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
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
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 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
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
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
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[email protected]