Pakistan: clouded in chaos By Imtiaz Gul
Sunday Herald, September 15, 2007
PAKISTAN today sometimes resembles a chaotic and violent low-grade political puppet theatre. The puppeteer - the mighty military establishment that the president, General Pervez Musharraf, personifies - is once again juggling with a myriad of political players in an attempt to save grace and to retain a hold on power.
Among those players are powerful former premiers. On the one hand there is Nawaz Sharif, whose forced expulsion to Saudi Arabia on September 10 after a brief return to Pakistan underscored Musharraf's intention to keep his rivals at bay, whatever it takes. On the other, there is Benazir Bhutto, who many believe the United States is keen to see included in a compromise deal with Musharraf.
For almost eight years, Musharraf has retained almost unquestioned power, but now, faced with difficult choices, looks beset with uncertainty and shaken by an unprecedented surge in violence by pro al-Qaeda militants.
Few would disagree that the current situation is one pregnant with all the ingredients required for political instability, confusion and violence.
Islamist-led attacks, ambushes and abductions, mostly of security forces, have been surging since July, but the September 13 strike by a suicide bomber inside the dining hall of a military installation 80km northwest of Islamabad, showed clearly what the anti-US Islamic radicals are after; the Pakistan army and its affiliates.
All of the 20 soldiers killed belonged to the Special Services Group, an elite commando force, from whose ranks Musharraf himself rose to the rank of general and the presidency. This unit had participated in the military operation against the militants holed up in the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July.
On September 4, two suicide bombers blew themselves up near two buses in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. Most of the 25 victims belonged to the country's powerful intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (IS), which has served hand in hand with the American FBI in the ongoing war against terrorism.
"They obviously chose a target that combines all the elements they hate - Musharraf the SSG commando, the military, and the United States," said a US embassy official, working on security issues in Islamabad.
So what does this spiralling violence - including at least 17 suicide attacks that have claimed more than 300 lives - mean for Musharraf and his military?
"With the day passing, the contempt for the military is mounting," said Amir Khan, a retired army official from the restive Northwestern Frontier Province (NWFP).
Never before did the high command advise its officers and soldiers against appearing in public in uniform or official vehicles, Khan said, quoting his relatives and friends serving in the army.
No surprise, therefore, that the Pakistan army suffered its worst ever humiliation late July when Taliban militants ambushed and captured a convoy of at least 250 soldiers in the south Waziristan region. Early last week another three dozen troops walked into a similar Taliban trap. So far, several rounds of talks for the release of the abducted soldiers remain deadlocked.
"The militants have jeopardised all our development and security plans in the Waziristan region," said a frustrated senior official associated with the office of the NWFP governor, who is Musharraf's representative in the tribal areas.
Struck by the wave of abductions and attacks on government installations, neither the governor, Ali Jan Orakzai, a retired general who himself hails from one of the tribal regions, nor his officials, are ready to talk about their predicament.
The state of siege in which the Pakistani army finds itself in the border regions is deeply rooted in the US-led war against terrorism that began in December 2001 in Afghanistan, and has now spread to the rugged mountains that separates it from neighbouring Pakistan.
Military hunts on both sides of the border forced al-Qaeda, Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to shelter in this wild region, prompting the National Intelligence Estimate, released by the US government in July, to describe the area as "al-Qaeda central, where anti-US militants were regrouping and training".
The hunt for radical Islamists has not only eliminated hundreds of militants but also killed hundreds of civilians.
"Almost every family has lost one or two members to the US and Pakistani missile and air strikes," said Mohammad Hayat Khan, from Miranshah, the administrative headquarters of the North Waziristan region.
Revenge is something of a tradition in these areas, that have largely remained no-go zones ever since the British rulers left them to their own devices in the 1870s.
That a number of suicide bombers have been tracked down to the Waziristan region comes as no surprise. There is also further local outrage fuelled by operations carried out there by the Pakistan army.
"Whose war is our army fighting? It is a mercenary mission for the Americans," says Ghulam Haider, an aide to a local cleric in Wana, South Waziristan. His is a view shared by many Pakistanis and runs deep throughout the tribal areas.
Most tribal leaders demand an immediate halt to military operations in the 2400km border region. But Musharraf insists that the war against anti-Pakistan Islamists is unstoppable, reiterating his intention to chase the radicals "to the grave and gallows".
His resolve is bolstered by unrelenting support from Washington, and the Bush administration rarely loses an opportunity to praise his commitment to the fight.
"Your nation remains a valuable ally in the war on terror,"said US deputy secretary of state John Negroponte after bilateral strategic talks in Islamabad on September 12.
