Pakistan in the grip of a big squeeze

Posted in Broader Middle East | 24-Jul-07 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

Pakistani army soldiers stand alert with weapons on a snow covered mountainous region of Alwara Mandei in North Waziristan along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

KARACHI - The US-led "war on terror" is poised to take a dramatic turn with its flames spreading across the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, where General Pervez Musharraf is in a battle to hold on to his presidency as well as his position as chief of army staff.

In recent days, the administration of US President George W Bush has unequivocally pointed its finger at Pakistan as providing a safe haven in its tribal areas for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda followers, and indicated that all options are on the table, including strikes into Pakistan to root out the terror threat. This was earlier reported by Asia Times Online - see US to hunt the Taliban inside Pakistan of July 3.

Musharraf suffered a major political setback on Friday when the Supreme Court ordered that Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry be reinstated. Musharraf had suspended Chaudhry in March over allegations of abuse of authority. But many believe the real reason was that Musharraf wanted to remove obstacles to his remaining in uniform while seeking another five-year term as president. Emboldened opposition parties are now raising the political temperature to force the issue.

The trigger for the escalation of tension in the country was Islamabad's decision two weeks ago to send troops into the pro-Taliban Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in the capital to meet its militant threat head-on. A fierce reaction in the tribal areas, where many drew inspiration - and support - from the Lal Masjid, has seen scores of security personnel killed in suicide and other attacks.

This unrest has provided Washington with reason to threaten raids in Pakistan, especially as the Pakistani Taliban have now ended their peace agreements with Islamabad. The United States never favored those accords, under which the Pakistani Taliban were meant to curb cross-border activity in return for the Pakistan Army leaving them alone.

Recent developments include a sudden revival of takfiri ideologues, who had been pushed into the background, as the main commanders of the anti-American movement in the tribal areas (see The knife at Pakistan's throat, ATol, September 2, 2006). Takfiris hold extreme views on Islam, including condemnation of Muslims who don't share their sentiments.

The takfiris are now organizing a Muslim backlash, with al-Qaeda as the flagbearer, aimed at propelling them into power in the country as a precursor to a wider struggle for the liberation of Palestine and the Prophet Mohammed's promised "end of time" fight.

Officially, Pakistan is not too keen on US intervention in its reinvigorated quest to catch bin Laden. Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kusuri said the government would try its level best through political means to avert foreign attacks on its soil.

However, Pakistani strategic quarters are aware of such plans and that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) high command in Afghanistan has detailed knowledge of al-Qaeda and Taliban bases in Pakistan - and has apprised Pakistan of its intentions.

The Pakistani Taliban, too, have no doubts that multiple attacks are on the way. NATO has stepped up troop activities on the border, US drones and spy planes criss-cross the skies, and the US is building a new base close to the border near Bajaur, Pakistan, and Kunar, Afghanistan (see A fight to the death on Pakistan's border, ATol, July 17, 2007).

The clampdown on the Lal Masjid further convinced the Pakistani Taliban (as well as al-Qaeda) to expect attention from the Pakistan Army and NATO/US forces.

Moulvi Sadiq Noor and Moulvi Abdul Khaliq, two main followers of Sheikh Essa, an Egyptian takfiri ideologue who is currently bedridden and seriously ill in the North Waziristan tribal area, have taken the lead and openly declared war against the Pakistan Army to avenge the Lal Masjid operation.

Musharraf's administration is trying to cool the situation, some reports suggest even by buying off militants with hard cash and promising to withdraw all troops from the troubled tribal regions. But attacks on the security forces have continued unabated.

Even the pro-Pakistan Taliban groups are in trouble. Taliban commander Haji Nazeer, who this year organized the killing of Uzbek militants in South Waziristan, has been replaced by a little-known hardliner. Nazeer was even attacked when he tried to mediate between Pakistani militants and the establishment.

After the setback over Chief Justice Chaudhry, Musharraf faces more potentially damaging issues. These include the death of some of Chaudhry's supporters at a rally in Karachi in May, the problem of scores of "missing people" held without charge by security agencies, female students unaccounted for after the storming of the Lal Masjid, and allegations that the military used a form of chemical weapon during that operation.

Musharraf clearly will have his hands full fighting these domestic fires, as well as facing down militants, with US help, highly contentious as this is, even in sections of his military.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

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