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Musharraf's travails

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST



Under pressure from the West and faced with the anger of disenchanted jehadi groups, the Musharraf regime finds itself in serious trouble on the terrorism front.

THERE is no end to the travails of the Pervez Musharraf regime on the terrorism front. On the one hand, it faces charges from India of aiding and abetting terrorism across the border. On the other, it has become the target of jehadi forces, which are annoyed over the support extended by the military government to the United States-led coalition in its so-called war against terror. Proof, if any was needed, came once again in a powerful car-bomb that exploded outside the U.S. Consulate in Karachi on June 14 killing 12 persons and injuring dozens. It is a clear indication that the war launched by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan has shifted to the soil of Pakistan.

That the suicide squad managed to strike so close to the U.S. establishment a little over a month after the May 8 suicide car-bomb attack outside Hotel Sheraton should be a chilling reminder to all the players concerned in South Asia of the changing ground realities. Fourteen people, including 11 French Navy personnel, were killed in the May 8 incident.

The latest attack, which came a day after the visit of U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to India and Pakistan, raises several important questions, especially in the context of the six-month military standoff between India and Pakistan. Who is behind the attack? What are their motives? There is no clarity about the identity of those involved in the act, though a previously unknown militant group, Al-Qanoon, claimed responsibility for it. In hand-delivered photocopies of a statement to media organisations, the organisation has warned of further attacks. The statement says: "America and its allies and its slave Pakistani rulers should prepare for more attacks. This bomb attack is just a beginning of Al Qanoon's jehadi operation in Pakistan." The hand-written note could well be an attempt to mislead. However, there is little doubt that it is the handiwork of forces agitated over the U.S.-led coalition's operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The incident also points to the changing alignments in the region. Friends of yesterday have become foes and vice versa. The incident should make the governments both in New Delhi and Islamabad think seriously on its implications and take a fresh look at their attitude towards each other. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the attack came within days of India announcing the first step in the last six months that could prevent a dangerous war and lead to a series of steps towards de-escalation. India's announcement allowing overflight facilities to Pakistani commercial aircraft through its air space was undoubtedly a move that was welcomed by all those in the region who were craving for peace. An editorial in Dawn sums up the consequences of the Karachi carnage:

"Coming just a day after U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's departure from Pakistan, the blast will send all the wrong messages about Pakistan, undoing whatever the government has done to overcome the fallout of the earlier suicide bombing. Now it will be almost impossible to reconstruct Pakistan's image as a secure country with the noise of the two explosions still reverberating. The claims of eliminating terrorism and rounding up thousands of activists, including Al Qaeda agents, will find few takers.

"The blast will impact negatively on the efforts to restore the confidence of Pakistanis in general and foreign community and investors in particular. The economy, which was slowly picking up with the stock exchange gaining points after the initial crash due to tension on the borders, once again closed 0.9 per cent lower. Full details about the blast will only be known in the days to come, but for the present, it is clear that the strategy to fight the terrorists and make the streets safe once more has dismally failed.

"It is incredible that Friday's blast occurred at a point less than a kilometre away from the site of the May 8 explosion with the authorities again caught blissfully unawares. But, while this incident has made news worldwide, much more that is lost in the columns of local newspapers are the ongoing sectarian killings and lawlessness that pervade all over the country. The shooting of a person sentenced to death under the blasphemy law, ironically inside the security of a jail, illustrates the dimension of the terror that Pakistan faces."

In the backdrop of the latest incident in Karachi, New Delhi should ponder over how far its strategy has helped it achieve its objectives. The assumption behind the demands made by India on Pakistan is that the military government is in full control of all the jehadi outfits operating from its soil and a command from the top is enough to neutralise them. There is little evidence to substantiate this. An objective assessment of the three major incidents in Pakistan in the past three months, beginning with the explosion in a church in Islamabad in March and the two suicide car-bomb attacks in Karachi, could help understand the enormity of the challenge faced by the Musharraf regime.

