The circumstances surrounding the destruction of a madrasa in Bajaur, which killed up to eighty-five people on 30 October 2006, demonstrate yet again the tricky nature of President Pervez Musharraf's current balancing act. In particular, the involvement of the United States in the assault, and the nature of the protests in its aftermath, reveal Musharraf to be caught between the hammer of Washington's demands and the anvil of his people's rising anger.
Each time Musharraf acts to crack down on the jihadis proliferating across the tribal badlands that divide Pakistan and Afghanistan, the political dangers to him multiply. On this occasion, a seminary in the village of Chingai was targeted by helicopter gunships that levelled the building, killing everybody inside. The seminary, in the tribal area of Bajaur, was just a couple of miles from the poorly marked Afghan border.
Across the frontier is the Afghan province of Kunar, another lawless area that is giving both the government in Kabul and Musharraf's Nato supporters sleepless nights. Pakistani government spokespeople say that the army had evidence that the madrasa was being used to train young militants, and that it was also a base for launching suicide-attacks.
Government critics - and they include all the Islamic parties - insist that disproportionate force was used by the army. If there was any evidence that there were armed militants in the building, they should have been arrested and tried. But Major-General Shaukat Sultan, head of the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) department, defended the army, saying that had the madrasa been approached by road, many of the militants would have escaped. He left unsaid the fear that such an operation would almost certainly have resulted in heavy casualties. The army has suffered over 600 dead in clashes in the tribal belt over the last two years.
In January 2006, when a CIA Predator drone carried out a similar operation in the village of Damadola Burkanday in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), killing up to eighteen people (alleged militants but also civilians, including four children), protests went on for weeks. This incident has already provoked similar levels of fury. Indeed, one MP from the ruling Muttahida-Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance of clerics running the NWFP has already resigned.
In Bajaur as well as Waziristan, there are a number of jihadi groups armed to the teeth. People in these defiantly independent areas have been long accustomed to living beyond the reach of the federal government, and deeply resent recent incursions by the army. Those fighting the army include Chechen, Arab, Uzbek and Uighur 'holy warriors'.
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)
At the frontier
The madrasa in the eye of the storm was run by the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-Muhammadi (TNSM), a fanatical Sunni outfit that boasted of sending 8,000 volunteers into Afghanistan to fight the Northern Alliance alongside the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11. Its leader, Sufi Muhammad, is in jail on a number of charges. Earlier, he had set up a number of Islamic courts in Bajaur. His deputy, Maulvi Liaquat, died in the Chingai attack, together with his sons. But his ally Maulvi Faqir Mohammad survived the attacks at Chingai and Damadola, and could well become a thorn in the government's side.
One problem the Pakistan government faces is that it is unlikely to get local corroboration of whatever evidence it had about the presence of militants in the Chingai madrasa. Bajaur is a closed society to outsiders, and the tribal code of conduct, known locally as the Pakhtunkhwa, is as rigid as anything the cosa nostra ever conceived. Moreover, quite apart from the question of honour, anybody seen talking to the government is a dead man walking. There have been a number of killings of "traitors" in the region, and people are terrified to be branded a "government agent". So when critics and opposition politicians demand "evidence", the army cannot really produce anything that would stand up in a court of law. In all probability, it was tipped off by the Americans who have the border area under very close electronic and aerial surveillance.
Indeed, according to early reports of the incident, the madrasa was levelled by Hellfire missiles fired from a CIA Predator drone. The charge, denied strenuously by both Washington and Islamabad, is impossible to verify. Reporters have been denied permission to travel to Chingai, but locals insist the explosions occurred several minutes before the army helicopters arrived overhead.
At risk is the precarious agreement forged on 5 September 2006 in North Waziristan between the government and tribal leaders, under which troops were withdrawn from their forward positions. In return, foreign fighters were to be denied shelter, and there were to be no cross-border incursions. While Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, and Nato commanders remained deeply sceptical, they agreed to let Musharraf go ahead to see if his border diplomacy could work. After taking heavy casualties, the Pakistan army was prepared to return to the old carrot-and-stick method of ensuring peace along the frontier.
An unreported sum was paid to tribal leaders as part of the agreement. Now, a number of tribal leaders have said they will not abide by the accord unless the Pakistani army guarantees it will not carry out similar attacks. And in response to pressure from Nato to increase security on the Afghan-Pakistani border, Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesperson said on 6 November that the country is proposing to build a fence and implant mines in the area.
This places Musharraf in a dilemma. If he gives any such assurances to the tribal chiefs, he will be accused by Washington and London of not doing enough in the "war on terror"; but if he cannot reassure the mullahs and the tribal chiefs, they will return to the warpath and make life very difficult for him. While his options are limited, he can still reduce his political dependence on the religious parties by co-opting secular politicians to his side. So far, he has allowed his personal dislike for Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to keep them in exile and out of the political arena. But as he is pushed into a corner, he may discover that he has no choice but to start talking to his old enemies.
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