The shocking assassination of Pakistan’s Minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, in Islamabad on March 2 has magnified fears across the world about the emergence of a radical Sunni state with nuclear weapons. Bhatti, a Christian, was killed for his strong opposition to the retrogressive blasphemy laws. A few weeks earlier, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, lost his life to an assassin’s bullets for his liberal views and opposition to blasphemy laws.

In both the cases, the government chose not to make an issue and pretended as if nothing significant had happened.  The army’s role, and particularly the silence of Pakistan Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has been more telling. General Kayani, who is otherwise quite keen on making his views known to the people, decided to adopt a studied silencer which is far more ominous than the boisterous claims made by the religious right.

But before analysing Kayani’s silence on the subject and its implications, it would be useful to refer to the letter left behind by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) killers in Islamabad. The letter ``from the warriors of Islam to all the world’s infidels, crusaders, Jews and their operatives within the Muslim Brotherhood`` said ``in your fight against Allah, you have become so bold that you act in favour of and support those who insult the Prophet. And you put a cursed Christian infidel Shahbaz Bhatti in charge of the (blasphemy review) committee. This is the fate of that cursed man. And now, with the grace of Allah, the warriors of Islam will pick you out one by one and send you to hell, God willing``.

The letter offers two significant insights into today’s Pakistan. First, TTP’s reference to `Muslim Brotherhood` clearly exposes the hand of al Qaida, particularly that of its second-in-command Alyman al-Zawahari. Zawahari, once a Brotherhood member, is a staunch opponent of the group which has a strong presence in Egypt. Second, TTP is not interested in targeting the military but only the civilian government which means it has found a safe haven in Pakistan and for the moment is willing to do the Army’s bidding in exchange for protection.

Therein lies Kayani’s dilemma. TTP was originally his creation when he was the head of ISI; the objective was to leverage the emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan led by Mullah Omar and other al Qaeda members. TTP was planned as a Trojan Horse in the al Qaeda ranks. The plan, however, went awry as Baitullah Mehsud, incensed by the military action on its tribe, the Lal Masjid offensive and the Drone attacks, branched out on his own, and of course paid with his life eventually.  Since then, TTP has broken up into different pieces with Pakistan Army managing to control some elements of this disunited group. In Salman Taseer’s case, Kayani could take refuge behind the fact that the Punjab Governor was killed by a renegade police man.  The reasons were far deeper though. Kayani feared that a public condemnation of the killing of Taseer could upset religious fanatics within his force and perhaps lead to a mutinous situation. Kayani is acutely aware of the presence of radicalised men and officer in the armed forces and intelligence services.

But in Bhatti’s case, such an excuse would be facetious. TTP is not a rogue group but a proxy supported and sustained by the army and ISI with certain strategic objectives. Kayani’s silence on the Bhatti killings either show that he supports extremists and their stand on blasphemy laws or he feels incapable of dealing with the monsters that his force has created. This raises one very fundamental question—is Kayani himself a sympathiser of radical views? Perhaps not. Kayani, who comes from a middle class family in northern Punjab, is too much of a professional soldier to be radical (not that there has never been a case of an officer in Pakistan Army turning jihadi). But he has used various terrorist groups as proxies to achieve military objectives. Despite failures in the recent past when some of the proxies have turned `autonomous`, Kayani has not given up the policy of using terrorist groups as `strategic assets`. TTP is one such asset and Kayani is not keen to abandon it at this juncture.

These two killings underline the failure of not only the civilian government but also that of the military leadership. More stark has been the advantage the extremist groups like TTP and Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) have managed to extract from this combined pusillanimity.  LeT, for instance, has raised its pitch and street presence in major cities like Lahore and Islamabad ever since Taseer was assassinated. The group has held main thoroughfares in these cities hostage to violent street protests over blasphemy and Raymond Davis, threatening to launch a people’s movement across the country if the state were to compromise on either of these issues.

No one considers Kayani a weak General. If he is strong as many believe, how far will Kayani allow extremist forces to take the centre stage in Pakistan. When will the tipping point come? And, the most critical question is what can the army do if it faces a direct challenge from the emboldened coalition of terrorist and extremist groups in a nuclear Pakistan?

Adding fuel to fire is the possibility that the US, despite the stand-off on the Davis case, will continue to shore up Pakistan Army, not only to ensure its `Exit Afghanistan` policy but also to build a Sunni bulwark against the possibility of a rising Shia arc in the Middle East in turmoil. This could spell disaster not only for Pakistan as a nation-state but also for the region, and the world, as a whole.