Al-Qaeda Strikes at Benazir's Bhutto PPP

Editorial: Al Qaeda strikes at PPP
Daily Times, July 19, 2007

A suicide-bomber has blown up a PPP stall outside a lawyers’ venue in Islamabad and killed 16 and wounded 63. The lawyers insist that the bomber had come to kill the chief justice of Pakistan, Mr Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was to address them, and broadly suggested that it might be the government which wanted to get rid of the fired judge. But the chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Ms Benazir Bhutto, says the bomber targeted the PPP stall and blamed the terrorists that the government is no longer able to control. Eyewitnesses were agreed that the blast was caused by a suicide-bomber and that it was not a time-device, as claimed by the lawyers.

Islamabad officials were reluctant to concede that the PPP alone was targeted. They tended to include the PMLN stall in the target, but eyewitnesses insisted that the bomber avoided the PMLN stall and specifically entered the PPP tent. Curiously, the two tents were adjacent to each other, which had caused the two parties to fling hostile slogans at each other, and some office-bearers had stood in the middle to prevent a clash. The police stated that the head of the bomber had been found and that bits of the suicide jacket he used had also been collected. The interior minister, Mr Aftab Sherpao, clearly held elements in Waziristan responsible for the blast.

There is no doubt that Al Qaeda has targeted the PPP once again. Ms Bhutto referred to the statement issued by the Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri the day following the Lal Masjid operation, vowing revenge. The target was obvious: the PPP had approved of the military operation while all the political opposition in Pakistan had challenged it. Earlier, at the all parties-conference (APC) in London, the PPP had stood aside from the opposition consensus by not consorting with the religious parties that tended to dominate the event, prompting Imran Khan of Tehreek Insaf to say that Ms Bhutto had committed “political suicide”. It may be recalled that years ago, Al Qaeda had tried to kill Ms Bhutto through its bomber Ramzi Yusuf, and there were credible reports in the 1990s that Osama bin Laden had funded political efforts in Pakistan to prevent the PPP from coming to power.

In a chapter added to her book, Daughter of the East, Ms Bhutto explains her 1990 defeat at the polls: “I believe that the age of the terrorist war actually coincided with the conclusion of the Pakistani elections in 1990 and the formation of the Nawaz regime”. The ISI, she writes, chose Ramzi Yusuf, who planned the first attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993, to assassinate her during her election campaign that year. He failed, and “was extradited, on my order, to the United States”. That was after Benazir was elected prime minister for the second time that year, and found herself, she says, taking on the extremists again.

This time the man targeting her party is Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan. He stands at the head of an assortment of Talibanised fighters that form the “foreign legion” of Al Qaeda and has all the resources he needs to run South Waziristan as a separate state. He collects taxes and provides services, including salaries for fighters who take orders from him. The institution of the political agent has come to an end and the Pakistan army and security forces have withdrawn from his territory after unsuccessful attempts to tame him and extend the writ of the state in South Waziristan. In 2005, when the army found the going tough, it began to pay off the local warlords. It allegedly paid Rs 17 crore to them so that that they could return the money they had received from Al Qaeda prior to changing their loyalties. But it now appears that they pocketed both the payments.

When ARY TV (28 July 2005) interviewed the corps commander of Peshawar he denied paying off the local warlords including Baitullah Mehsud and declared that Baitullah Mehsud used to have 800 people with him; “now there are none”. But in two years, it seems, Baitullah Mehsud has accumulated the power to challenge the state from South Waziristan. After the Lal Masjid affair he called a council of his warriors and swore revenge. His “Taliban” influence extends to many parts of the tribal areas including the Malakand-Swat-Dir region, where a horse-riding Maulana Fazlullah has formed his own mini-state with millions of dollars at his disposal. The head of the Swat jirga interviewed on TV-ONE on Tuesday clearly stated that the “Taliban” state had taken over, while the Peshawar government was reluctant to take on the outlaw and was more inclined to blame the “agencies”.

More significantly, the PPP may be targeted for falling outside the opposition consensus led by the religious parties. This means that the PPP party workers and supporters may be hit in the coming days in the run-up to the 2007 elections, and during the election campaign, when Ms Bhutto will presumably be back in Pakistan. This will give the party a difficult and uneven playing field while the other parties will have a clear advantage by not opposing “extremism” in the country. Is it time for an all-parties conference by President Musharraf? Probably not. Given Mr Nawaz Sharif’s APCDM consensus, the preconditions set by the opposition will simply demand his ouster before the elections. As for the PPP’s stance on an APC, Ms Bhutto said Tuesday that her party would consider it within the ARD if the proposal was put up.

In this situation of “no quarters given”, there is talk of an “emergency”. But General Musharraf has categorically rejected such talk and said there will be no “emergency” or anything like that and that he will proceed according to his old plan to hold his own presidential elections from the current assemblies and follow up later with the general elections. More significantly, General Musharraf told senior editors yesterday that he would settle the issue of his uniform with the next parliament. He also appreciated the argument that he needs to enlarge his political support base with like-minded moderate parties and groups in order to take up the challenge of religious extremism. This is good news.

One footnote: the supporters of the ousted chief justice have erred by accusing the government of being behind the bomb that killed 16 people yesterday in Islamabad. Since the evidence points in the direction of Al Qaeda, they should not have put mundane party political or group interests above the national interest. *

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