PAKISTAN: Afghanistan war spreads

Issue 

BY EVA CHENG

Pakistan is moving into a new period of political turmoil following the June 26 and July 2 killings of 13 Pakistani soldiers in firefights with al Qaeda forces.

According to the June 27 Washington Post, the June 26 incident was the “most telling” sign that the war in Afghanistan had been extended to Pakistan, a move with “far reaching consequences” for General Pervez Musharraf's government.

Clearly prompted by the rising tension near its western border, Islamabad has increased its security personnel there to 70,000, according to the July 3 Pakistan-based Dawn newspaper. About 70 new border posts were established in an attempt to seal the western border.

Four al Qaeda fighters of Chechen origin were killed in the July 2 incident after they threw grenades at Pakistani soldiers.

The June 26 and July 2 incidents are likely to generate fresh excuses for US President George Bush to step up the US military presence in Pakistan. But the increased US military intervention in Pakistan is also likely to meet renewed public expressions of opposition, particularly after the scheduled unbanning on July 12 of open political activities to pave the way for the October parliamentary elections.

As well, Musharraf's June 26 proposal of extensive amendments to the country's constitution may fuel protests. The amendments include:
 

  • Giving the president the power to dismiss parliament.
  • Removal of the 10 parliamentary seats reserved for non-Muslims and other minority groupings.
  • Barring candidates without a university degree from standing, a move that will marginalise many existing politicians.

The Pakistan Muslim League and the Awami National Party are challenging the education requirement proposal in the Supreme Court.

The October elections were not Musharraf's initiative. A Supreme Court order shortly after his 1999 coup gave him a grace period of three years to return an elected parliament. That time is nearly up.

However, Musharraf's biggest problem is the looming revolt within his own military-police apparatus, parts of which — particularly Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) — sponsored the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic terrorists in Kashmir, and are hostile to Musharraf's subservience to the US-led “war on terrorism”.

Some of Pakistan's generals were not too pleased at having to give US troops access to four of Pakistan's military bases at the end of last year. When tension with India rose again in January, the generals sent their troops back to two of those bases — in Jacobabad and Pasni — apparently without getting prior US consent, and demanding both bases back for their own exclusive use. After intense negotiations, it was agreed that US troops would share the two bases with their Pakistani counterparts.

The US military, meanwhile, retains exclusive use of the airfields in Dalbandin and Shamsi, both in Balochistan province. In addition, since early this year, the US forces were handed over part of the international airport in Karachi, where they have set up a “communications centre”.

Musharraf ruffled more feathers within the military this year with his decision to ban five Muslim extremist/jihadi organisations and to arrest some 2000 of their “militants”. This was clearly a response to pressure from Bush and India. However, bending to domestic pressure, Musharraf released some of the detained “militants” only a few weeks after their arrests.

It is a widely held belief in Pakistan that most of the jihadi organisations are organised and backed by the ISI.

Following a number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan recently, Pakistani officials increasingly expressed concerns about a possible new alliance between the al Qaeda and Taliban remnants and the jihadi groups in Pakistan. On July 2, Pakistan interior minister Moinuddin Haider told reporters that the car bombing of the US consulate in Karachi on June 14, in which 12 people were killed, was financed by al Qaeda.

US troops' frequent incursions from Afghanistan into Pakistani territory since early this year is another sore point, not only with the Pakistani military but also with tribal leaders whose mountainous jurisdictions have been free of external control for hundreds of years.

Officially, these missions, with US special forces accompanied by Pakistani soldiers, were aimed at the al Qaeda forces which are believed to be seeking sanctuary in and preparing new attacks from the tribal areas. But both the Pakistani generals and tribal leaders are concerned that the missions could be the beginning of a much longer term presence by the US military.

Against this background, it surprised no-one that, according to the June 23 Associated Press, US Federal Bureau of Investigation agents based in the tribal areas have come under rocket attack on at least five occasions in the past two months.

Tribal leaders have also led many rallies, some attended by weapon-toting participants, in the past few months to protest against the incursions of the US and Pakistani forces. Previous visits of the Pakistani forces had been welcome after prior consultation.

At such a protest meeting on May 6 in North Waziristan, addressed by elders from four of the seven main tribes in Pakistan, a combatant/defence force of tribal youth was formed.

Despite the growing opposition to US military presence in Pakistan, Musharraf still pretends that the US forces aren't in Pakistan much at all. The June 23 Dawn quoted a Pentagon official as saying the US has around 1100 troops at three bases in Pakistan, “but Musharraf has put the figure at a few 'communications experts'”.

According to the June 25 Los Angeles Times, 1000 uniformed Americans and a large FBI contingent are based in Islamabad.

The June 26 Chicago Tribune reported: “The presence of US forces in Pakistan is highly sensitive. Officially, the Americans will not admit they are there, but officials privately acknowledge that as many as 100 are working alongside the Pakistani army.”

The July 4 Dawn carried a report on FBI personnel accompanying Pakistani police in a raid of a warehouse in Shershah the night before, in which eight men were arrested for alleged links with al Qaeda.

In return for all its cooperation with the US military, the Musharraf regime has been rewarded with US$2.3 billion of US aid and debt relief, and the hope that Washington will side with it in its dispute with India over Kashmir.

From Green Left Weekly, July 10, 2002.
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