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Hakimullah Mehsud Confirms Baitullah’s Death

Hakimullah Mehsud has told BBC Urdu that Baitullah Mehsud died two days ago.

The BBC also spoke with Wali-ur-Rehman Mehsud, who denied claims of rifts in the TTP. The report also states that Wali-ur-Rehman has been made TTP commander in the Mehsud areas of Waziristan.

So, we have a power sharing arrangement in which Hakimullah heads the TTP, but Wali-ur-Rehman runs the show in the TTP’s heartland. Given that it took the Taliban so long to acknowledge Baitullah’s death, it’s clear that there are some real internal sensitivities. The big question is: Can Hakimullah and Wali-ur-Rehman work together, or will they step on each other’s toes?

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Pakistan’s Counterinsurgency After Baitullah: Move Forward, But Not Too Fast

Almost two weeks after the killing of Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan continues to have an upper hand over the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).  But Rawalpindi-Islamabad’s gains over the TTP are unconsolidated.  The Pakistani Taliban network can rejuvenate itself.  Pakistan needs to sustain its vigilance against the militants, while at the same time not drag itself into a full-fledged conflict in South Waziristan it is not ready for.

Pakistan has managed to:

  • secure its major urban areas outside the Pashtun belt, and, to a large extent, Peshawar, from militant attacks.  There has been no equivalent of the Manawan police academy or ISI office attacks in Lahore or the Pearl Continental attack in Peshawar.
  • cleanse the Malakand division of militants (though not completely — see below) to the extent that much of the internally displaced population is returning home and willing to facilitate policing efforts to prevent a Taliban return.
  • increase approval of the Pakistan Army in the Malakand division, despite the fact that it hasn’t followed a COINdinista Network Approved Strategy (CNAS).
  • continue to penetrate terrorist cells and apprehend key facilitators, funders, and trained suicide bombers.
  • push the militant leadership into the North-South Waziristan corridor.
  • fracture the TTP leadership, or at least create the perception that it is in “disarray.”
  • put the Mehsud network — and anti-state takfiri terrorists, in general — on the defensive, both physically and ideologically.
  • maintain pressure on TTP remnants in Bajaur, Khyber, Mohmand, and Orakzai.  Note that there hasn’t been an attack on a NATO convoy in Pakistan recently.
  • transfer the Pashtun “hot potato” on to the United States.

This success is due to:

  • the use of air power against militants in the Malakand division and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that, while causing significant civilian casualties, neither turned the local population against the central government nor strained the manpower of the Pakistani security services.
  • a commitment to keep a large military presence in Swat for the next few years.
  • a sustained counterpropaganda campaign utilizing the private media and religious scholars, particularly Barelvis.
  • a clever psy-ops campaign against the TTP.
  • a whole-hearted embrace of its fallen soldiers, with public funerals made accessible to the media.
  • excellent investigative and police work done by the federal interior ministry down to the provincial police forces.
  • the decision by the Obama administration to focus drone attacks against the Baitullah Mehsud network.

The TTP has failed to:

  • prove that Baitullah Mehsud is alive.  Hakimullah Mehsud, who appears to be living, promised a Baitullah video by last Monday, but it never appeared.
  • demonstrate leadership continuity by appointing a successor to Baitullah.
  • counter Pakistan Army claims that there was a clash between Hakimullah and Wali-ur-Rehman Mehsud by having the two agree on a Baitullah successor or, somehow, publicly prove they are on the same page.
  • show that it remains a force to be reckoned with by pulling off a major attack in Islamabad, Peshawar, or urban Punjab.
  • legitimize (or re-legitimize) its insurgency and campaign of terror in the eyes of the Pakistani public by linking it to Pakistan’s support for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

Despite the Pakistan military’s gains against the TTP, the terrorist outfit’s senior leadership — aside from Baitullah — remains alive.  Commanders such as Faqir Muhammad and Hakimullah Mehsud are around.  But their continued existence does not preclude a disassembly of the TTP.  Afterall, it is an umbrella organization.  Disassembly would require the commanders to no longer share the same threat: the Pakistan military-intelligence establishment.  And that would require an undesirable return to a messy policy of Rawalpindi sorting out the bad guys from the less bad guys (i.e. “good” vs. “bad” Taliban).

