Militants, Musharraf circlingKARACHI - The battle between Islamists and Taliban supporters and the pro-Western Pakistan government has intensified with the arrest of dozens of people in a massive crackdown in and around the federal capital, Islamabad.
This follows hard on the heels of the uncovering of a coup plot against President General Pervez Musharraf last week which resulted in over 40 people being arrested. Among these were al-Qaeda-linked personnel from the Air Weapon Complex (AWC) of Pakistan, a leading organization in the field of air-delivered weapons and systems. Two prominent names were Muneer Malik and Ali Ahmed Gondal.
Subsequently, two other staff members at AWC, Shakeel Rabbani and Saqib Zafar, were detained, in addition to more air force officers. These arrests have not been made public, but have been confirmed by Asia Times Online contacts who say that more arrests can be expected within the rank and file of the armed forces.
At the same time, a series of massive crackdowns on militants is ongoing throughout Punjab province.
It is the latest showdown in and around Islamabad, though, that is of significance as the guns have suddenly been turned against the premier Islamic party of the country, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), and its ideological cousin, the Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest indigenous Kashmiri separatist militant outfit.
Prominent figures among the two organizations were rounded up, including Khizar Hayat and Waqar Ahmed Janjua from Hizbul's Wah cantonment and Rawalpindi, respectively. Many other less prominent activists and members of the groups were also held. Some were released after initial interrogations.
The crackdown came without warning. It prompted the deputy chief of the JI and member of parliament, Liaquat Baloch, to urgently meet with top Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) officials at the ISI's headquarters in Islamabad. This resulted in the crackdown being temporarily suspended, with some conditions being placed on the JI.
Although the salient features of these conditions are not known, the normal rhetoric of JI chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed was visibly toned down after the meeting and he categorically mentioned that JI would not welcome any coup against the government.
The JI has always been at the forefront of political initiatives to unseat Musharraf and has been involved most recently in laying the groundwork for a joint opposition alliance including all major liberal and Islamic parties to oust Musharraf after the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan toward the end of this month.
Nevertheless, political campaigns these days in Pakistan and Afghanistan are not only a center of interest for political parties and their supporters - they attract other vested interests, especially militant groups and disgruntled elements within the armed forces.
At present, the militant groups have only one obsession, to keep Musharraf's anti-Taliban convictions at bay and prevent him from taking any stringent steps that would undo all the Taliban's gains in the campaign in Afghanistan since the spring offensive began. This has kept the militant groups active, and their activities are complemented by their supporters within the establishment.
Most important for the militants is that Musharraf not unleash any operation in the North Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan or in Pashin and Zhob (in southwestern Balochistan province). These areas are vital to the Taliban's winter strategy, in which it lays low, regroups and plans for the next spring offensive.
Only a few days remain before the end of Ramadan and heavy snows rule out any significant military action in the mountainous region that straddles Pakistan and Afghanistan.
That means, just a few days for either side to make a decisive move.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org