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Islamabad to worse

The US would like Musharraf to use Benazir as a prop for legitimacy but the General would rather use Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the patron saint of the Taliban, for this, writes Vikram Sood.

india Updated: Nov 14, 2007 04:26 IST

Pervez musharraf — Pakistan’s part- time President but full-time Army Chief, and the US’s ally of allies, with an approval rating less than that of Osama bin Laden — is in trouble like never before. The three main crises that he faces have acquired their own potentially devastating momentum, as they run concurrently at three different venues.

The political crisis, which is mainly Punjab-centric, has arisen from Musharraf’s desire to retain power. Musharraf may have shot himself in the foot by clamping martial law but in the months ahead this will be the least of the problems. The second crisis, momentarily swept under the carpet, is the silent Baloch insurgency. This crisis is not going to be easy to solve soon and needs major socio-economic engineering. The third crisis in the NWFP is now the most serious and complicated that Islamabad has ever faced, because this is now a mixture of Pushtun nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism.

The General’s speech, after he imposed martial law, gave the bizarre impression of General Musharraf indicting President Musharraf for eight years of misrule but both had to stay. In order to protect democracy, he locked out the unarmed Bench and the bar, choked the media and arrested mainstream politicians while releasing armed militants in the NWFP in exchange for captured soldiers. Unless the peoples’ movement acquires a totem pole soon, like the Myanmar students found Aung San Suu Kyi, and is backed by sustained international pressure, it will be crushed under the jackboot. Continued US indulgence and political divisiveness will lead to a stalemate and some kind of elections but with no winners. This is what the army would want, a fractured mandate that allows them to retain control but go back to the barracks, refurbish and return after the politicians fail, as they inevitably would.

Musharraf’s ploy was to keep the Americans reasonably happy by doling out some terrorist or the other periodically and collect a bounty each time as well. By September 2006, there had been 369 Guantanamo-bound renditions for millions of clandestine dollars. In reality, Musharraf allowed only a sporadic hunt of al-Qaeda while protecting the Taliban. Simultaneously, he also acquired military hardware worth $ 3 billion that is not meant for counter-insurgency operations but for use against India. This was justified as one of the ways to keep Pakistan’s top brass happy. But Stephen Cohen recently described Washington as the General’s ATM. Musharraf’s focus on self-preservation has hampered effective measures to deal with the emerging threat in the NWFP that has now spread to the rest of the country.

Musharraf had anticipated US and Western reaction accurately. Pursuit of US interests — at this moment the American war on terror and keeping nuclear weapons away from extremists — being the main consideration, fancy notions like restoration of democracy in Pakistan took a backseat. There was the anticipated table thumping for effect but nothing that would hurt.

It is, thus, Musharraf who holds the carrot and the stick — for his role in the war on terror, the possibility of the periodic capture of an important terrorist and the fear that the nuclear bomb could fall into the hands of a terrorist. He could even deliver a ‘high value target’ that might include Osama bin Laden or Al Zawahiri and then all sins, past, present and future will be forgiven.

Therefore, all the West wants is that Musharraf sheds his uniform and holds some kind of elections that they can call free and fair. The US would like Musharraf to use Benazir as a prop for legitimacy but the General would rather use Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the patron saint of the Taliban, for this. They are soulmates anyway and the Maulana is useful in curbing the nationalist aspirations of the Baloch. Balochistan seems to have gone off the global radar screen because Islamabad has put the province under a shroud of secrecy. It is, however, more like a pressure cooker about to explode. Not many hear of the bomb blasts, the gas pipeline disruptions or the arrests and incarcerations. Thousands of Baloch nationalists have simply disappeared and others have joined the underground. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group in a recent report concluded that “The insurgency is unlikely to subside as long as the military relies on repression, killings, imprisonment, disappearances and torture to bend the Baloch to its will”.

The Taliban takeover in the Fata is now being replicated in the rest of the NWFP. Three of the seven districts of the valley of Swat, Pakistan’s idyllic tourist spot, is today under the thrall of Taliban forces. Attempts by Musharraf’s security forces to oust them have failed. There are fears that this new development marks the arrival of al Qaeda outside Fata and represents the most potent threat to Pakistan’s security.

It is not difficult to see how grave the problem has become through neglect and connivance. The Lal Masjid episode which was followed by attacks on Pakistan’s armed forces in Tarbela, Rawalpindi and Sargodha indicate not only the ability of the terrorists to strike at will but also that they had inside intelligence. Even more important — they had access. The situation in the province also gets more complicated because of its trans-border connections. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have moved close to Kandahar for the first time since 2001 and have also occupied three other districts in western Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has been working on Pakistan-based leaders like Sirajuddin Haqqani to function as a leader within the Taliban. Sirajuddin’s Pakistani and Arab followers are uncompromising in their goal for a complete victory for al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Tribal loyalties, which are quite often trans-border, the Pushtun code of conduct and religious sentiments have become intertwined in the province. Recruitment among the devoutly religious locals is easy for the Taliban. Many of the counter-insurgent forces have remained ill- equipped and inadequately trained in contrast to the insurgents. Their morale is low and they are unwilling to fight fellow Muslims. Desertions are increasing. The Pakistani army, brought up on a single threat perception, is ill-equipped to play a counter-insurgency role. Besides, it would need local intelligence which will not be available to Punjabi troops operating in the absence of Pushtun troops. It will take years for the Pakistan army to cover this gap and, meanwhile, a Punjabi-Pushtun animus could set in.

Colonel Ralph Peters, formerly of the US Army, in his essay ‘Blood Borders’ (the Armed Forces Journal, June 2006) discusses redrawing borders in West Asia. Peters says, “What Afghanistan would lose to Persia in the west, it would gain in the east, as Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier tribes would be reunited with their Afghan brethren (the point of this exercise is not to draw maps as we would like them but as local populations would prefer them). Pakistan, another unnatural State, would also lose its Baluch territory to Free Baluchistan. The remaining ‘natural’ Pakistan would lie entirely east of the Indus, except for a westward spur near Karachi.” The essay is controversial and could not have pleased many, but does this reflect impending reality?

General Musharraf gives the impression of being firmly in the saddle, feet in the stirrups, reins held firmly, a gun at the holster and a Stetson hat. Only the horse is different. It is a horse in a merry-go-round, going nowhere but taking his rider into a spin that gets faster and faster.

Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing.

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