For the Pakistan Army, South Waziristan remains the belly of the beast.  Its unforgiving land is the home of the Mehsud network as well as a host of Pakistani and foreign jihadi groups.

But, for many reasons, the Pakistan Army cannot afford a ground incursion into South Waziristan:

  • Its gains in the Malakand Division have yet to be consolidated and the troops there must remain.  Militant attacks in the North-West Frontier Province have risen in the past week.  Today, a suicide bomber struck a gas station in Charsadda, killing at least seven.  And in the past week, there have been two suicide bombings in Swat.  The most recent one occurred in Mingora, where Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is scheduled to visit on today.  These events suggest the possibility that the Taliban could pop up again amidst a returning displaced population.  A recent Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) briefing with the New York Times indicated that the Pakistan Army won’t move any additional troops from the border with India.  So Swat will utilize the Pakistan Army’s only ‘extra’ manpower.
  • It lacks the public support necessary for a sustained and costly battle there. While more Pakistanis support the fight against militants now than ever, the supporters do not constitute a commanding majority; and even among the supporters for the war, there is a high preference for peace talks.  The fight in the Malakand division was a cakewalk compared to what the Pakistan Army would face in South Waziristan.  Public support for a prolonged South Waziristan ground campaign would collapse quickly.
  • It does not have the support of the Mehsud tribe.  A Mehsud tribal leader, while visiting Islamabad, referred to Baitullah as a “shaheed” or martyr.  His tribe has yet to revolt against the Mehsud terror network, despite the Pakistani security services’ prodding.  I sensed that the tribal leader lacked trust with the military-intelligence establishment.  If his tribe stood up against the Mehsud network, only to have the Pakistan Army make a peace deal with the group, the tribal leaders who had supported the army could be targeted by the terror group.  Presently, the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment has been playing a bit of hardball with the Mehsuds by using the rival South Waziristan Bhittani tribe against them.  But, according to some reports, the Bhittanis have killed regular Mehsud tribesmen.  And some fear a new problem, a Bhittani-Mehsud tribal war, could emerge.  While there is merit to the idea of converting the Mehsuds with a bit of hard power, overdoing it could harden their resolve.  The Mehsud tribe needs to know that the Pakistan Army will have its back if it turns against Baitullah’s network and that there are costs to supporting the TTP and rewards from opposing it.
  • It has hostile forces to the Mehsud country’s north, where the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group continues to engage in suicide attacks against Pakistani security forces in North Waziristan.  A jihadi video from this summer indicates that at least one suicide bomber was an Uzbek.  Was the Uzbek with Bahadur or borrowed from Baitullah?
  • It potentially also has hostile forces to the Mehsud country’s west.  A peace deal with Maulvi Nazir, an Ahmedzai Wazir in South Waziristan, was thought to have helped contain Baitullah Mehsud and challenge irredentist Uzbek militants.  But U.S. drone attacks and possibly the encouragement of al-Qaeda pushed the militant against the Pakistani establishment.  Nazir appeared on an al-Sahab (al-Qaeda’s media arm) video damning the Pakistani state (for, among other things, its Macaulay-originated education system).   A pro-government tribal leader was recently killed in his network’s vicinity.  However, Nazir’s conflagrations with the Pakistani security forces have been limited, as compared to Gul Bahadur’s.  And, in a curious press report, he is said to have been killed on Monday in a supposed clash with Baitullah’s network.  The Mehsud network denied taking part in the battle; it is certainly possible that the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment eliminated Nazir and, neither wanting conflict with the Ahmedzai Wazirs nor wishing Wazir-Mehsud unity, sought to blame the Mehsud network instead.   It also remains possible that Nazir’s group could have really been attacked by the Mehsuds, but I am skeptical.  And Nazir still could be alive.

