Rising violence, targeted and random, has become a fact of life in Pakistan today. It threatens the country’s political and economic future—and there still does not appear to be a strategy to stop it.

The fledgling civilian government, composed of a weak coalition of opportunistic parties, has conceded to the military responsibility for organizing campaigns against insurgents who have set off a wave of attacks across the nation over the past two weeks.

The latest military campaign in South Waziristan, launched Saturday, is a good example of the disconnect between the government and the military. The government has ceded all strategic authority to the army, and without civilian leadership, no military strategy can succeed there. It also reflects the continuation of a pattern that began soon after the Pakistan People’s Party government succeeded the autocratic regime of President Pervez Musharraf last year. The then new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, briefed the government opposition leaders on the deteriorating security situation and asked them to provide him with direction. He had to wait four weeks before being told to proceed with plans for clearing Taliban militants out of the Swat Valley.

The government eventually came up with slogans for countering terror and violence with “the ‘three Ds’ strategy of dialogue, development, and deterrence,” as Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told the World Economic Forum at Davos this year. But there has been little evidence on the ground of a practicable road map for achieving these goals.

Meanwhile the chart of death and destruction has been rising rapidly. This year, the number of fatalities reached 8,375, up from 189 in 2003, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal that tracks such figures from public records. Some 22,110 people were killed over the past six years, including at least 2,637 security personnel, 7,004 civilians and 5,960 terrorists or insurgents. The rise of the Tehrik-e-Taliban of Pakistan, a loose umbrella group of tribal factions based near the Afghan border, has added a new measure of danger. The Tehrik-e-Taliban also has ties with regional groups in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and in the settled areas of Pakistan with the Punjabi militant groups (which were once trained by Pakistani intelligence to operate against India in Kashmir). These groups have begun targeting the army, culminating in the bold attack on army headquarters in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, earlier this month.

The army is now in the middle of its offensive against the Tehrik-e-Taliban stronghold in the Mehsud territory of South Waziristan, a rugged and forbidding terrain where battle-hardened al Qaeda regulars have bolstered the group’s numbers. It will be a tough and costly battle. If the army destroys the nucleus of the insurgent leadership in South Waziristan, it will have won a respite from the violence.

But the war will not be over. It is likely that Tehrik-e-Taliban and al Qaeda franchises in the Punjab will continue to wreak havoc in the hinterland cities where ineffective police cannot protect the population. As a reaction to the Waziristan campaign, the government this week closed down schools and other institutions that could be likely targets of attacks. And while the army will be able to clear centers of militancy, as it did in Swat earlier this year, it will likely not be equipped to hold the territory or build the local economy.

That is where the civilians need to step in. To date, they have been largely absent, and the militants are feeding off the local population’s discontent with lack of governance and economic opportunities. In the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, for instance, where economic and social indicators reveal the region lags behind the rest of the country, female literacy is no more than 3%. Most of the so-called youth bulge there, some 300,000 people aged 16 to 25, is unemployed.

There does not appear to be hope on the horizon. Almost no U.S. assistance has reached the ground in these areas. It is also unclear whether the latest U.S. aid package of $1.5 billion a year for the next five years, passed by Congress last month, will trickle down to the needy. It probably won’t, unless the U.S aid machinery is overhauled.

In the absence of robust civilian counterpart organizations, the army may need to be brought into the aid delivery loop initially, with due safeguards for monitoring the use of the assistance. Road works, dams and other infrastructure projects in Federally Administered Tribal Areas could rapidly provide employment to idle youth and drain the Taliban’s recruitment pool. But so far none are planned. In North Waziristan last year, army commanders told me that they had expended their annual medical supplies just three months after setting up medical camps to treat civilians in remote locations.

Pakistan’s government must meet local needs and create jobs to address the causes of violence. At the national level, Mr. Gilani’s government needs to focus sharply on delivering services and providing justice—not concentrate on clinging to power. If he fails, the democratic experiment may be threatened yet again, as it often has in Pakistan’s fractured polity, where violence spawns civil unrest and then military intervention.

The U.S. and other friends of Pakistan must continue to support the development of an inclusive political system that allows all Pakistanis to participate in determining their political future. The family enterprises that dominate local politics and thrive on graft and preferred access to state resources cannot be supported. The U.S. would also do well to widen the aperture of its involvement in the region by bringing India into the picture. The strong, newly elected Congress Party-led government in New Delhi has the capacity to reduce potential tension on its neighbor’s eastern frontier, allowing Pakistan to devote more troops to fighting militancy in its western region.

Longer term, if peace breaks out between India and Pakistan, the dividends will be widespread in both economies. Greater trade and a greater exchange of travelers will likely reduce hostility and shift the emphasis from military spending to civilian development and growth. That is the real answer to the growing violence in the region. But first, Islamabad has to take the reins.

Shuja Nawaz is director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.  This essay was previously published as “The Battle for Pakistan” in the Wall Street Journal.  

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