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The Perils of Pakistan

Wednesday, 07 Nov 2007 09:36 AM

By Arnaud De Borchgrave

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One of the world's eight nuclear powers, Pakistan is now a failing state out of control where Taliban, al-Qaida, and their supporters have secured their privileged sanctuaries in the tribal areas on the Afghan border; reoccupied the Red Mosque in the center of Islamabad; launched suicide bombers in widely scattered parts of this Muslim country of 160 million.

More than any other country, Pakistan is the breeding ground of Islamic terrorism. Yet it enjoys the status of "major non-NATO ally" of the United States. Now 60 years old, Pakistan has lived under military dictatorship for half its life.

In 1999, Gen., Pervez Musharraf, the army chief of staff (the country's supreme military commander), seized power and decreed martial law.

Last week, with Pakistan spinning out of control, Musharraf staged his second coup, decreed a state of emergency (tantamount to martial law), dismissed the Supreme Court, suspended the constitution, arrested some 1,500 politicians, lawyers and human rights activists, closed down all 50 TV channels except the one controlled by the government, imposed self-censorship on the print media and appointed new supreme court judges willing to follow orders.

Twice deposed as prime minister, Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan Oct. 18 after eight years of self-imposed exile, in what she thought was a power-sharing deal with Gen. Musharraf.

He had agreed to doff his uniform and run for president in a free election. As head of her Pakistan People's Party, Pakistan's most popular, Bhutto would run in elections scheduled for January and if her party won a majority, she would become prime minister.

Musharraf also guaranteed the deletion of a little constitutional impediment — political leaders are barred from serving three times as head of government. Everything began to unravel when two suicide bombers attacked her triumphal homecoming parade, killing 142 and injuring more than 400.

Musharraf, meanwhile, got himself re-elected president by a majority of members of four provincial assemblies, the federal assembly and the senate — but all opposition parties boycotted the balloting and Musharraf feared the Supreme Court would not validate his election.

His second coup d'etat followed.

Bhutto flew back to Dubai, her residence in exile, to reassure her three children who had watched the attack on television.

She returned to Karachi as security forces deployed throughout major cities. In a Nov. 3 e-mail to this reporter, Bhutto said, "Those who support the Taliban and oppose me continue to have high positions in government. Musharraf doesn't remove them nor has he kept any of the promises he made guaranteed by third parties. Yesterday [before Musharraf's state of emergency], television channels broadcast a meeting in Bajaur [one of the seven tribal agencies that border Afghanistan] by a mullah claiming that he and his group will kill me in Rawalpindi [where she was scheduled to attend a PPP rally, now banned]."

Bhutto's e-mail added, "The fact that militants hold open meetings without fear of retaliation proves the Musharraf regime is totally inept, unwilling or colluding in their expansion.

"Our rapprochement talks with Musharraf have foundered in the quicksand of his failing promises. There is no move towards democracy. It's either back to dictatorship [1999] or back to a rigged election [2002]. Or Musharraf is replaced with a pliant interim government for two years run from behind the scene by the same military hard-liners. They claim in two years they can push NATO out of Afghanistan and replace president [Hamid] Karzai with one of their own, betting that the U.S. will be caught up in presidential elections for one year and it will take another year for the new administration to settle in."

By way of conclusion, Mrs. Bhutto's e-mail said, "The situation is grim, the risks are high, but I have faith in the people to turn around the problem if we can get a real election." That horizon seems to be receding.

In recent opinion polls, Musharraf was in single digits, President Bush in the teens, and Osama bin Laden close to 50 percent. Pakistan's extremist militants reject a woman as the nation's leader, as well as an alliance with America.

Mahmoud Al Hasan, a leader of the extremist Hezb-ul-Mujahideen, the militant wing of the religious Jamaat-e-Islami party, described Bhutto and Musharraf as "slaves" of the United States. Bhutto had the added distinction of being labeled an infidel. "What should be the reaction of jihadis?" Al Hasan asked. "They should definitely kill her. She is an enemy of Islam and jihadis."

There are several hundred, if not thousands, of jihadis willing to commit suicide to assassinate Bhutto.

This, in turn, could trigger a civil war in a country with an estimated 50 nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The military are convinced Mr. Bush compelled Musharraf to deploy some 100,000 troops in the tribal agencies on the Afghan border to eradicate Taliban and al-Qaida infrastructure. But their heart was never in it. And Musharraf himself confirmed U.S. pressure in his memoirs "In the Line of Fire." More than 1,000 Pakistani troops were killed, over 3,000 injured and almost 300 captured. A number chose to stay with the Taliban fighters and the others were released after pledging not to attack their "brothers."

With Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries now secure in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, the NATO campaign to whittle down Taliban's guerrilla units in Afghanistan could last for years. But those doing the fighting with U.S. units — Canadian, British and Dutch contingents — were beginning to lose political and public opinion support at home. Logistics were costly, with no end in sight. What they originally thought might be a two- to three-year peacekeeping commitment could now take five to 10 more years. The Afghan army, according to a Canadian assessment, won't be able to manage security till 2015.

Even German, French and Italian units, stationed in relatively peaceful zones far from the Afghan border, could feel growing reluctance on their respective home fronts to keep them there. The narco-state stigma also rankled opposition politicians in Berlin, Paris and Rome. But opium is critical to the Afghan economy.

Gen. Sir David Richards, who commanded the Afghan mission until last February, said, "there are too few troops to conduct the operation in a manner that meets the basic rules of a counterinsurgency campaign" and that "we need a doubling of forces — and probably a lot more than that — if we are to achieve minimum goals." That would double the 41,000-strong NATO force to more than 80,000.

The future of NATO hangs in the balance.

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