Pakistan continues along a mixed, though largely negative trajectory as the spate of urban suicide bombing continues and insurgents make bold moves in South Waziristan, while the army strengthens its control over Swat and leaders flinch toward national reconciliation. The army’s immediate workload increases, but Gen. Ashfaq Kayani takes clear steps to depoliticize the institution. In both Pakistan and Afghanistan, efforts toward dividing and containing the Taliban continue. Election campaigning proceeds, though in a less spirited fashion prior to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
Terrorist Strikes Shi’a Gathering in Peshawar
A teenage suicide bomber clad in black struck an imambargah, a site for ritualistic mourning for Shi’a Muslims, in Peshawar today, the seventh day of the month of Muharram. This month is significant for all Muslims, but it holds a particular importance for the Shi’a. Their commemoration crescendos on the tenth day, Ash’ura, as they mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. Ash’ura falls on Sunday; the army, local police, and private mosque security squads are under high alert. However, that will not preclude attacks such as today’s from occurring. The bomber that struck the imambargah today detonated his device after being stopped by police, killing ten individuals. Targeting the Shi’a is a major point of convergence for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and various southern Punjabi Sunni militant groups.
Swat and Getting Swatted
Pakistan’s army continues to make gains in Swat, a settled, scenic valley in the North-West Frontier Province. According to Director General Military Operations Maj. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Operation Rah-e Haq has been successfully completed. The army, he says, established its hold over the area in late December, killing or apprehending major militants associated with Maulana Fazlullah, who remains holed up in a mountainous area packed in by recent heavy snowfall. It is now making steps toward issuing a compensation and development package for the area and has replaced Fazlullah’s FM radio station with several of its own. The speed and effectiveness of the government’s resettlement of internally displaced people and restoring the civil administration and political parties remains significant. Half-hearted measures will only result in local discontent that Fazlullah or a subsequent variant can feed off of.
In a marked contrast to the government’s military success in Swat, it continues to struggle in South Waziristan. This week, two forts were taken over by insurgents, who had little trouble combating the undertrained and ill-equipped paramilitary Frontier Corps. Their Wednesday night attack on a fort, which they held and then withdrew from, was made by a group of 200-1,000 men, overwhelming the 40 FC troops stationed there.
This large scale attack by neo-Taliban affiliated with Baitullah Mehsud is the first of its kind as guerrilla tactics are normally used. If this marks a strategic shift for Mehsud, it is both an alarming development for Pakistan’s military as well as a potential source of opportunity. Its success in Swat was partially precipitated by the overstretching of Maulana Fazlullah’s forces, though Fazlullah’s group is vastly smaller and less sophisticated and armed than Mehsud’s. And so if Mehsud’s forces press toward Pakistani military installations in large numbers, they provide an opportunity to be eliminated in larger numbers of them in a short amount of time with an aerial assault. That is why Mehsud group did not hold on to the fort in Wednesday night’s attack.
U.S. Special Forces’ counterinsurgency training of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps accelerates this year, but there’s no indication that any substantive progress will be achieved before the spring. In the interim, Pakistan could benefit by goading Mehsud into adopting more conventional and exposing tactics.
Tea with the Taliban
As the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan sat and drank chai with former Taliban leader and now Musa Qala governor Abdul Salaam, the strategy of dividing and containing (or incorporating) the Taliban continues in Pakistan. The federal government is exploiting the traditional and on-going rivalries between the Ahmedzai Wazirs and the Mehsuds in Southern Waziristan. It could be imposing a blockade of sorts on the Mehsuds, to the advantage of the Ahmedzais. Curbing the flow of drugs and other illicit contrabands will weaken the Mehsuds, but it’s unclear as to whether the Pakistani military is effectively declaring war on the Mehsud tribe or whether it’s trying to make them see Baitullah Mehsud as a source of their problems.
Eurotrip: The National Reconciliation Tour
On Saturday, Muslim League-Nawaz President Shahbaz Sharif met in Islamabad with Niaz Ahmed, a retired military officer who serves as an intermediary between the Sharif brothers and Pervez Musharraf. The octogenarian retired brigadier was an army instructor to Pervez Musharraf and is well-respected by the Sharif brothers due to past favors. He reportedly presented Shahbaz, the younger Sharif, with an offer straight from Musharraf to take part in a national unity government before the elections and have a considerable role thereafter. The Sharifs were also requested to tone down their criticism of Musharraf.