So, rather than being triangulated by the Ahmedzai Wazirs, Utmanzai Wazirs, and the Mehsuds, the Pakistan Army seems to be making economical use of its resources by not heightening hostilities with each tribe’s militant network at once.  The Mehsud network is the declared public enemy, while Gul Bahadur can be countered under the pretenses of ‘reluctance’ and Nazir can, possibly, be targeted through covert methods that offer deniability.  Pakistani air power and local paramilitary and army forces can continue pressure on the Mehsud network and Gul Bahadur’s group (under the cover of “retaliation”), and American drone attacks can target all three groups.  This would soften up the rough terrain of South Waziristan, weaken its jihadi infrastructure, and increase coherence in U.S.-Pakistan relations.

But, in the end, all this talk of the various Pakistani Taliban groups begets the question: whither the Haqqani network?  Does going against any or all of the jihadi three in Waziristan mean a conflict between the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment and the Haqqani network is guaranteed, if it hasn’t begun already?

This is where things get the shadiest.  How can the Haqqani network have ties to the ISI, the Baitullah Mehsud network, and al-Qaeda at the same time?  The enemy of my enemy is, perhaps, my friend; the friend of my friend can be my friend; but can the friend of my enemy be my friend?  Perhaps if the friend of my enemy is also the enemy of another enemy of mine.  But is that enough glue to hold ‘friends’ together?   The puzzle would be easier to solve if it became clear that Maulvi Sangeen — presently, the major linkage between the Haqqani and Mehsud networks — is a bit of a renegade.  It also helps to remember that jihadi groups are prone to insubordination and splintering; in fact, there have been instances in which the elimination or arrest of Taliban commanders was ‘facilitated’ by the parent group.  So, there is always more than meets the eye.

If I were a betting man, I would put my money on Rawalpindi not parting ways with the Haqqanis and Mullah Omar.  Any future political resolution in Afghanistan will involve re-balancing the ethnic power distribution there, with a re-tilt toward the Pashtuns.  The Haqqanis, Mullah Omar, and to some extent, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are Pakistan’s only Pashtun cards to play.  And everyone — the Germans, the Turks, the Indians, the Brits, the Iranians, the Americans, and hell, probably even the Polish — all have, want, and need cards to play in Afghanistan.  Let’s not be naive about Afghan independence.  It is a penetrated state; its penetration is guaranteed by the fact that it is landlocked, surrounded by middle and emerging global powers, host to a north Atlantic alliance that has found itself in the middle of Central Asia (dangerously in Chinese, Iranian, Pakistani, and Russian strategic space), home to Pashtuns and Tajiks who will ally with a foreigner to mercilessly combat one another, and a possible transit route for a number of energy pipelines in a post-peak oil, post-Chinese riding bicycles to work world.

I think a quid pro quo in the form of Baitullah for the Haqqanis and/or Mullah Omar is not probable.  Washington took out Baitullah, but he was a bigger threat to Pakistan than he was to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  Now that Rawalpindi got what it wanted, what will guarantee it reciprocating through giving up the Haqqanis and/or Mullah Omar?

Baitullah, in a loose sense, served as leverage over Pakistan.  But now he and that leverage are gone.  At the same time, the U.S.-led coalition is increasingly vulnerable as it faces an uphill battle in Afghanistan.  Days before national elections, the Afghan capital of Kabul was struck by a SVBIED with approximately 1,000 pounds of explosives.  The suicide bomber managed to penetrate the most secure area of Kabul.  The attack was a public relations coup for the Taliban, which managed to strike near the local seat of the world’s most powerful collective security alliance, led by world’s sole superpower, with a security blimp watching from the sky.

Assuming the elections turn out fine (reasonable turnout, especially among Pashtuns, no major claims of rigging, and a Karzai victory), Afghanistan remains a challenged country.  American operations in Helmand are moving slow.  Meanwhile, the Taliban are making major gains in Kandahar and areas outside the Pashtun provinces.  General Stanley McCrystal’s surrogates, i.e. those who served on his review committee, are hitting the airwaves and op-ed pages calling for a significant troop increase.  But the Obama administration remains conflicted.  National Security Advisor Jim Jones is dead against any new commitment of additional troops.  Vice President Joe Biden also seems to be extremely cold to the idea. A majority of Americans do not approve of the war in Afghanistan (though this can certainly change).  The “good war” isn’t as good as it once was.  Add to that the fact that COINdinista-style wars are expensive, while American tolerance for deficit spending has evaporated.

