Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 September - 3 October 2007
Issue No. 864
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Under fire

The Pakistan army may be kingmaker in politics but its realm is shrinking, writes Graham Usher in Rawalpindi

The soldiers outside army headquarters cocked their rifles in a gesture decipherable to anyone who has spent time in Afghanistan or Iraq. You obey of course, though the location was neither Baghdad nor Kabul. It's Rawalpindi, garrison city to the Pakistan army and home to its commander-in-chief -- and Pakistan president -- General Pervez Musharraf. The soldiers at the picket had reason to be jumpy.

That morning two suicide bombers had blitzed the cantonment, leaving 30 officers dead. It was one in a series of brazen, Iraq-like hits that have struck the Pakistan army in recent weeks. On 13 September a bomber killed 20 of the army's crack Special Services Group (SSG) as they sat down to break their fast at an officers' mess in Tarbela in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.

The SSG is the commando squad that conquered Islamabad's pro-Taliban Red Mosque in July. The quarry of the Rawalpindi bombers was the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the army's premier intelligence agency. In the past the ISI and SSG had been sponsors and handlers of radical Islamic militia like the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir. But the militias have turned on their makers.

The change began after 9/11, when Musharraf swapped sides in the "war on terror". Since then the ISI's priority has been less jihad than regime survival. "The ISI's political cell is Pakistan's most powerful political party. It has resources and organization. It 'wins' elections," says Javid Hashimi, vice-president of Nawaz Sharif's opposition Pakistan Muslim League.

He should know. Hashimi was one of scores of opposition activists detained this week to prevent protests against Musharraf's decision to run again for president on 6 October. The ISI and SSG were also on hand at Islamabad airport on 10 September to turn away Sharif and put him on a plane to Saudi Arabia.

Their power is not only for repression. ISI chief, Lieutenant- General Ashfaq Kiani, is heading negotiations on a power- sharing deal with another exiled opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto. These may result in her becoming prime minister for a third time. But the "deal" is primarily to ensure that Musharraf -- and hence the army and the ISI -- remains the preeminent political power in Pakistan.

Yet the violence rocking Pakistan is not about Sharif's expulsion or Bhutto's return. It is about another political alliance that has finally unraveled. When SSG commandos stormed the Red Mosque they did not just kill a hundred or so pro-Taliban clerics and madrassa students. They severed whatever remaining ties these forces had with the army and ISI, says military analyst Hassan Ashkari-Rizvi.

"The militants define Musharraf the same way as they define [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai -- as an agent of America. What's new is that they see the army the same way. Previously there was a kind of understanding. The Islamic groups were given some autonomy for not attacking Pakistan. But now they are taking on the army within Pakistan."

Al-Qaeda has championed the turn, in coalition with the so- called Pakistan Taliban and banned jihadi groups like Jaish Mohamed. Mourning those "martyred" at the Red Mosque, on 20 September Osama bin Laden issued an audiotape decreeing "it is obligatory on the Muslims in Pakistan to carry out jihad and fighting to remove Musharraf, his government, his army and those who help him".

The lash of obligation has occasionally been felt in cities like Rawalpindi. But mostly it has been fought in Pakistan's remote tribal regions straddling the Afghan border, especially North and South Waziristan. These are redoubts for the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban. Washington is convinced they are Al-Qaeda's "safe haven".

Since July, more than 100 soldiers have been killed in Waziristan. Thousands of civilians have fled their homes. Tribesmen who remain speak of abandoned government offices and a rival Taliban administration assuming the functions of state. The militants' weapons of choice in extending their realm are -- as in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the suicide attack, the roadside bomb and, increasingly, abductions and beheadings.

Last month a video was released showing a bound Pakistan soldier. He read a statement saying it was forbidden for any Muslim to attack the Taliban. A young boy then slowly slit the soldier's throat. Earlier this month 15 SSG commandos were airdropped into a Taliban enclave in North Waziristan. Their mutilated corpses were returned to base courtesy of a local cleric. Army spokesmen said the men were "missing", not dead.

But they could not deny the ambush of 244 soldiers by pro- Taliban tribesmen in South Waziristan on 30 August. Those men are still hostage. As ransom, the Taliban is insisting on the release of 18 militants and the army's full withdrawal from large parts of Waziristan.

These "unparalleled acts" reflect less the strength of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda than the weakness of the army, says Brigadier Mahmoud Shah, former head of the Military Intelligence in South Waziristan. "I think the prolonged stay of troops in Waziristan has caused demoralization. How else do you explain over 200 soldiers surrendering without firing a shot?"

For the last four years, policy in the tribal regions has been a tussle between Washington and Islamabad. The army is reluctant to pursue a guerrilla force that is mobile, knows the terrain and has passive support among the tribes. The US wants Pakistan to go after the Taliban and Al-Qaeda come what may. The result is a policy that swings purposelessly between appeasement and war, says Shah.

"Negotiating with the militants strengthens them in the eyes of the tribes. But excessive force is seen as dictated by the US and is very unpopular. We need an indigenous policy".

For Shah this means negotiations with the tribes and "selective" force against the militants. Hashimi says the Taliban and Al-Qaeda can only be defeated by development in the tribal areas and democracy throughout Pakistan. Both men agree that Islamic militancy can be handled better by a civilian government than a military one. But would the army go back to barracks?

"O yes," says Shah. "People in Pakistan want a return to democracy and the army understands the illegitimacy of Musharraf's rule is starting to rub off on them".

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