Pakistan: Hello al-Qaeda, goodbye AmericaMIRANSHAH, North Waziristan - With a truce between the Pakistani Taliban and Islamabad now in place, the Pakistani government is in effect reverting to its pre-September 11, 2001, position in which it closed its eyes to militant groups allied with al-Qaeda and clearly sided with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
While the truce has generated much attention, a more significant development is an underhand deal between pro-al-Qaeda elements and Pakistan in which key al-Qaeda figures will either not be arrested or those already in custody will be set free. This has the potential to sour Islamabad's relations with Washington beyond the point of no return.
On Tuesday, Pakistan agreed to withdraw its forces from the restive Waziristan tribal areas bordering Afghanistan in return for a pledge from tribal leaders to stop attacks by Pakistani Taliban across the border.
Most reports said that the stumbling block toward signing this truce had been the release of tribals from Pakistani custody. But most tribals had already been released.
The main problem - and one that has been unreported - was to keep Pakistan authorities' hands off members of banned militant organizations connected with al-Qaeda.
Thus, for example, it has now been agreed between militants and Islamabad that Pakistan will not arrest two high-profile men on the "most wanted" list that includes Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Saud Memon and Ibrahim Choto are the only Pakistanis on this list, and they will be left alone. Saud Memon was the owner of the lot where US journalist Daniel Pearl was tortured, executed and buried in January 2002 in Karachi after being kidnapped by jihadis.
Pakistan has also agreed that many people arrested by law-enforcement agencies in Pakistan will be released from jail.
Importantly, this includes Ghulam Mustafa, who was detained by Pakistani authorities late last year. Mustafa is reckoned as al-Qaeda's chief in Pakistan. (See Al-Qaeda's man who knows too much, Asia Times Online, January 5. As predicted in that article, Mustafa did indeed disappear into a "black hole" and was never formally charged, let alone handed over to the US.)
Asia Times Online contacts expect Mustafa to be released in the next few days. He was once close to bin Laden and has intimate knowledge of al-Qaeda's logistics, its financing and its nexus with the military in Pakistan.
Militants at large
"Now they [Pakistani authorities] have accepted us as true representatives of the mujahideen," Wazir Khan told Asia Times Online at a religious congregation in Miranshah. "Now we are no longer criminals, but part and parcel of every deal. Even the authorities have given tacit approval that they would not have any objections if I and other fellows who were termed as wanted took part in negotiations."
Wazir Khan was once a high-profile go-between for bin Laden and one of his closest Waziristan contacts. He was right up there on the "wanted" list. Now he can move around in the open. "The situation is diametrically changed," he said.
From a personal point of view, things have changed for Wazir Khan and others like him, but in the bigger picture things have also changed diametrically.
Pakistan, the leading light in the United States' "war on terror" and a "most important" non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, is returning to the heady times of before September 11 when it could dabble without restraint in regional affairs, and this at a time when Afghanistan is boiling.
"The post-September 11 situation [in Pakistan] was draconian," a prominent militant told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. "All jihadi organizations were informed in advance how they would be [severely] dealt with in the future and that they had better carve out an alternative low-profile strategy. But some people could not stop themselves from unnecessary adventures and created problems for the establishment. This gave the US the chance to intervene in Pakistan, and over 700 al-Qaeda mujahideen were arrested.
"Now the situation changed again ... we know the state of Pakistan is important for the Pakistan army, but certainly we know that the army would never completely compromise on Islam."
The truce between Islamabad and the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan has been a bitter pill for Washington to swallow, although Pakistan's pledge to allow foreign troops based in Afghanistan hot pursuit into a limited area in Pakistan softens the blow a bit.
Islamabad's overriding concern, though, is to earn some breathing space domestically, as well as get Uncle Sam off its back.
The situation in Waziristan was becoming unmanageable - it's already virtually a separate state - and trouble is ongoing in restive Balochistan province, especially since the killing at the hands of Pakistani security forces of nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Bugti. Fractious opposition political parties have shown rare unity in attacking the government of President General Pervez Musharraf on the issue.
Redrawing the map
An article by retired US Major Ralph Peters titled "Blood borders" published in the Armed Forces Journal last month has given Pakistan some food for thought over manipulating the geopolitical game on its own terms and conditions.
Peters, formerly assigned to the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, where he was responsible for future warfare, argues that borders in the Middle East and Africa are "the most arbitrary and distorted" in the world and need restructuring.
Four countries - Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - are singled out for major readjustments. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are also defined as "unnatural states".
Though the US State Department was quick to deny that such ideas had anything to do with US policymaking, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey read much between the lines of talk of restructuring their boundaries.
Among Peters' proposals was the need to establish "an independent Kurdish state" that would "stretch from Diyarbakir [eastern Turkey] through Tabriz [Iran], which would be the most pro-Western state between Bulgaria and Japan".
Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz recently visited Turkey and then Lebanon, where he announced that his country would not send any peacekeeping troops to the latter. Ankara then said that if peacekeeping forces tried to disarm Hezbollah, Turkey would pull out of the peace mission. These decisions are the result of back-channel diplomacy among Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan.
Across Pakistan's border in Afghanistan, the Taliban have control of most of the southwest of the country, from where Mullah Omar is expected soon to announce the revival of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan - the name of the country before the Taliban were driven out in 2001. Once the proclamation is made, a big push toward the capital Kabul will begin.
The sounds of jail doors opening in Pakistan will jar with the United States, as will Islamabad adopting a more independent foreign policy and, crucially, aligning itself with the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, which once again could become a Pakistani playground.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]