Washington has increasingly made clear that it is willing to negotiate with elements of the Afghan Taliban (save for the senior leadership), as long as they commit to some behavioral change (e.g. disarming and accepting the Afghan constitution).  Theoretically, it’s a perfect formula.  But in reality, it’s somewhat dangerous.  Negotiations, in the Washington consensus, are contingent upon the United States breaking the present stalemate and gaining an upper hand.  But what if the U.S.-led coalition never gains an upper hand?  Will it continue to walk into the quicksand?  This is a critical question that need to be addressed before it’s too late.

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Deferral Till Death

Last August, I wrote:

About deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry: it is strange how so many powerful Pakistanis fear one good judge.  It is a testament to how much political and financial power are contingent upon a state of lawlessness and graft.  It is also strange that the rule of law movement is being opposed so vigorously when Baitullah Mehsud has accelerated his plans to establish his own judicial system across the tribal areas.  In a sense, Pakistanis face a choice between Iftikhar Chaudhry and Baitullah Mehsud.  Eliminating the former is a vote for the latter.

Today, President Asif Zardari is on the verge of making peace with Mehsud’s [ex?-]associate Maulana Fazlullah.  Without trying, Zardari has given up on establishing an effective civil judicial system in the greater Swat area.

At the same time, Zardari has declared war on a movement focused on establishing the rule of civil law, led by deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The formula of [Judicial System - Leading Rule of Law Movement Symbol = No Competition for Medieval Militants] has essentially been realized.

The Peoples Party has used a strategy of deferral till death (or death by deferral) for ‘contentious’ issues, such as restoration of the restored judges.

But look at the costs.  Law Minister Farooq Naik has been sitting on a “judicial reform” plan for around half a year.  Reforms that would produce speedy, effective civil justice — such as establishing night courts — are being delayed so they can be packaged with a boat load of other goodies (such as lowering the judges’ retirement age from 65 to 62 to expedite CJ Iftikhar’s retirement to December 2010).

These goodies will be packaged with another set of goodies for other political parties (Pakhtunkhwa for the ANP; provincial autonomy for the ANP & MQM) to create a mega-constitutional package.  The idea is that other political parties, save for the PML-N, will be satisfied enough as to go forward with neutering the courts (by removing the chief justice’s suo moto power) and not ask for a reduction in presidential powers.

[Regarding the presidential powers, note that on the very day Zardari was sworn in as president, Jehangir Badr began equivocating on the issue of nominalizing the presidency.  Neither the ANP nor the MQM have proposed a reduction in presidential powers.  Also, keep in mind that Washington does not trust Gilani.  He is seen as not being able to keep a secret from the ISI.]

The cost of Zardari’s power grab and war against Iftikhar is clear.  The ultimate victims of Zardari’s strategy of deferral till death are the Pakistani state system and the people it should be serving.

Update: 2/28 (12:25PM EST) — Babar Sattar, one of my favorite Pakistani columnists, writes:

“Our present system of governance is simply not sustainable and will need to be changed. But if the lawyers’ movement for reform fails, the only type of change that could follow would be the Taliban-style presently being endured by Swat.”

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Report: Baitullah Mehsud is Dead

GEO News reports that Baitullah Mehsud, the amir of the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan is dead, apparently due to natural causes. Mehsud had been sick in recent days and reportedly slipped into a coma.

Pakistan’s commemorate Eid ul-Fitr today (Wednesday), marking the end of the month of Ramadan. The passing of this murderous terrorist, if true, is an Eid present of sorts for the violence plagued nation.

Expect the TTP shura council to elect a successor soon. It will, however, not be a smooth ride for the TTP, since the organization has continuously faced internal squabbling. It is possible that the TTP could elect a successor from the Mehsud tribe.

Mehsud’s death, however, will not mark the end of the TTP. Pakistan’s security forces should not take this as an opportunity to be complacent. The Pakistan military-intelligence establishment now has an opportunity to make use of potential divisions within the TTP. But while fragmenting the alliance weakens their existence as an ideological movement, it could also give birth to a wide assortment of criminal entities, further destabilizing the region.

There is no alternative to gaining the support of the local tribes, elders, wayward youth, and striking a fine balance between recognizing local autonomy and ensuring the writ of the government is present.

