Crunch time for Pakistan

Forces both within and outside the country are pushing it to the brink.

Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf
Musharraf's alliance with the US against Taliban-linkedfighters has proved unpopular in Pakistan [EPA]
Hours earlier, Richard Armitage, the then US deputy secretary of state, told Lieutenant-General Mahmood, the visiting Pakistan intelligence chief, at the state department: “General … we want to know whether you are with us or not, in our fight against terror.”
In his memoirs published in 2006, Musharraf quoted his intelligence chief as telling him that Armitage had warned him “to be prepared to be bombed, be prepared to go back to the Stone Age.”
Armitage disputed the exact language but acknowledged that the message was blunt.
A tough sell
In any event, the partnership with the US was hard to sell at home and the people of Pakistan were against joining the “war on terror”.
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The military government’s U-turn on its Afghan policy, which saw it ditch its former allies the Taliban on the one hand and stop support to separatist groups fighting Indian forces in Kashmir on the other, proved both painful and difficult.

Musharraf appealed to his nation to support the US and said he had American assurances that the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance militia would not be allowed to enter Kabul, that the war would be short, precise and swift.

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But by the time American forces took the battle to the Tora Bora mountains to kill Osama bin Laden, Pakistan was asked to send in thousands of its military personnel into a semi-autonomous region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The aim was to prevent escaping al-Qaeda fighters from seeking sanctuary in Pakistan.
Hundreds were arrested and handed over to the US. While people largely welcomed the move, they did not expect American strikes to hit them – especially under the nose of its own military.
When these strikes began killing civilians, public opinion shifted against the military.
Today, the North West Frontier province (NWFP) is still being shaken by deadly attacks that many consider to be a fallout of this war in Afghanistan and a backlash against the alliance with the US in its so-called war on terror.
Loss of support
Under pressure not to admit violation of its territory by foreign aircraft the Pakistan military blamed itself, further eroding its credibility.
Tribal leaders vowed revenge and a wave of reprisal attacks ensued, targeting military forces and security personnel.
As the hunt for bin Laden intensified, the US exerted more pressure on Pakistan, asking the government to do more to locate their targets amid allegations that they were holed up in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The Pakistan army reached a deal with the tribals and asked for a commitment from them that they would stop infiltration across the border and even offered amnesty for some foreign fighters not on the US “wanted list”.
After a deal was reached, the Musharraf government came under greater pressure from Washington, worried about intensifying Taliban insurgency across the border in Afghanistan, to scrap it and opt for a military solution instead.
The Bin Laden factor
In spite of a lack of credible intelligence on the whereabouts of America’s two most wanted men, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Kabul and Islamabad traded allegations and accusations about bin Laden’s likely whereabouts.


Anti-US sentiment remains strong in
Pakistan [AFP]

The war of words became so intense that George Bush, the US president, called Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and Musharraf to iftar (breaking of the fast in Ramadan) and get them talking.

But six years into the “war on terror”, Pakistan remains deeply sceptical about US intentions.
Many are now openly asking for a review of the policy.
Many analysts are warning that if Musharraf gets another five-year term, he will take America’s war into Pakistan’s tribal areas and the NWFP, a key demand of the Bush administration.
And such talk is ringing alarm bells.
The ramifications of any large-scale military operations against the tribals could prove to be the Achilles’ heal for an army prepared to fight on the eastern front and in the plains of Punjab rather than the rugged and forbidden terrain of the north.
It has also caused suspicions that the American failure to find the two most wanted men may lead Pakistan into a quagmire on its own territory and reinforce one failure with another.
Any attempts to wage full-scale war on the tribal populations has the potential to spill over into settled areas and spread.
Many senior analysts already say it is a recipe for disaster.
Suburban battleground
But some commentators will tell you that the actual battleground is Pakistan’s plush capital, Islamabad.
The US bombardment within Pakistan has turned public opinion against the ally, and its unflinching support for Musharraf and his military government.
The bloody operation against the Red Mosque has contributed to the general’s popularity being at an all-time low.
And his mishandling of the chief justice case, where he sacked the country’s top judge, has prompted the opposition to become increasingly vocal and to offer their resignations.
Musharraf’s right to stand in the poll is being debated in the courts right up to the wire – Wajihuddin Ahmad, one of the presidential candidates, has filed another petition challenging him.
Musharraf knows he cannot put off his transition from military chief to president for too long and has appointed the next army chief – General Ashfaq Kiyani, his ex-spy chief, casting a long shadow on the future of this country.  
Any deal Benazir Bhutto makes with military dictator will go down badly with the electorate and will erode her popularity as a leader struggling for democracy.
But the real question is how far Musharraf will go to keep his absolute hold on power and whether that will bring the country close to civil war.
Even Bhutto has been warning that the country is on the brink.
With two provinces already up in arms (Baluchistan and the NWFP), military muscle does not augur well for the state’s future.
A united legal fraternity and civil society coupled with the opposition and an increasingly vocal media are seen as the only hope for a peaceful transition from military rule to a civilian democracy.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, has already stated that progressive forces must unite in Pakistan against extremism.
But for a deeply religious country, that may be unacceptable to many people who are already saying that the so-called war against terror is not in the interests of Pakistan.
They believe that only a democratically elected government could empower the people to make their own decisions without foreign interference.
Source: Al Jazeera