No wonder, the response of Islamabad to the measures announced by India was lukewarm. The Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman characterised the Indian steps as of "little substance" and reiterated the demand for a resumption of meaningful dialogue between the two countries. "In a situation where the Indian forces are massed on Pakistan's borders in a dangerous posture of confrontation, the Indian decision does not address the main causes of tension," the spokesman said. President Pervez Musharraf, who was away on a tour of West Asia, described the measures as "peripheral and cosmetic".

Ever since India mobilised its troops in December last year, Pakistan has been under tremendous pressure on several counts.

Infiltration is the major bone of contention between New Delhi and Islamabad. Pakistan claims that Musharraf's promise to the world has been fulfilled - that militants do not run training centres or enjoy sanctuaries in Pakistan or Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and that they are not infiltrating into Kashmir from territory under Pakistani control.

As a Pakistani columnist pointed out, many observers within Pakistan, and virtually all governments and media people abroad, regard this claim as being false. According to reports in U.S. newspapers, the present level of infiltration from Pakistan into Kashmir is higher than what it was about this time last year. A recent report in The Washington Post quotes the U.S. intelligence agencies as saying that Musharraf has allowed about 50 to 60 guerilla camps in POK, harbouring about 3,000 fighters, to resurface after two months of quiet.

The U.S., which describes Pakistan as a key ally in its war against terrorism, has been blowing hot and cold on the efforts by the Musharraf regime on the terrorism front. Observers in Pakistan view this as a reflection of the Indian clout as well as the frustration of the Bush administration over the 'slow response' of the military government in taking on the cadres of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The change was evident in the press conference addressed by George W. Bush on May 29, when he said of the General: "He must stop the incursions across the Line of Control. He must do so. He said he would do so. We and others are making it clear to him that he must live up to his word." The writer Anwar Syed wrote in Dawn:

"The managers of our intelligence agencies may have thought they could set up a smokescreen that the foreign observers' vision would not be able to penetrate. If so, that was childish scheming. It is possible also that Musharraf simply cannot control the militants, and he may have privately said so to Bush and others. But apparently they think he has not tried hard enough, which may be true.

"He may not have tried hard enough because he does not want to antagonise the Islamic forces in the country to a point where they would combine to mount a revolt against his rule. This may be a misunderstanding of their design."

Another write-up pointed out that these militants believed that if Pakistan did not do their will, it was as deserving of punitive strikes as India and that Pakistan was not worth keeping if they could not control it.

A section of the civil society in Pakistan believes that Musharraf has no real option but to disband and incapacitate these forces. That they make trouble for India is no compensation for the infinitely greater mischief they make in Pakistan. There are voices, though from a small minority, that have been questioning the validity of Pakistan's Kashmir policy.

The U.S. government, through its actions, has made Musharraf's task difficult. Within days of the March 17 church attack, the U.S. declared Pakistan a 'non-family station'. And after the latest Karachi blast it has temporarily closed its embassy and consulates. Since September 11, the Bush administration has missed no opportunity to praise the 'courage' of Musharraf in aligning with the coalition against terrorism but when it comes to its own interests, it does not bother about the consequences of its actions for Musharraf.

The flip-flop by top functionaries of the Bush administration was once again evident in the contradictory statements made by Rumsfeld. In contrast to his statement in New Delhi, he said in Islamabad that Washington had no evidence about the presence of Al Qaeda in Kashmir. "The information on this matter is a scrap of intelligence, and people say they believe Al Qaeda people are in Kashmir or in various locations. I do not have the evidence of Al Qaeda militants operating in Kashmir, as it tends to be speculative... it is not actionable... it is not verifiable. The U.S. has no such evidence of Al Qaeda presence." He referred to the "superb cooperation Pakistan and the U.S. have on the subject of Al Qaeda. I have no doubt in my mind that Pakistan would find them out and deal with them if there were to be any actionable evidence on Al Qaeda's presence."

Rumsfeld said that the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. was important for Washington as Pakistan's cooperation in the war against terrorism was regarded important. He said that Washington valued the growing political, economic and military relationship with Pakistan and would like to see it strengthened. "I got the impression that President Musharraf is determined to seek de-escalation in the tension. The steps that have been announced and taken are indication of an effort to reduce infiltration across the Line of Control, as the world has gained the impression that the leadership in Pakistan is concerned and determined to take steps to de-escalate tension."

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 22, 2002.)



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