UPDATE: 6:12PM (New York) – BBCUrdu.com reports that a U.S. Predator drone fired two missiles at a home in North Waziristan, killing around four. Foreigners are among the dead.

UPDATE: 10:50PM (New York) – Renown Pakistani Pashtun journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai tells BBC Urdu that Mehsud’s death has not been confirmed with the Tehreek-e Taliban. Yusufzai did state that Mehsud was very ill recently, due to diabetes and heart-related afflictions.

Additionally, today’s missile strike took place in a village near Mir Ali. Yusufzai said that locals told him that the blasts were so strong they could be heard as far as Bannu and Miranshah.

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PML-N Leaves Coalition, Joins Opposition; Proposes Own Presidential Candidate

PML-N Leader Nawaz Sharif has announced that his party will be leaving the governing coalition completely and will sit in the opposition.  He made this statement in a press conference that is occuring as I write.  The PML-N will also put forward the name of Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, a judge who retired when Pervez Musharraf took over and requested that he take an oath on a provisional constitution, for the presidential elections.

The PML-N seems to have had no other choice.  It made agreements with the PPP one day, only for that party’s leader, Asif Zardari, to state the next day that the pact had no value.

But Pakistan’s polity is heading for a left-right split and this is dangerous.  Pakistan’s parties will be split along the lines of pro-Zardari and anti-Zardari, pro-war on terror and anti-war on terror, pro-Iftikhar Chaudhry and anti-Iftikhar Chaudhry.  Sound familiar?  Zardari and his PPP have effectively taken the place of Musharraf and the PML-Q.  His presidency is unlikely to last long and his party could take major blows from his failed power grab.  After all, the party’s formal chairman is 19 years old.

The polarization of Pakistan’s polity is an affront to the mandate of the February 18th elections.  Pakistanis voted for change.  They made clear their desire for Pakistan’s two major parties to join together at the center.  They made clear that they wanted a new politics, not the games of the past.  Instead, they have received recycled, yet unrehabilitated characters from the past.

Zardari overcame his character deficit with magmamity and prudence in the months after his wife’s death.  Yet he has returned to his old self, which Pakistanis were never fond of.

About deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry: it is strange how so many powerful Pakistanis fear one good judge.  It is a testament to how much political and financial power are contingent upon a state of lawlessness and graft.  It is also strange that the rule of law movement is being opposed so vigorously when Baitullah Mehsud has accelerated his plans to establish his own judicial system across the tribal areas.  In a sense, Pakistanis face a choice between Iftikhar Chaudhry and Baitullah Mehsud.  Eliminating the former is a vote for the latter.

Finally, the PML-N’s control over Punjab is not in danger by it leaving the government at the center.  It’s one vote short of a majority in the Punjab Assembly and there are plenty of PML-Q defectors and independents willing to join its ranks.  But let’s see how the PML-N performs as in the opposition.  It does not appear that it will adopt a policy of mindless antagonism as it and the PPP did in the past.  But that depends a lot on the PPP’s behavior, and the events of recent months are not encouraging.

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Islamabad Reaches Deal with the Mehsuds?

Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, has called on the Taliban to stop their militant activities against the Pakistani government. His announcement states that those who violate the accord will be hung upside down in bazaars.

This indicates that Islamabad has possibly concluded a deal with the tribal elders of the Mehsuds, the dominant tribe of South Waziristan (one of the seven tribal areas), which counts Baitullah as one of their tribesmen. A previous failed accord in 2005 was between Islamabad and the militants.

Dawn provides details of the 15-point draft agreement with the Mehsud elders.

The apparent agreement with the Mehsuds coincides with the release of Maulana Sufi Muhammad of Swat. He, however, has little control over the main insurgents in that area, including his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah.Earlier in the day, White House spokesperson Dana Perino expressed misgivings about negotiations with militants:

“We are concerned about it and what we encourage them to do is to continue to fight against the terrorists and to not disrupt any security or military operations that are ongoing in order to help prevent a safe haven for terrorists there….But in general, yes, we have been concerned about these types of approaches because we don’t think that they work.”

