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This week's editor

Rosemary Belcher-2.jpg

Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy’s Editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Afghanistan under siege

The west's military strategy in Afghanistan is proving counterproductive as well as costly.

Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed

The Arab world's passage from progressive secularism to conservative religiosity in the last fifty years is illuminated by the work of Egypt’s greatest writer, says Tarek Osman.

Iraq: divide or die

An ethno-sectarian solution is the only way to preserve Iraq as a coherent entity, argue Gareth Stansfield and Liam Anderson.

Iraq lives

The voices of Iraqi patriotism in Basra are a rebuke to western advocates of the country’s fragmentation, says Reidar Visser.

A curse on difference: gays vs zealots in Israel

Amid Israel's wider security crises, the aggravation surrounding a gay-pride march provoked fleeting religious unity and a sense of liberty besieged, reports Jan McGirk in Jerusalem.

Britain's war: evasion and reality

The head of Britain's security service shows more understanding of the political realities of the war on terror than the country's prime minister.

Sparing Saddam: beyond victor's justice

A US call to spare Saddam from the gallows could restore America's reputation for justice, and be a powerful gesture of reconciliation for the middle east, says John Sloboda.

The US votes: the road ahead for Iraq

United States politicians are rethinking their options in Iraq. But would a new policy resolve or intensify the war? Zaid Al-Ali assesses Washington's evolving agenda.

The campaign that should never stop

Amid the pain and blood of Gaza, Eyad Sarraj of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme calls on "all those who still truly believe in peace - Palestinians, Israelis and friends and allies all over the world - to unite their efforts in order to give reconciliation and peace a chance."

Kurdistan beyond Iraq

The political pressures in Iraq are pushing the Kurds towards independence, says Dlawer Ala'Aldeen.

Abqaiq's message to Washington

The al-Qaida attack on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia in February 2006, which came nearer to success than was reported at the time, has increased pressure on United States forces in the region.

Syria's quagmire, al-Assad's tunnel

The Damascus regime has survived the fallout of war in Iraq and turmoil in Lebanon, but a closer look suggests that Bashar al-Assad's time is running out, argues Carsten Wieland.

Israel's paralysis

The Israeli novelist David Grossman marks the eleventh anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin with an impassioned plea to his compatriots and political leaders.

Pervez Musharraf: in a vice

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.

Climate change: threat and promise

The scale of the global-warming challenge far exceeds the political will to tackle it. But there are signs of hope.

Lebanon: slices of life

The war shook the Lebanese inside out. Now – at rallies and parties, in art and life, with white anger and black humour - they are trying to make sense of it all. Mai Ghoussoub shares her journey into hearts and minds.

Driving with Rida

Kosovo: approaching independence or chaos?

Serbs' endorsement of a constitution reaffirming sovereignty over Kosovo casts a further shadow over the "final status" of the contested territory. Peter Lippman, recently in Pristina, maps one of Europe's most intractable disputes.

Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith

In response to the United States's deepening predicament in Iraq, influential American voices are advocating the country's partition. Zaid Al-Ali assesses Peter W Galbraith's presentation of this case in his book "The End of Iraq."

After failure in Iraq

The United States is considering two military options in Iraq: keep going, or fortify around key military bases. What will happen if neither works?

A death sentence in India

The case of a Kashmiri Muslim convicted for terrorism raises serious questions about the operation of Indian democracy, says Shubh Mathur.

Israel's strategic victory in Lebanon

The new facts on the ground in southern Lebanon suggest that the instant conventional wisdom about Hizbollah's victory over Israel is wrong, argues David Ucko.

Suez: Arab victory or Arab tragedy?

The Suez conflict of October 1956 is remembered as a moment of Arab triumph as well as British and French humiliation. The perspective of fifty years suggests a different lesson to Hazem Saghieh.

New frontiers: from Iraq to outer space

The United States leadership's unbounded military ambition stems from an absolute need to maintain control.

Lebanon: who won the war?

Israel's painful post-war inquest is matched by Lebanese scepticism over Hizbollah's "divine victory", reports Eric Silver in Jerusalem.

Election and empire

George Bush may change course on Iraq. Democrats may gain in US elections. But, argues Norman Birnbaum, America will suffer because of its hubris.

Christians and Zionists: apocalypse row in Jerusalem

The "theo-con" ambitions of foreign evangelicals in Israel are challenging the delicate historical balance of Jerusalem's religious communities, reports Jan McGirk.

Lebanon: the war after the war

The argument that, after all, Hizbollah's war with Israel was a failure is the product of military-commerial spin.

The Lebanon war of 12 July-14 August 2006 was widely reported as defeat for Israel and a victory for the Hizbollah movement. Now, two months on, a new interpretation of the war's outcome has emerged which suggests that the war was less a defeat for Israel then may have been supposed. The revised assessment deserves careful and critical attention.

Hamas's path to reinvention

An internal shift from religion-based to politics-defined struggle is reshaping Hamas's identity. Khaled Hroub, author of "Hamas: A Beginner's Guide", explains how it has happened and criticises the west's failure to understand this key Palestinian trend.A remarkable yet mostly overlooked transformation has been taking place within the thinking and political practice of Hamas over the past few years.

Abkhazia: land in limbo

Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili introduced John McCain, leader of a senatorial delegation to Tbilisi in September 2006, as "the next president of the United States", a compliment repaid by McCain's styling the Georgian people America's "best friends".

The president and me

Why, despite similar backgrounds, have Pakistan's President Musharraf and former Guantànamo detainee Moazzam Begg ended up on opposite sides of the "war on terror"?

London without a map

The way Britain's governing institutions work is blinding their officials to the real threats and challenges facing the country.

Arab-Israeli settlement: a global call to action

At the initiative of the International Crisis Group, 135 global leaders issue a call for urgent international action to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A house divided: Bosnia after the elections

The election has brought small signs of change to a Bosnia where institutional fragmentation has cemented ethnic division, reports Nicholas Walton.

The nuclear shopping-mall: AQ Khan and Iran

The worldwide network in sales of nuclear technology created by the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan is a key element in the stand-off between Tehran and Washington, says Gordon Corera.

How democracy works in Pakistan

The authorities in Islamabad have many ways to ensure the right result in elections. Irfan Husain tells some tales from the polling booth.
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