Sharif picked to tame Pakistan's militancy
KARACHI - Seven years after the invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, Dell Dailey, the US State Department's counterterrorism chief, reveals there are "gaps in intelligence" about militants in the Pakistani border regions and there is not enough information about what's going on there.
There's not enough information on al-Qaeda, on foreign fighters and on the Taliban, yet speculation is rife that nuclear-armed Pakistan will soon be under siege by Islamic militants. And Major General David Rodriguez, who commands US forces in eastern Afghanistan, warned this week that Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have postponed their spring offensive in Afghanistan as they want to focus their efforts on destabilizing the Pakistani government.
Therefore, given the assassination of the "great hope" Benazir Bhutto last month, the million-dollar question is: What political force can calm this visible storm raging in the country?
It is now emerging that Washington and London, the two major stakeholders in the "war on terror", see former premier Nawaz Sharif as the answer.
The British Foreign Office played a crucial role in backroom talks with Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shebaz Sharif to get them, since their recent return from exile, to play a major political role once Parliament is in place after next month's general elections. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML) is expected to win a considerable number of seats, if not a simple majority.
Should this happen, the issue will then become Sharif's working relationship with President Pervez Musharraf. International and Pakistan players are now trying to address this problem.
Enter, therefore, retired Brigadier Niaz Ahmad, one of the country's richest ex-serviceman. He owns and operates several companies with international business, including one which supplies material to Pakistan's atomic laboratory at Kohota. He was retired general Musharraf's senior in the army and a family friend of Sharif's. He is trying to bridge the gap between Musharraf and Nawaz, an animosity that dates to Nawaz being deposed as prime minister by Musharraf's coup in 1999.
Senior PML leaders admit that Niaz met Sharif's brother in London, but say there was no political dealing. "It was purely a personal meeting. We braved eight years of the military dictatorship of Musharraf and at this stage, when he is on his way out, we will not strike any deal with him," the central vice president of Sharif's PML, Mushahidullah Khan, told Asia Times Online.
He added his party will not be part of any international agenda. "We have been opposing the policies of the [George W] Bush administration in the region and we will not support them in any form," Mushahidullah maintained.
However, Asia Times Online contacts believe the matter transcends local political wheeling and dealing over power-sharing, and that Washington and London want Sharif, as he will rally popular support for the "war on terror" as he is close to the religious segment of society and the most likely to be able to tame militancy.
The next few days could be crucial. After attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Musharraf has a two-day stopover in England. According to the official version, he will spend quite time "at a farm house". But Asia Times Online contacts maintain he will meet with Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri to discuss guarantees and a modus operandi for a relationship between the Sharifs and Musharraf.
Saad's slain father Rafik Hariri previously was the guarantor of a deal between Sharif and Musharraf which allowed Sharif's release from jail in 2000 - he had been sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of hijacking - to go into exile in Saudi Arabia. Sharif initially denied this deal, but later admitted to it.
Retired Squadron Leader Khalid Khawaja commented to Asia Times Online, "We are fully aware of these developments, and you would be surprised to learn that I recently met a person in the UAE [United Arab Emirates] who divulged that America's real point person has always been Nawaz Sharif. The reason is simple, he has inroads to the militants and he is considered among them to be a better person in comparison to all others."
Khawaja was a close aide of Osama bin Laden's after retiring from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)and the Pakistan Air Force. Khawaja also arranged bin Laden's meeting with Nawaz Sharif in the late 1980s in Saudi Arabia to hatch a plan to topple Bhutto's government.
Khawaja would not name the person he had met in the UAE, other than to hint he is part of the ISI's and the US State Department's initiative of backroom meetings between Pakistani officials and the opposition.
A matter of urgency
The need to work out a deal between Sharif and Musharraf is of paramount importance, given the security situation in the country.
The security forces have launched an operation to eliminate former Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in the South Waziristan tribal area, but they have admitted they are clueless about his network.
Mehsud was recently "sacked" by Taliban leader Mullah Omar because of Mehsud's obsession with waging war against the Pakistan state. Mullah Omar wants the Taliban to concentrate on the struggle in Afghanistan.
Recently arrested militants in the port city of Karachi apparently divulged details of Mehsud's plans to attack Pakistan's strategic installations. As a result, security has been beefed up around intelligence and military installations. Officials even fear an imminent country-wide clash between security and extremist forces.
Pakistani intelligence's efforts to eliminate militant cells has been hampered by the loss of several key people. Former members of Musharraf's ruling coalition and ministers such as Sheikh Rasheed and Ejaz ul-Haq have been discredited in the eyes of the militants. This is because of their role in the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) incident last year when the radical mosque was stormed by security forces. They had been close to the militants.
Even former opposition leader Fazlur Rehman, who played a major role in striking a ceasefire deal in the tribal areas, is now on al-Qaeda's hit list for trying to broker a ceasefire between Taliban commanders and Western intelligence agencies in southwestern Afghanistan.
All eyes are now on Sharif to rescue the situation, whether in the role of a friendly opposition (as the six-party religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal did in the past) or as part of a ruling coalition.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org