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    South Asia
     Aug 27, 2008
Setback for Pakistan's terror drive
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - The resignation of Pervez Musharraf as president a week ago was an opportunity for his Western allies to take the "war on terror" a step forward by working with the five-month-old civilian coalition government in Pakistan.

But that administration has now been thrown into confusion following the withdrawal on Monday of its second-largest partner, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of former premier Nawaz Sharif. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Asif Ali Zardari has enough support in parliament to maintain a simple majority, but with Sharif now on the opposition benches, its days are numbered.

Sharif withdrew his party because of what he said were Zardari's

 

broken promises to reinstate dozens of judges sacked last year by Musharraf.

With Sharif's move, ideological divides between liberal-secularists (PPP) and right-wing conservatives (PML-N) that had been blurred during Musharraf's nearly nine-year tenure have resurfaced. Former backers of Musharraf, the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-i-Azam, and the PML-N have already made contact to work on a "joint future political strategy".

Sharif's PML-N has now proposed its own candidate (former chief justice Saeeduz Zaman Siddiqui) to challenge Zardari, widower of another former premier, Benazir Bhutto, on September 6, when parliament chooses a new president.

In another development, the Jamaat-i-Islami, an Islamist political party which boycotted February's general elections, has invited Sharif to join the All Pakistan Democratic Movement, an opposition alliance, which Sharif is likely to do.

This fragmentation has blown apart Western plans to make Pakistani domestic politics useful in the "war on terror" as the opposition, which is also opposed to Pakistan's involvement in the "war on terror", will provide strong resistance to Islamabad's decision to increase military operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan's tribal areas.

New face against the Taliban
As things stand, Zardari, backed by a coalition of secular and liberal parties, will hold the presidency. This is important as the president is also the supreme commander of the armed forces with hiring and firing powers.

Zardari, with the Americans breathing down his neck, will be expected to control the often defiant secret service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as well as the military, regularly accused by the West of not doing enough against militants, if not supporting of the Taliban. Neither task will be easy, if not impossible.

On Monday, Pakistan "declared war" on the Taliban. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Taliban militant umbrella group, was banned, its bank accounts and assets frozen and it was barred from appearing in the media. It was also announced that "head" money would be placed on prominent leaders of the TTP.

The stage is now set for yet another round against militants in Pakistan, seen as key to defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan, which draws heavily on its bases in Pakistan's tribal areas to sustain its fighting capabilities.

However, the war theater is stretching from the tribal areas to the main urban centers. After suicide attacks on an arms factory in Wah, 30 kilometers northwest of the capital Islamabad, and an unsuccessful bomb attack on a leading anti-terror police official in the southern city of Karachi, the Taliban called at the weekend for a ceasefire in Bajaur Agency. The Taliban attacks were in response to heavy bombing by the air force in Bajaur over the past few weeks.

The powerful adviser to the Interior Ministry, Rehman Malik, refused outright the Taliban offer and vowed to continue military operations against militants without any concessions.

The militants on Sunday showed their muscle in their second home after the Waziristan tribal areas - Karachi, the financial hub of the country. A container truck carrying two armored personal carriers out of Karachi port was attacked by about 25 armed youths and set on the fire. The carriers were on their way to North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan as part of one of the largest NATO consignments - 530 containers - to have arrived from Jabal-i-Ali in the United Arab Emirates en route to Afghanistan. (Asia Times Online broke the story that al-Qaeda planned to defeat NATO by cutting its supply lines in Karachi. (See New al-Qaeda focus on NATO supplies August 12, 2008.)

Asia Times Online has learned that top Taliban shura (council) commanders, including leader Mullah Omar's deputy, Mullah Bradar, Ameer Khan Muttaqi and Akhtar Mansoor recently visited Karachi, and some of them remained in the city to plan further attacks.

Washington had devised a plan with Islamabad under which the Pakistani military would independently coordinate with NATO operation commanders in Afghanistan to carry out actions against militants in Pakistan. But aerial bombings apart, any concrete military drives against the militants will be difficult, given that lower-level cadres are unwilling to fight against the tribals, mainly because of their ethnic Pashtun links.

Video footage made by the Taliban and seen by Asia Times Online shows military operations from August 2007 to early 2008 in the tribal areas. There is detailed footage of how easily the Pakistani armed forces laid down their arms. After surrender, once their commanders had been removed, they mingled with the militants.

This happens because most of the men deployed in the tribal areas are ethnically Pashtuns and unwilling to fight against local Pashtun tribals. The Punjabis, the majority population of the country and also in the armed forces, cannot perform in the tribal areas as they neither understand the language nor the area.

Indiscriminate aerial bombing intimidates and disrupts an area, as shown in Bajaur, but apart from sending the militants into temporary shelter the effectiveness is debatable. Pakistan claimed it had killed senior al-Qaeda leader Sheikh Saeed aka Abu Mustafa al-Yazeed, but it turned out not to be true; Saeed never lived in Bajaur to begin with. Indeed, the only casualty was the local population, with more than 250,000 people forced to leave the area and as a result hatred of the new government and the army is at an all-time high.

This could be the crux of the coming battle between Zardari and the militants - whether the army goes along with the man who would be president, or, as it has done so often over the years, turns against its political masters.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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