New York City caught a break this week after a car bomb failed to detonate in Times Square. The alleged attacker, Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-born American citizen, reportedly claimed he learned his terror craft at a training camp in North Waziristan, an insurgent stronghold in Pakistan’s tribal belt. America, Britain and Europe have understandably grown fearful of tribal belt insurgents exporting violent jihad to western shores and this latest incident has garnered considerable media attention, not to mention, a deluge of official reaction from some powerful players. Scary as Shahzad may be though, obsessing about a disgruntled, young militant with poor bomb-making skills strikes me as misplaced considering what’s really at stake in Pakistan. Pakistani militants have made a much bigger mark on their home turf than they have abroad. Though Pakistan has long been accused of being soft on militants due to Afghan Taliban taking refuge within its borders, in recent years Islamabad has been contending with a growing wave of violence unleashed by the TTP, an umbrella group for the Pakistani Taliban. To the consternation of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, the TTP isn’t concerned with driving western forces out of Afghanistan. Its goal is to topple Pakistan’s central government, abolish democracy (which it views as un-Islamic) and establish a Caliphate; in short, to shake Pakistan to its very foundations.
Islamabad has responded to this challenge by launching several military offensives in the tribal belt where TTP is based. The fighting has been brutal and Pakistan’s military has taken heavy causalities. If it extends its campaign into North Waziristan (and there will undoubtedly be pressure from the West to do so after Times Square) the military’s resources will be stretched further still. Moreover, the fallout from these incursions is not confined to the tribal areas. The specter of Muslims killing Muslims has done much to enflame Pakistan’s considerable ethnic divisions. Throw in a long-running separatist movement in Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest and most resource rich province and what you have is a recipe for massive instability and civil unrest in a nuclear power. That is scary.
The Times Square bomber has been charged with terrorism and ‘attempting to detonate a weapon of mass destruction.’ Call me old fashioned, but I still think of WMD in terms of NBC -nuclear, biological and chemical; not FPG- fireworks, petrol and gas. Sadly though, my version of WMD did not receive as much coverage this week even though a review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is underway at the United Nations in New York.
Pakistan and its neighbor/arch nuclear rival India are not participating in the UN conference because neither country has signed the NPT. But they are there in spirit due to nuclear energy agreements; one between the US and India, another between China and Pakistan. Think of it as the post-Cold War version of mutually assured destruction: MAD by proxy, only more frightening because both India and Pakistan are dealing with considerable domestic unrest.
By enhancing Pakistan’s and India’s nuclear capabilities, China and the US are not only making a mockery of the NPT; if Iran realizes its nuclear ambitions, the stage will be set for a terrifying set of nuclear dominos. External agitation could be the trigger that sets them in motion but so too could internal strife. Diminishing – or better yet, dismantling those dominos is one of the most pressing security issues in the world today – one that deserves above-the-fold, front-page headlines.
Granted, Faisal Shahzad makes more interesting copy than a bunch of talking heads at the UN. But the escapades of an inept terrorist who left a trail of clues before deploying his failed fireworks display won’t seem nearly as significant if all hell breaks loose in South Asia.