Jihadis strike back at Pakistan
KARACHI - The US-inspired move to stabilize Pakistan by bringing together the exiled liberal and secular former premier Benazir Bhutto and President General Pervez Musharraf to form a national-consensus government indicates Washington's overriding desire to maintain Pakistan as an important base in the "war on terror", as well as to secure large infrastructure projects in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The idea has taken firm root, with talks between representatives of Musharraf and Bhutto continuing, and an announcement expected within a couple of days. No opposition alliance, whether it be the six-party religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal or the All Parties Democratic Movement, is in a position to threaten the government.
No political opposition, that is.
Al-Qaeda members based in the Pakistani tribal areas of South Waziristan and North Waziristan on the border with Afghanistan see this development as a serious challenge to their survival. In response, they have drawn together the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, jihadist groups and, last but not least, a significant number in the Pakistani security forces to "nip the evil in bud".
This they aim to do by offering fierce resistance to Pakistani forces across the country from bases in North West Frontier Province and elsewhere, as well as to any coalition forces that stage raids from across the border in Afghanistan. (See Taliban a step ahead of US assault, Asia Times Online, August 11.) After this, they will rejoin the Afghan offensive with renewed zeal.
On Tuesday, militants send a bloody message on their intentions. Two suicide bombers attacked two areas in the high-security zone of the garrison city of Rawalpindi (the capital Islamabad's twin city), killing 27 people and injuring more than 80. Most of the victims belonged to the defense services. An Interior Ministry spokesman linked the bombers with militants in Waziristan.
Last week, in a stunning show of strength, militants abducted 410 officers and soldiers of the security forces in the Waziristans. The Pakistani press initially reported numbers of 100, then 200 and later 300. This clearly underlines the vulnerability of the ruling military establishment.
"You don't see any law enforcer in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], especially after sunset. The militants hold the real authority," Zulfiqar Ali, who reports from the area, was quoted as saying by Inter Press Service. He speculated that the fact that the militants could seize and hold such a large number of soldiers indicated their size and strength and said it was possible that the government had already lost control of the tribal areas.
This vulnerability can be traced to July, when security forces stormed the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, which had close links with militants in the tribal areas. Many militants holed up in the mosque were killed, but such was the backlash that Pakistan retreated from a planned operation against the Taliban's and al-Qaeda's assets throughout the country, despite a massive deployment of troops in the tribal areas. An uneasy truce in the tribal areas between militants and the authorities was called off by the militants.
New lease on life for militants
Rawalpindi is full of secret detention centers known as "safe houses" in the language of the secret services. All high-profile terror suspects, including those involved in plots to kill Musharraf in 2003 and 2004, coup plotters and those involved in sabotage operations, are held in these centers. The suspects number in the hundreds.
The saga of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry changed everything. He was suspended in March by Musharraf for alleged abuse of office, but subsequently reinstated by the Supreme Court. This marked a major milestone in the history of the Pakistani judiciary and the birth of unprecedented judicial activism, which included the Supreme Court ordering the authorities to release "missing people" detained in the secret detention centers of intelligence organizations.
Dozens were released, including al-Qaeda's Pakistani chief, Mustafa (one name).  Militants had tried for a long time to strike deals to have him freed, but Pakistan, under foreign pressure, would not do so. It took the courts to secure his release.
Soon after the militants were released, the Lal Masjid operation took place, which further emboldened them to reorganize into various groups. On August 25, this message was disseminated through e-mail to all national and international press:
Dusk on July 10 witnessed the fall of a gallant warrior. Perhaps the bravest this land has seen. His revolutionary pride refused to bow down before a system which is based on tyranny and oppression. He might be dead, but he lives through the cause his blood sanctified. To our nation, which has been enslaved for the past 300 years, he gave the will to resist the ruling class and the imperial powers with the slogan Shariat ya shahadat [rough translation: We are ready to die for the enforcement of Islamic law]. We are back with a bang.
The message was released with photographs of Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, the deputy prayer leader of Lal Masjid, who was killed on July 10. Also in the last week of August, a video compact disc was released of the Lal Masjid operation in which a background voice promised a wave of suicide attacks throughout Pakistan to avenge the incident. Supporters of the Lal Masjid, not only in Islamabad and Rawalpindi but also in other parts of the country, activated their followers.
Then a car was snatched at gunpoint from Inter-Services Intelligence officials in Rawalpindi. This prompted the authorities to issue orders that officials avoid all unnecessary movements in civilian areas and not to travel without guards in uniform. In the same period, militants raided a secret detention center in Rawalpindi, firing some shots before escaping. This week, before the twin suicide blasts, four army personnel were kidnapped in broad daylight from Qasim Market in Rawalpindi.
Concerned officials opened back-channel talks with the militants. Fazl Karim, who slit the throat of US reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002, was released without fanfare from detention in Karachi. Though Pakistan claimed an unconditional handover of 18 security personnel in Waziristan last week, sources told Asia Times Online that more than 1,000 militants were swapped.
The 410 security forces, however, remain in the captivity of militants in Waziristan. In addition, dozens of security personnel are either killed or kidnapped just about every day in the tribal areas of Mohmand, Bajaur and the Waziristans.
Security officials point out that Tuesday's twin bombings once again show the level of the militants' penetration of the security forces. The bombers were easily able to transport themselves and explosives into a high-security area; clearly they had active help from insiders.
"This is natural retaliation for the oppression of Lal Masjid students and teachers. The government massacred hundreds of people and used white phosphorus to annihilate them, and now they expect peace?" Abu Hafs, a spokesman for the Lal Masjid movement, told Asia Times Online in a telephone conversation.
Musharraf and his allies have been the target of militants for many years, and survived. This time, however, it could be different.
Asia Times Online contacts in the tribal areas say that al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, Uzbek militants and the Afghan Taliban have shelved their differences and agreed on a single agenda. This is to remove all Western allies from Pakistan and to continue attacks on the establishment until the military leadership alienates itself from the "war on terror". They also want the release of all suspected militant prisoners in Pakistani jails and secret facilities.
This approach is the same as the one adopted in April 2006, when militants made sure that Pakistan would not carry out operations on their bases, and only then they entered Afghanistan for their successful spring offensive.
After a deal is finalized with Bhutto, it will be a litmus test for the Pakistan Army as an institution whether it backs the deal in favor of Washington or expands it and makes a bargain with the militants so that it can survive for another day - and make life more miserable for the Western coalition in Afghanistan.
1. See Al-Qaeda's man who knows too much, Asia Times Online, January 5.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.