Some 80,000 Pakistani soldiers who man the non-existent border between the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Afghan border have stood down, but no one knows who gave the order or whether they are even taking orders.
Taliban and al-Qaida terrorist training camps are up and running again with the acquiescence — or impotence — of the Pakistani army. That's the word by satellite phone from this reporter's sources in Miranshah and Wana, the capitals of North and South Waziristan.
Pakistani troops, these sources said, were fed up with the mission and humiliated by the capture of 264 troops who surrendered without a fight. Surprised by a roughly 100-strong Taliban guerrilla unit as they listened to radio news about the political crisis in Islamabad, they were later released with a reported pledge "not to fight on the side of the American crusaders against Islam."
The scuttlebutt among Pakistani troopers is that President Bush through his "puppet" Gen. President Pervez Musharraf ordered their mission in FATA. The two Waziristans are almost entirely Taliban-occupied Pakistan. The central government's "political agents" have vanished.
It is now abundantly clear that Musharraf's deal with tribal elders a year ago to rein in Taliban and al-Qaida elements and prevent them from crossing into Afghanistan was a camouflaged surrender to the terrorists. Taliban chiefs have been in control of the Waziristans ever since.
Last Aug. 9, Waziristan's tribal leaders declined to travel to Kabul for a peace jirga with the Afghan and Pakistani presidents unless they could come with Taliban chiefs. While Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai has extended an olive branch to "moderate" Taliban representatives, he wasn't ready to mix it up with anyone. The jirga, which Musharraf attended on its last day, adopted resolutions that were promptly ignored.
Bajaur, one of the seven tribal agencies, led by Faqir Muhammad, who calls Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, "heroes of the Muslim world," is adjacent to the Afghan province of Kunar, where Taliban guerrillas conduct some of the heaviest fighting. Throughout FATA, the Taliban is estimated to have some 40,000 guerrillas who use the tribal agencies for rest and training.
Pakistan, one of the world's eight nuclear powers, is in the throes of a national upheaval that dwarfs both Iraq and Afghanistan as threats to regional peace and stability. Almost half the country approves of Bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist organization. Bush and Musharraf vie in the single digits.
With presidential and parliamentary elections looming this fall, Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf toppled in a bloodless army coup in 1999 and then exiled to Saudi Arabia, was cleared to return home by the Supreme Court. He flew back on a Pakistan International Airlines flight from London to begin campaigning only to be arrested by Musharraf's order. Islamabad's airport was ringed with security troops as police clashed with thousands of Sharif's supporters trying to welcome him home. Sharif was served with a warrant on charges of corruption and four hours later deported again, back to Saudi Arabia.
The other powerful political leader in exile since 1997 was twice prime minister and twice deposed Benazir Bhutto, arguably the country's most popular figure after A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb and clandestine purveyor of nuclear weapons of mass destruction technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya (whose leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, changed his mind and surrendered everything to British and U.S. intelligence agencies in return for the lifting of all diplomatic and economic sanctions). Bhutto, who lives in Dubai and also has a London residence, has been negotiating with Musharraf the modalities of her return to campaign for her Pakistan People's Party.
But Bhutto insists Musharraf must take off his uniform, as the Constitution precludes the army chief and the president holding both jobs. Musharraf, says Bhutto, must campaign as a civilian. Vote-counting skullduggery by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency would automatically ensure the unpopular Musharraf's re-election as a civilian. Bhutto would then campaign in a subsequent parliamentary election, and assuming her party won a plurality, Musharraf would ask her to form a government.
Musharraf and Bhutto met in Abu Dhabi July 27, but the agreement still remains to be sealed.
London and Washington believe a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance will produce a broad-based secular government that might stem Pakistan's rising tide of Islamic extremism. But Musharraf feels it may all fall apart with countrywide chaos if he steps down as military chief. Pakistan has spent half its 60 years as an independent country under military rule. And the leaders of the politico-religious coalition of six extremist religious parties — Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal — that governs two of Pakistan's four provinces are muttering darkly about the "collusion of two dictators."
MMA campaigns openly in FATA land on the Afghan border. Tribal chiefs keep out other political parties. And MMA's "strategic adviser" is Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief, friend of Mullah Omar and admirer of bin Laden. He laid the groundwork for the creation of the Taliban in the early 1990s with radical students from Pakistan's madrassas, one-discipline koranic schools that have resisted reform despite $11 billion in U.S. aid since Sept. 11, 2001.
ISI is urging Musharraf to impose martial law. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, in Islamabad this week, strongly advised Musharraf to bring Bhutto back ASAP as a safety valve against mobocracy. Musharraf may well opt for both options and call it "judicial martial law." Meanwhile, Bhutto announced she was coming home Oct. 18 — with or without a deal.
Last March Musharraf summoned Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and before four other generals, including the heads of ISI and military intelligence, ordered him to resign. Chaudhry refused and was confined to house arrest — which triggered nationwide demonstrations against Musharraf, who then backed down. Chaudhry, as well as Bhutto, made clear Musharraf has to doff uniform if he wants to continue in politics. Pakistan is the world's most dangerous crisis. The stakes are who controls Pakistan's nuclear arsenal — religious fanatics (including some in uniform), middle-of-the-road democrats or the military under more of the same.
An ominous omen on Ramadan's first Friday of prayer: A suicide bomber killed 15 Pakistani commandos and wounded 37, only 50 miles from Islamabad. It was a unit trained with U.S. aid to battle against terrorists in FATA. On Sept. 4 another kamikaze killed 25 in Rawalpindi, the capital's twin city and military garrison. Several intelligence officers were among the victims.
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