But Pakistan and Afghanistan are fooling themselves if they think that their respective insurgencies can be solved without bilateral–indeed, multilateral–coordination. In a sign of how much that is lacking, today, a Pakistani Frontier Corps officer was killed by Afghan security forces in a clash with militants. And U.S. forces on the ground contend that there is collusion between low-mid level Pakistan intelligence and Frontier Corps officers. It’s a recipe for continued conflict, albeit with a shift in alliances.

Pakistan will continue as a party to the conflict as long as militants from its territory attack U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan and it provides a supply route and other assistance to coalition forces.

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Unnamed U.S. Officials: Baitullah Mehsud Working With Pakistani Intelligence Agents

Some serious accusations against Pakistan from U.S. officials in Friday’s Washington Post:

“Collaboration is growing between Taliban commanders in Afghanistan such as Haqqani, who has tribal roots in Paktika province, and Pakistanis such as Baitullah Mehsud, a commander in South Waziristan who is reorganizing the Taliban with help from agents in Pakistan’s intelligence service, according to U.S. military officials. Mehsud, the CIA has said, is responsible for the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December.”



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The Face of Mehsud

Pakistani sources provided CBS News with video showing the face of Baitullah Mehsud (see below).

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Baitullah Mehsud’s First Television Interview

Ahmad Zaidan, al-Jazeera’s Islamabad bureau chief, interviewed Baitullah Mehsud in December. The video, provided above, was aired on the station a few days ago. It’s Mehsud’s first television interview.

The leader of Tehreek-e Taliban-e Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan) speaks in Pashto (translated by AJ into Arabic) while Zaidan presents the questions in Arabic.

[Note: I am also an Arabic speaker.]

Some key points are below.

On the Tehreek-e Taliban-e Pakistan

  • The alliance took so long to form because of several challenges, including the assistance needed by the Arabs and Uzbeks and the attempts of the Pakistani government to divide the population. The biggest losers of the Taliban alliance, says Mehsud, will be Washington, Britain, and the other countries of disbelief.

Relations with the original Taliban and al-Qaeda

  • He and his group members have given their bayah, or oath of allegiance, to Mullah Omar, the amir ul mumineen. Omar leads not only Afghanistan, but the entire Muslim world. The Muslims, even in America, are “our” brothers.
  • Skirts issue of relations with AQ, particularly bin Laden and Zawahiri. Simply says a Muslim is a brother of a Muslim. Does mention that Zarqawi was among Mehsud & Co. prior to heading to Iraq.

Goals

  • First priority is the conducting of a defensive jihad. He says the Pakistani army attacks their homes on the orders of George W. Bush. Would like Pakistani forces out b/c of their displayed ‘barbarism’.
  • Secondary goal is the application of Islamic law throughout Pakistan. The movement will not just be in the northwest, but spread throughout Pakistan into Punjab and Sindh.

The Pakistani Army

  • It plays the different tribes and regions off of one another. In area X it is in peace talks or has a truce in place, and then in area Y it is in a state of war. Then the roles change, and it is in combat against area X and talking peace with area Y. He calls this a “policy of deception.”
  • The Pakistani army’s war in the tribal areas is an American war. He quotes the Qur’anic prohibition on taking Jews and Christians (5:51) as one’s protectors several times.
  • Musharraf is a slave of Bush, the West, and the disbelievers. He’s declared a war against them and the Arab and Uzbek migrants, who have come to defend Islam and Pakistan, under American pressure. He submitted them to the Americans, killed women and children.

Nuclear Weapons

  • Islam doesn’t permit the killing of women and children, which nukes would inevitably do. Don’t have thoughts about the use of nuclear weapons. America killed innocents in Japan–Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fear right now is the use of American bombs against the Muslims as they used against the Japanese. Says, we fear the American bombs, not the Pakistani bombs. At least the Pakistani bombs are controlled by Muslims.

Beyond Pakistan

  • “Yes, we send and will send our boys into Afghanistan for jihad.”
  • Denied links to India, Iran, etc. Says his successes are due to the grace of God.  Skirts issue of funding source.  Says their arsenal comes from booty taken from opponents.
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Thursday Round-Up: National Reconciliation; Splitting the Taliban; Army Defends Atta; Aitzaz’s Back

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.”

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Editor:

Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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