Shahbaz reportedly replied that he’d have to have discuss any offer with his elder brother, Nawaz, who was nearby in the resort town of Murree. After being caught leaving Ahmed’s Islamabad home by spunky Pakistani journalists, Shahbaz described his meeting with Ahmed as a “courtesy call.” Coincidentally, he also met the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, Ali Awadh Asseri. The Saudis have a keen interest in seeing the return of the Sharifs to power and have for years played a role in managing Sharif-Musharraf relations.
And in yet another coincidence, Shahbaz Sharif, Pervez Musharraf, and Niaz Ahmed will all be in London this Friday. Shahbaz claims he’s going to London for medical treatment, but there’s no sign his hair plugs need re-alignment.
As of now, Nawaz Sharif, who is seen by some as less compromising than his brother, has continued his call for a national unity government without Pervez Musharraf. But he has called for a re-scheduling of elections so that new election commission could be formed, headed by deposed Supreme Court Justice Rana Baghwandas, enabling the participation of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e Insaaf and the Jamaat-e Islami. The PPP strongly rejected Sharif’s proposal.
The elections delay serves the interest of all parties save the PPP, which will lose the sympathy vote as we get further away from Benazir Bhutto’s death. This brings up some significant questions in regard to the national reconciliation talk.
Is it an attempt by Musharraf to divide and control the opposition? Until now, the PML-N has been following the lead of the PPP. Is that changing? Does the PML-N share an interest with Musharraf in checking the PPP, particularly in Punjab? We’ll probably get a good sense this weekend as to the status of the Sharif-Musharraf talks.
Where’s the PPP in all this? Earlier this week, there was a rumored meeting between Musharraf and Asif Zardari, which the PPP denied. But Amin Fahim, the PPP vice chairman, likely met Musharraf around a week ago. PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar said that “all options are open” in regard to cooperation with Musharraf after the elections.
And what about the PML-Q? Earlier this week, Pervaiz Elahi, always on the attack, said that “all those parties after smelling their defeat in the upcoming general elections are giving suggestions for formation of the national government which has no constitutional, ethical and democratic reasons.” But then Chaudhry Shujaat, his cousin, stated yesterday that his party will form a national unity government after the elections and will invite the PPP and PML-N.
Pakistan will likely see some form of a national unity government. But it remains to be seen as to whether it will be formed before or after the elections, with or without Pervez Musharraf, and all the parties, including the PML-Q.
Kayani’s De-Politicization of the Army
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani issued an order prohibiting army officers from meeting with politicians. When the directive was first reported, it was unclear as to whether Pervez Musharraf, now a civilian president, was included in the category of politicians. After all, he still lives in the military’s headquarters. Retired Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, a former chief of army staff, tells the Daily Times that meeting with Musharraf is also prohibited, but there was no confirmation from government sources. New Inter-Services Public Relations spokesperson Athar Abbas also distanced the army from Musharraf’s claim that Benazir Bhutto was not popular with the Pakistani army.
But Army Has More Duties
While the army might be doing less politicking, its burden has now increased. It has now been tasked with defense of the country’s increasingly scarce wheat supplies. This is on top of its responsibilities in fighting insurgencies, defending Pakistan’s borders, and providing security for some of Pakistan’s major cities after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
Today, Gen. Kayani met with junior commissioned and non-commissioned army officers. He emphasized his two major themes of improving the army’s “professional excellence” as the standard of living for all of those in its ranks. But importantly, he emphasized that the army’s primary duty is to defend the country’s borders.
Aitzaz Ahsan’s Return to the PPP
The spirit of reconciliation is alive. Asif Zardari will reportedly promote Aitzaz Ahsan to People’s Party vice chairman. This is a move to push the PPP in Punjab. As I noted earlier, Zardari will be moving to Lahore to build up the party there. But this also marks a challenge to the PML-N and PML-Q, whose support base is almost exclusively in that province. Aitzaz was paid a visit by Attorney General Malik Qayyum, who reportedly offered an end to his house arrest if he hushed up about the judges issue.
The Travails of Maulana Diesel
It hasn’t been a good week or so for Maulana Fazlur Rahman. He’s been staying indoors lately as a result of the reported assassination threats made against him. His party, the JUI-F, is facing some turbulence; it recently expelled 18 party members. Fazl tells BBC Urdu that a senior Punjab official replied to his request for security by stating, “No money, no security.”