Pakistan at the mercy of marching lawyers
KARACHI - Pakistan is engulfed in its own version of the Long March, and just as that pivotal event changed the face of China in the mid-1930s, Pakistan's political landscape could be significantly altered, as could that of its neighbor Afghanistan.
Thousands of black-suited lawyers gathered in Karachi on Monday for the beginning of a country-wide protest that is scheduled to finish outside parliament in the capital Islamabad on Thursday.
The protests began as a move to have more than 40 members of the judiciary, sacked by President Pervez Musharraf last year, reinstated, but have evolved into a direct challenge to Musharraf's position and into antagonism towards his backer, the United States. The driving force behind the protests is the country's premier Islamic party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz group)of former premier Nawaz Sharif.
At the same time, the stage is set for militants to exploit the political uncertainty through targeted attacks, even though they have signed a number of peace agreements with the government.
The ramifications of a deteriorating security situation and political turmoil are serious for Pakistan, which acts as a hub in the "war on terror" for both the Taliban-led forces in Afghanistan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces opposing them.
The bottom line for the protests is to rid the country of all American assets, including Musharraf, the liberal and secular government headed by the Pakistan People's Party-led (PPP)coalition, and the Chief of Army Ataff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani.
An embodiment of the protest movement can be found in retired Lieutenant-General Jamshed Gulzar Kiyani, a former Corps Commander in Rawalpindi, once comrade of Musharraf and a known anti-American officer. Even before September 11, 2002, he was opposed to efforts to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (see Osama bin Laden: The thorn in Pakistan's flesh Asia Times Online, August 22, 2001) and he was subsequently sidelined on American demand. He has summed up the reasons for the anti-Musharraf move as complicity by Musharraf in the "war on terror"; his handing over of Muslims to the US in exchange for dollars; for orchestrating the massacre at the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad last year; the detention of the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, on accusations he masterminded Pakistan's nuclear proliferation; the misadventure of the Kargil operation in 1999, when Pakistan moved into Indian territory; and taking the country into the American camp.
The move to oust Musharraf and reduce American influence was started by Islamist sections in the armed forces when retired Squadron Leader Khalid Khawaja and a long-time friend of Bin Laden recently filed an application to register a police case against Musharraf over the Lal Masjid incident. The court has accepted the petition for hearing and Khalid Khawaja believes that once Musharraf steps down as president, the application will be activated and he will stand trial.
Last week, Musharraf tried to defend his case in front of the media and called such demands by ex-military officials as a violation of military traditions and discipline.
At the same time, military chief Kiani, considered to be Washington's most trusted man after Musharraf, is clearly unable to position himself in favor of the "war on terror" and he seems completely overwhelmed by the emerging anti-American trends in the military. These have frozen all anti-Taliban operations in the tribal areas and, despite NATO's complaint that the military is actively facilitating cross-border movement of the Taliban, Kiani has been unable to do anything about it.
In sum, the military is ineffective, the PPP's government is unable, given the pressure coming from the streets, to protect US interests, while the icon of American interests, the office of the president, is completely under siege.
On Monday, Musharraf received another body blow when retired Lieutenant-General Moinuddin Haiderone, one of his long-time personal friends, a former corps commander and interior minister in Musharraf's cabinet, said in a television interview that Musharraf made solitary decisions and kept his colleagues in the dark.
"We were told that Pakistan's airfields were only given to American aircraft for refueling [after 9/11 for raids into Afghanistan] and other non-combatant purposes, but then CENTCOM [US Central Command] released information that US aircraft had carried out [56,000] sorties for combat operations in Afghanistan. We were completely in the dark in the cabinet and after the release of that information by CENTCOM it was very embarrassing for us," Moinuddin said.
"I think 500 to 600 people were handed over to the Americans, but as Interior Minister I was neither informed nor involved - in those operations the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] was single-handedly involved in the arrests," Moinuddin said, implying that everything was directly handled by the president through the ISI.
All of this means trouble for the US on its South Asia war theater.
Militants see their chance
With Pakistan mired in a massive power and economic crisis, al-Qaeda sees its opportunity to destabilize the country through militancy. This accounts for the recent spate of al-Qaeda-backed violence, notably the suicide car bomb attack on the Danish Embassy in Islamabad this month that killed at least eight people. The garrison town of Rawalpindi - Islamabad's twin city - is expected to come under attack.
And the violence is likely to spread in tandem with the lawyers' movement in the coming days. Indeed, on Monday, at the start of the protest march, militants attacked a police convoy in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The convoy was guarding the recently released Sufi Muhammad, the leader of a pro-Taliban group. A Taliban spokesman confirmed they had carried out the attack against the police. The Taliban's peace treaties are now just pieces of paper.
