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Dangerous liaisons

The porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has become a seamless operating unit for Al-Qaeda, writes Amit Baruah.
Hindustan Times | By Amit Baruah, New Delhi
UPDATED ON OCT 11, 2007 01:59 AM IST

Pakistan’s ‘war against terrorism’ escalated to a new level on Tuesday, when air force jets bombed Epi village in North Waziristan, close to the Afghan border, killing at least 50 persons. Both civilians and militants were killed in the bazaar bombing, a little after iftaar.

Islamabad’s use of firepower from the skies appears to be a direct reaction to the slaughter of 45 Pakistani soldiers in this tribal belt that shares a border with Afghanistan. The belated attempt to send a signal to al-Qaeda-led terrorists in the area, is at an enormous cost to civilian life. The scale of the fighting can be gauged from the fact that as many as 250 persons, including 45 soldiers, have died in the last four days. It’s throwing an open challenge to the Pakistani State, which, at best, is weak in this federally administered tribal area.

Seen together with what is happening on the other side of the border, the entire belt along the Afghanistan-Pakistan boundary now is a bloody battleground, the States against Al-Qaeda and its allies, which include a number of foreign fighters. It’s now pretty clear that the entire border region has become a seamless operating area for al-Qaeda, possibly even a safe haven for some of its top leadership.

The leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan have failed to take on the terrorists. Today, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants pose a robust challenge to both Kabul and Islamabad. In the meantime, the battle for political survival waged by General Pervez Musharraf, his ‘dealings’ with former PM Benazir Bhutto and legal wrangles have shifted attention away from Pakistan’s inability to cleanse its polity of Islamists. The air strikes could also be a message to the West that Pakistan is ‘serious’ about the terrorists operating on its soil, that General Musharraf remains committed to his ideas of “enlightened moderation”.

“In spite of the constant increase in troop level (close to the Afghan border) — from an initial 50,000 to nearly 100,000 now — the Taliban have not been weakened and are showing renewed vigour. The ‘deals’ said to have been negotiated with them have failed to produce results. The most serious development is that some of the security personnel seem to be succumbing to propaganda, or perhaps just criticism, that they are killing fellow Pakistanis,” the Dawn said in an editorial on Wednesday.

And, what is the situation in North Waziristan and South Waziristan, both run directly from Islamabad and both dominated by Pakhtun tribes? “They are probably the most neglected Pakistanis. Waziristan has one hospital bed per 6,000 inhabitants, and a literacy rate of around 10 per cent. More than 80 per cent of males are educated in madrasas and girls not at all,” the Economist wrote in April.

The point made in the Dawn editorial about Pakistani security forces succumbing to propaganda that they are killing fellow Pakistanis is serious. The Pakistani establishment has a long history of supporting Islamist militants: first in Afghanistan and then in Kashmir. There have been reports of a large number of missing ‘security personnel’ in North Waziristan. If, as is possible, some of these are instances of desertion, then there are clear discipline issues within the Pakistan army.

This is a matter of concern for India also. Wisely, New Delhi has avoided any comment on Pakistan’s internal situations, but the suicide attack on a Special Services Group (SSG) mess following the SSG operation in July against the Lal Masjid clerics in Islamabad has not been lost.

Following the Lal Masjid operation, Al-Qaeda’s Ayman Al-Zawahiri gave a clarion call to target General Musharraf and the Pakistani State, holding them squarely responsible for what happened. An al-Qaeda propaganda video shows a suicide bomber preparing for his car bomb attack, mouthing all kinds of propaganda of ‘heavenly bliss’ while targeting Musharraf and Pakistan. Along with Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan is the new full-blown frontier for al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their affiliates. No surprise, given the history of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate and the CIA running the Afghan jehad in the 1980s.

Political change and transition is on in Pakistan, with Ashfaq Kiyani all set to take charge as Army Chief and General Musharraf readying to hang up his uniform. At the same time, Benazir Bhutto is preparing to return home, hoping to become prime minister for a third time. Any leadership that takes charge in Islamabad — presumably a new ‘troika’ of Army Chief, President and Prime Minister will have to take on the job of reversing decades of support/tolerance for Islamist forces. There’s a fourth element and that’s the assertive judiciary under Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The inexplicable decision of Pakistan’s Supreme Court to order the reopening of Lal Masjid sends out a signal to extremist forces in a country founded in the name of religion. Are Ashfaq Kiyani, Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto up to the task of dealing with extremists? We don’t know yet.

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