infiltrated many, if not all, of the armed groups operating in the country. Since these groups were set up by the intelligence agencies in the first place, it would be surprising if, as is sometimes claimed, all the links had been broken. They are and will no doubt long remain the most toxic assets of the state apparatus.

The largest of these groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba, denied all responsibility. It would. Its leader, under post-Mumbai house arrest, promised to help track down the culprits. There is speculation that the attack was the work of a breakaway faction, angry that its leaders and activists should have been interrogated at India’s behest. Others insist that it was India’s revenge for what happened in Mumbai. Averting their eyes from something too painful to acknowledge, Pakistan’s TV stations (usually quite good) point a collective finger at India. Kamran Khan, the anchor of a current affairs show on Geo TV, was clear: ‘No need to guess. The identity of the terrorists is evident. Also, it is crystal clear where they have come from. Pakistan now should not sit idle. Instead she should highlight the issue at international forums the way India highlighted Mumbai.’ Talat Hussain, a rival talk-show host on Aaj TV, went for a junior minister who’d had the temerity to point out that there was no evidence of an Indian hand behind the attack: ‘Why are you taking such a soft position?’ Hussain asked the minister. ‘Is it possible to have a bigger enemy than India?’

There can be no return to normality if things don’t change in Pakistan itself. And there are no easy solutions, only problems. First, the military is seriously divided and any escalation of the war in Afghanistan will only exacerbate these divisions, as Obama’s advisers know full well. When the US senator Dianne Feinstein blurted out last month that the drones targeting Pakistani villages, or ‘terrorist havens’, near the Afghan frontier, were being fired from US bases inside Pakistan, there was surprise and anger in the country. The half-hearted denials by a government whose president is himself viewed as a drone convinced nobody. Within days Google Earth images of the bases in Pakistan were circulating widely on the web. There were no further denials.

Since 9/11, personnel from the US Defense Intelligence Agency have had access to Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. The US has repeatedly assured Israel that it has installed PALS, or Permissive Action Links, supplemented by a dual-key safety mechanism, in Islamabad’s command and control system that make it impossible for any rogue commander to use it without special code authorisation from Pakistan’s civilian leader (Allah help us). In Pakistan some claim that US experts have inserted a ‘dead switch’ into the PALS, which freezes the system just like ‘stalling a stolen car from a remote position’. The Israelis still aren’t satisfied, however, and want Washington to get Pakistan to give up its nuclear weapons – which might be easier if Israel and India were to set an example.

Second, the civilian government is a complete disaster. When I was in Islamabad a few weeks ago, I was given strictly off-the-record details of two sordid transactions involving President’s House. If my informants are right, Zardari and his cronies are back to business as usual, making money and spiriting funds abroad. Meanwhile, religious extremism prevails in the Northwest, while a secular mafia rules Karachi, the largest city, where law and order is non-existent. Last month Zardari dissolved the provincial parliament in the Punjab, sacking the Sharif brothers, his political rivals, who are now mobilising their supporters on the streets and courting arrest. Were this to escalate into clashes with the police and the paramilitaries, the army would probably be compelled to move in. Zardari is now rehabilitating the defeated and discredited Chaudhrys of Gujarat. What of their former patron? General Musharraf is just back from a successful US tour and, like Tony Blair, has been offered a campus sinecure to give him time to brief a ghost-writer and hasten the appearance of his memoirs. Instead, the general, realising that he is now more popular than Zardari, is campaigning to share power with him. There is talk of a permanent military takeover, with a civilian façade and a new presidential constitution. Domestic chaos might well lead to institutional change designed yet again to ensure that nothing really changes.

The third problem is the United States, which is now seeing the results of its failure to have an exit strategy from Afghanistan. On 25 February Richard Holbrooke showed up at a Brookings Institution event optimistically titled ‘Pakistan: Dream Deferred or Denied?’ Stephen Cohen, an expert on the Pakistan military and a senior fellow at the institution, painted a grim picture of the situation in Pakistan. The country, he said, was unravelling at a rapid pace and the US could lose control. If Cohen’s analysis was accurate, Holbrooke commented there and then, the policy the new administration had agreed on was largely misguided. He promised to be there for the follow-up discussion, but didn’t show up. Since this was Washington, nobody cared about the cricket.