Another day, another bomb. The question Pakistanis are now routinely asking each other is: "How many casualties?" On 27th July 2007, Islamabad's Lal Masjid claimed fifteen more lives as a suicide-bomber shouted Allah-u Akbar! (God is great!) as he blew himself up outside a roadside restaurant a couple of hundred yards from the mosque. A group of policemen who were on security duty and had wandered over for lunch were the targets; seven of them died, and dozens were injured.
Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan. Also by Irfan Husain in openDemocracy:
"Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words" (16 March 2006)
"Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)
"The state of Pakistan" (22 May 2006)
"Hell in Helmand" (18 July 2006)
"Lebanon: the view from Pakistan" (7 August 2006)
"The Baluchi insurrection" (4 September 2006)
"How democracy works in Pakistan" (29 September 2006)
"Pervez Musharraf: in a vice" (6 November 2006)
"Pakistan: zero-sum games people play" (6 December 2006)
"Sri Lanka: giving war a chance" (8 February 2007)
"Pervez Musharraf's bed of nails" (19 March 2007)Since the operation against the militants holding the mosque for six months ended on 11 July, a spate of suicide-bombings has taken a savage toll of soldiers and policemen. So far this month, close to 300 have died as a direct result of extremist violence. The numbers killed in the Lal Masjid operation itself are contested: government sources estimate them at 102, though militants claim a far higher figure and accuse the authorities of covering up the true scale of the damage.
The wave of violence sweeping the north of the country is a grim reminder of how dangerous a place Pakistan has become. In Lakarai, in the Mohmand tribal region on 28 July, dozens of militants seized the shrine of the early 20th-century Pashtun nationalist Sahib Turangzai and the mosque connected to it (which they quickly renamed after the Lal Masjid); the next day, two attacks saw six soldiers killed in incidents involving a remote-controlled bomb and a rocket-attack around the town of Miran Shah in North Waziristan, while four civilians were killed in misdirected army retaliation. We were planning a trip to Skardu, a lovely mountain valley, but as our small group included two Europeans, we decided not to take the risk of running into violent extremists.
Indeed, the ferocity and nature of the attacks on security forces carry echoes from Iraq: at what point does a low-intensity internal conflict become a civil war? What the Taliban and their militant supporters in the tribal areas are demanding is little short of an Islamic state based on their own medieval version of the faith. They tried this model in Afghanistan, and now want to replicate it in swathes of Pakistan.
Just as the Ghazi brothers - Maulana Abdullah and Abdul Rashid - declared independence from the state for their Lal Masjid complex six months ago, their brethren in Waziristan want to impose their own harsh laws. As they are forcing Pakistani citizens to toe their line at gunpoint, this is clearly an act of rebellion.
Pervez Musharraf's government had signalled its weakness in September 2006 when it negotiated an agreement under which it surrendered the right to conduct military operations, or to man checkpoints in the tribal area of North Waziristan. This was held up at the time as the way forward, though in reality the accord - renounced by militant local leaders in the aftermath of the siege - represented a tacit recognition that the army, having lost 700 soldiers, was unable to restore the tenuous writ of the state.
The Benazir escape-hatch
But to be fair, the government is caught in a bind: if it uses its full strength, there are bound to be civilian casualties. This inevitably causes a domestic backlash. And when it tries to use diplomacy, the tribesmen take advantage by strengthening their positions, and allowing the Taliban to use the area as a base for cross-border operations. This in turn causes Pakistan's western allies to accuse Musharraf of weakness in the face of the Taliban threat they face in Afghanistan.
Musharraf, trapped in this no-win situation, has limited options. He is isolated politically, and incapable of making the strategic changes necessary to meet the challenges the country faces today. In 2002 he threw in his lot with the clerics of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), giving them political space by driving secular parties into the wilderness. Some selective rigging saw them come to power in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) after the October 2002 elections, and in Balochistan (Baluchistan) as a coalition partner. In exchange, the clerics used their suddenly expanded presence in the assemblies to allow him to remain army chief. Now, the same religious parties have turned against him.
Also in openDemocracy on Pakistan's deepening divide:
Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan on edge"(25 September 2006)
Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state"(12 April 2007)
Maruf Khwaja, "Rising, uprising Pakistan" (14 May 2007)
Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis" (16 May 2007)
Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamabad" (4 June 2007)
Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007) The talks between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto - originally surrounded by secrecy, but now acknowledged as having taken place - are the result of the president's isolation. There has been a series of back-channel contacts between emissaries of the two in London and Dubai, but this is the first time in eight years they have met. It is a sign of Musharraf's weakness that he has flown to Abu Dhabi to meet a politician he has reviled ever since he seized power in 1999.
With national, provincial and presidential elections due by the end of 2007, Musharraf is fighting for his political life. Although he told a group of journalists last week that he would seek re-election from the present assemblies, it is unlikely that this ploy will be allowed to succeed. Opposition parties have vowed to challenge this unconstitutional move before the supreme court. The return of the chief justice, Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry, after a bitter and protracted legal battle has not improved Musharraf's chances of overcoming constitutional objections.
But Benazir Bhutto's contacts with Musharraf have drawn a storm of criticism from other opposition parties, as well as from within her own Pakistan People's Party (PPP). As it is, the PPP is poised to win the highest number of votes, and may well form the next government. However, should Bhutto cut too cynical a deal, she could well cause a rebellion in PPP ranks. She is desperate for the corruption charges against her to be dropped, and for Musharraf to repeal legislation introduced by him that currently limits politicians to two terms as prime minister. This effectively prevents Bhutto and her opposition rival Nawaz Sharif from heading future governments. The quid pro quo she could offer is support for Musharraf's re-election by the next parliament.
However, the deal-breaker could be Musharraf's insistence to continue as army chief while he is simultaneously president for another five years. The general is aware that if he doffs his uniform, he would lose his core constituency. For her part, Benazir Bhutto knows that such a concession would seriously damage her democratic credentials, as well as her chances in the elections.
This thorny issue may be the reason why both sides are ‘neither confirming, nor denying' that a meeting took place. One problem is that neither side trusts the other, and both fear being exposed and double-crossed. Meanwhile, the killing continues, with suicide bombings and drive-by assassinations being reported on a daily basis.
It is clear that whatever the results of the elections, the army's presence will be needed for security duties within Pakistan, as well as on its Afghan border. The existential threat to Pakistan now comes from its tribal belt, not from India. Both politicians and generals need to be aware of this new reality and work together if the country is to survive the fundamentalist threat from within.
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