THE CAR BOMB that went off Monday at the Danish embassy in Islamabad was only the latest of several recent signs pointing to Pakistan as a nexus for terrorism and religious extremism. If the bombing in Pakistan's capital can be traced back to Al Qaeda, as officials there seem to believe, it will only underscore Pakistan's need to resolve a mounting identity crisis.
Pakistan has been stuck in a disabling contradiction at least since the 1980s, when its military intelligence agency, the ISI, worked with the CIA and Saudi funders to back Afghan and foreign fighters against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. After the Red Army retreated in 1989, America lost interest in Afghanistan. The anti-Soviet mujahideen fell to fighting with each other, until the fanatical Taliban, sponsored by Pakistan's ISI, swept to power in Kabul - with opportune funding from Osama bin Laden.
Because of the ISI's coddling of various jihadists, Pakistan is ever more vulnerable to terrorist atrocities, as demonstrated by the murder of Benazir Bhutto, the takeover of the so-called Red Mosque last summer, and countless assaults on Shi'ite mosques, video stores, and barber shops. The original aim was to raise up the Taliban as a proxy power in Afghanistan that could provide Pakistan with strategic depth in its conflict with India. The unintended consequence is that Islamist warlords have the run of whole regions in Pakistan and, in cahoots with Al Qaeda, can strike at will even in Islamabad.
The current coalition government, made up of the civilian parties led by Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, have sought to cope with the extremist threat by negotiating truces with the warlords. They recently struck a deal with the notorious Baitullah Mehsud, the jihadist commander of South Waziristan who is the prime suspect behind the murder of Benazir Bhutto. Since then, Taliban and Al Qaeda attacks across the border in Afghanistan have increased.
A truce may buy time. But it won't resolve the essential contradiction between a law-based state and the regional sway of Islamist warlords. At a time when clerics and disenchanted Islamists elsewhere are turning against the nihilistic violence of Al Qaeda, Pakistan desperately needs to dry up the local swamp where terrrorism is spawned.
That process must begin with a comprehensive peace between India and Pakistan. It should include genuine cooperation with the government of Afghanistan in cauterizing the Taliban threat. And it will have to culminate in social reforms and, if need be, military action in the Northwest Frontier Province to end the outlaw reign of the warlords and the Pakistani Taliban.