And all the time al-Qaeda is waiting patiently for the right time to make another major strike to further its broader strategic advantage, as it did after the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto in Islamabad last December 27. Following her death, the country was plunged into deep uncertainty and al-Qaeda unleashed a series of attacks on security forces.
Al-Qaeda paused briefly during the parliamentary elections in February, but then killed Lieutenant-General Mushtaq Beg, the army's head of medical corps, near military headquarters in Rawalpindi.
These were not indiscriminate acts of violence; the aim was to boost the Taliban-led resistance in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Taliban on the border areas.
And indeed, with the pride and arrogance of a conqueror, two months ago the Pakistani Taliban dished out their demands to the newly elected coalition of secular and liberal parties that formed the government - the very people who were meant to ferment popular political support for the "war on terror".
The demands included the release of many of their key men, the withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the tribal areas and guarantee easy movement to cross into Afghanistan. They also demanded monetary compensation for the Taliban's losses in recent battles.
In the Swat Valley in NWFP, the Pakistani Taliban dished out a different set of demands to the secular provincial government, which openly opposes the Islamic way of life. They called for the release of all their men held captive, in addition to the enforcement of Islamic law in the Swat Valley.
With the humility of a loser, Pakistan submitted to all of the demands: all high-profile Taliban and al-Qaeda members were released, security forces were withdrawn and the Taliban were given large sums of money.
All the same time, the al-Qaeda leadership sitting somewhere in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan did not view the fulfillment of these demands as anything special. Since 2006, the Taliban have won similar concessions, but they have always been short-lived, lasting only months before American pressure forced Pakistan to resume military operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The American pressure was two-pronged: the US threatened to end or curtail its multi-billion-dollar aid program, including military aid, and also threatened to take matters into its own hands and intervene directly in Pakistan territory against militants. Thus, Pakistan's military cooperation in the "war on terror" was not out of conviction but because of its vulnerability.
Given this, al-Qaeda analyzed two broader scenarios that could change the regional dynamics in favor of the Taliban-led resistance.
Firstly, if the Taliban were to gain the advantage over NATO troops in Afghanistan, Pakistan would gravitate towards the Taliban, their natural regional ally, and Islamabad's cooperation with NATO would be even weaker. Alternatively, if Pakistan could be squeezed enough by al-Qaeda's chaos tactics, it would likely become at least neutral, if not an active supporter of the Taliban resistance.
However, these two scenarios are conditional and dependent on other factors. For instance, the Taliban gaining the advantage against NATO depends on Pakistan. If the Taliban are given uninterrupted access to cross the border, their chances of success are greater, less so if the border is blocked.
Similarly, al-Qaeda's chaos tactics can only work if a restive political or social environment exists because al-Qaeda is not big enough to operate as a stand-alone force; it is only capable of exploiting troubled situations. Bhutto's assassination is a case in point.
Taliban on the move
In the past two months of peace deals, the Taliban have successfully completed the launch of operations into Afghanistan, with some estimates of as many as 40,000 men crossing the border, the biggest since the Taliban were ousted in 2001.
The impact is visible. Even in a province like Ghazni, the Taliban have been able to capture districts and in Wardak province they have taken Afghan soldiers captive. Except for a few district headquarters, the entire Helmand province is in Taliban hands. And in the provinces of Kunar, Nooristan and Khost, the Taliban have acquired a strategic depth against NATO forces and many towns and villages near the border have been captured. This means the Taliban can easily mobilize resources for daily attacks on NATO troops and those of the Afghan National Army.
The Afghan front will heat up even further as NATO can be expected to strike back hard against the Taliban. NATO wants to place the Taliban between a rock and a hard place, that is, between NATO troops on the Afghan side and Pakistani forces on the other. In the past few weeks, top American military commanders have visited Islamabad to discuss this strategy with army chief Kiani.
The Taliban will counter this by spreading their troops and seeking engagement on many fronts - they have opened up an unlikely front in eastern Nangarhar province. And for al-Qaeda, Rawalpindi, the military headquarters, and neighboring Islamabad, the federal capital, are the "choke points" to strangle Pakistan's cooperation in the "war on terror" through selective suicide attacks. This will blunt one side of the pincer movement against the Taliban as well as encourage Islamic-minded officers in the military to assert their anti-American views.
The lawyer-led protests will provide al-Qaeda with the perfect opportunity to strike, further raising the political and security temperature in the already simmering country. Economic woes add to this potent brew. A deepening power crisis could end in riots in the southern port city of Karachi. The Pakistani rupee is at its lowest against the US dollar in the history of the country and the Karachi Stock Exchange is at its lowest in nine months.
Pakistan's march is indeed going to be a long and arduous one.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com