"We stand with all of those Pakistanis who have been wounded or who have lost loved ones, and we hold a special place of honour for those who sacrificed their lives in protecting not only Pakistanis but also the entire world from acts of terrorism," encouraged Negroponte.
That dialogue is part of a long-term engagement policy between Washington and Islamabad that includes co-operation not only in counter-terrorism but on civil issues like education, health and infrastructure in the tribal areas.
But dealing with pro al-Qaeda militants, who are fuming over Musharraf's "obedience" to the US is not the only headache for the general.
Other challenges flow from frictions within the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q, over his craving for re-election as president, and an increasingly independent and assertive supreme court, that could practically Musharraf's re-election bid for constitutional reasons.
In March, Musharraf's attempt to fire chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, boomeranged after the incident galvanised the lawyers and most opposition parties. On July 20, the unanimous reinstatement of Chaudhry delivered a fatal blow to the president and his credibility at home and abroad.
"The entire crisis began with his attempt to manipulate the presidential election process," said Athar Minnallah, one of the advocates who spearheaded the pro-Chaudhry movement between March and July. "His ambition to retain presidency almost drowned him."
Battered by the supreme court judgment in favour of the chief justice and bruised by the raking violence in the tribal and adjacent areas, including target attacks on security forces, Musharraf was left with no option but to open talks with Bhutto, whom he had been condemning as "corrupt and inefficient" since 1999.
Much to the chagrin of Musharraf, even the US government nudged him towards Bhutto for "an alliance of liberal forces". But negotiations with Bhutto, who has been living in self-exile for almost a decade, have been tricky.
A meeting between the Musharraf and Bhutto camps in August in the United Arab Emirates kicked off a considerable storm within Pakistan. Nonetheless, their emissaries kept talking and most probably have hammered out a pre- and post-election working arrangement.
The alleged compromise talks also irked many within Bhutto's party, the PPPP, who say they faced hostility for almost a decade under Musharraf.
"We did not resist the Musharraf authoritarianism just to bail him out when he is besieged," barrister Aitzaz Ahsan said publicly.
Bhutto-government talks also almost drove a wedge between Ahsan and his leader, who believes the army can be sent back to barracks only through talks.
"It is a fight between confrontationists and gradualists," said political and finance analyst Farrukh Saleem, referring to Sharif and Bhutto.
Irfan Siddiqi, another political analyst, however, disagrees. "The army always projects the gradualist approach as the only way out. This may legitimise its political errands but does not relieve the country of the clutches of the armed forces," he told the Sunday Herald.
General Musharraf also paints his efforts to stand on top of the government as a "fight between forces of moderation and obscurantism".
The former refers to Musharraf and his allies, while the latter denotes Taliban, al-Qaeda and their zealots spread across Pakistan, who despise America and vow to end its military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
For them Musharraf, the "indispensable US ally in the anti-terror war," is equally despicable for his alleged obedience to the Bush administration. And by implication any body or group associated with Musharraf and the omni-present military is also an enemy. Siddiqi dismisses this as a mere ruse.
"Violence and militancy have always grown under military dictatorships," Siddiqi said. Musharraf has successfully sold this idea to the Americans, who strangely also remain fixated on him as the only choice.
Back in the 1980s Mushahid Hussein, the then editor of the English language daily The Muslim, made an observation that still holds currency: "The road to rule in Islamabad lies through Allah, army and America."
No surprise, therefore, that Richard Boucher, the US deputy secretary of state for south Asia, took almost a week out of his busy schedule to stay in Islamabad until his departure on September 14, when Bhutto announced plans of her return to Pakistan.
"As Bush's pointman, Boucher probably helped Bhutto and Musharraf finalise the main contours of the power-sharing deal," said a senior Western diplomat, who wondered why Boucher would otherwise spend such a long time in Islamabad.
This also triggered speculation that the US played a key role in the second deportation of former premier Sharif to Jeddah, even though Negroponte played down this dramatic event as Pakistan's "internal affair".
Besides angering millions of Pakistanis, Sharif's forced deportation also flew in the face of the supreme court. For many Pakistanis it exposed Musharraf's claims to respect the rule of law, and confirmed that the America-Pakistani army alliance always comes first.
Whether the country can now sail through these rough political waters remains to be seen. On Friday, Bhutto's party announced that she will return to to Pakistan on October 18, even though the government insists she would face corruption charges. The announcement comes as the supreme court also prepares to confront Musharraf by taking up a petition against his intention to stand for the president's office.
Faced with such a showdown, the president might just decide to shake up the entire political system. If so, say many of Musharraf's detractors, the difference is that Allah may not be on the side of the "puppeteer" this time around.