Pakistan: Washington considers military intervention

"In weighing how to deal with the al Qaeda threat in Pakistan, American officials have been meeting in recent weeks to discuss what some said was emerging as an aggressive new strategy, one that would include both public and covert elements", the July 18 New York Times reported following the release the previous day of the public version of a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Islamist terrorist threats to the US.

The NIE, a report compiled by the CIA and 15 other US spy agencies, argued that Saudi Arabian millionaire Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist group has "regenerated key elements" of its "attack capability" on the US homeland "in the Pakistan Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA)" along the Afghanistan border.

In a July 22 interview with Fox News Sunday, Frances Townsend, US President George Bush's homeland security adviser, acknowledged that Washington was already engaged in covert military operations in Pakistan. "Just because we don't speak about things publicly doesn't mean we're not doing things you talk about", she said when asked if Washington was using "special operations forces" against al Qaeda's "safe haven in Pakistan".

The "aggressive new strategy" being considered in Washington thus involves going beyond such covert operations to "public" military operations. Townsend hinted at this, saying: "The president's committed to the most effective action that we can possibly take in the FATA to deny them the safe haven."

At the July 17 media conference releasing the NIE, Richard Boucher, the assistant US secretary of state, said that al Qaeda had prospered due to a September 2006 ceasefire accord between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's military dictatorship and tribal leaders in the North Waziristan district of the FATA.

Boucher said that as a result of the accord, al Qaeda was "able to operate, meet, plan, recruit, and obtain financing in more comfort in the tribal areas than previously".

The July 18 Wall Street Journal reported that "US policy makers, under pressure to eradicate this haven with or without the cooperation of Islamabad, describe a vexing dilemma. Any major unilateral effort by the Pentagon inside Pakistan, say US officials, could spark a local backlash strong enough to topple President Pervez Musharraf, a leader President Bush has called Washington's strongest ally in the fight against al Qaeda."

The new NIE was released as the Musharraf regime, which has been provided with large amounts of US military and economic aid under the pretext of "fighting Islamic terrorists", found itself more politically isolated within Pakistan than ever before.

On July 20, following weeks of public protests by the Pakistan's legal profession, the Supreme Court ruled that Musharraf's attempt to sack Pakistan's top judge was illegal.

Associated Press reported that the Supreme Court "ruling to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry is probably the biggest challenge to Gen. Musharraf's dominance since he seized power in a coup in 1999. It could further complicate his bid to win a new five-year presidential term this fall and comes at a time when Islamic militants are on the offensive."

Writing in the July 20 Christian Science Monitor (CSM), Vali Nasr, a professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School and an adjunct senior fellow at the US political establishment's Council on Foreign Relations think tank, noted that since 9/11, "Washington has looked to President Musharraf to uproot Islamic extremism in South Asia. Nearly six years later, however, Pakistan is still a nuclear-armed crucible of jihadi culture, exporting terrorists and destabilizing its neighbors."

Nasr went on to argue that this is because "Musharraf finds them useful in convincing Washington and Pakistan's middle classes that the military is all that protects the country from a Taliban-like Islamic state. It is not a coincidence that the government's recent battle against extremists associated within the Red Mosque came on the heels of nationwide antigovernment protests following Musharraf's summary dismissal of the country's chief justice. Musharraf hopes that the crisis will persuade secular-minded Pakistanis to abandon the barricades and align behind him."

However, according to Pakistani political and defence analyst Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi, writing the July 22 Lahore Daily Times, Musharraf's failed attempt to remove Chaudhry has generated unprecedented hostility toward his military regime among liberal middle-class Pakistanis, while the bloody military assault on the Islamic fundamentalists in Islamabad's Red Mosque have turned Musharraf's Islamist allies against him.

"The intensity of anti-army feeling and the frequency of its expression are unprecedented in post-1971 Pakistan", Rizvi wrote. "The slogans and banners of the lawyers' protest movement demanded time and again the top commanders of the army return to the barracks. Some protesters were seen burning General Pervez Musharraf's effigy in army uniform ...

"Anti-army sentiments are also conspicuous in the latest wave of suicide-bombings, targeting army and paramilitary personnel and police ...

"The army is criticised and its personnel attacked by suicide bombers because it is viewed as the mainstay of the Musharraf government, whose recent policies have totally alienated Islamic and other groups."

This poses a serious problem for Musharraf and his masters in Washington because, as Rizvi noted, there are many in Musharraf's government, particularly with the officer corps of the army, who view the Islamists "as friends because they counteract the mainstream and centrist political forces that openly challenge the legitimacy of the Musharraf government".

In his CSM article, Nasr dismissed the idea that the army's assault on the Islamic fundamentalists in the Red Mosque represented a turn by Musharraf against the Islamists.

"The government", Nasr noted, "was fully aware of what went on in the Red Mosque, just a mile from the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence [military intelligence — ISI] headquarters. Yet Musharraf chose to ignore the extremists between January and June, even as they sought to impose Islamic law on the capital city. It was not until he sensed public anger at his dithering, and confronted a diplomatic crisis when the extremists abducted Chinese nationals, that he stormed the mosque."

In an ominous sign for Musharraf, the major Islamist political parties refused to condemn the suicide bomb attacks on his regime. Reuters reported on July 19 that even "moderate" Islamist clerics were warning that Pakistan could descend into civil war. "I think this situation could blow up in an all-out civil war", Mufti Muhammad Naeem, the cleric who heads Karachi's largest Islamic school, told Reuters.

The next day, Time magazine quoted Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan's powerful ISI warning that the Pakistani army could split, with many of lower-ranking officers and soldiers becoming Islamist fighters. "The officer cadres are liberal, secular, they come from the elite classes. But the rank and file of the army were never secular, they were always religious", Gul told Time.

"If there is a face-off between the army and the people, the leadership may lose control of the army. The army does not feel happy. They are from the same streets, the same villages, the same bazaars of the lower and middle classes, and they want the same thing [Islamic law] for their country", Gul added.

The Bush administrations's canvassing of the idea of "public" US military intervention into Pakistan, under the pretext countering a "resurgent" al Qaeda threat, needs to be viewed in this context. What is really being canvassed in Washington is the prospect of "public" US military action to save Musharraf's regime.

However, as the July 23 CSM reported, if Washington presses "Musharraf too hard for swift action against the Islamist strongholds — especially as he faces the toughest political pressures of his eight-year rule" then he could fall.

"From the White House's perspective, that would create a nightmare for the US-led war on terror. 'For the moment, we're stuck', says Bruce Riedel, a former national security adviser on counterterrorism and South Asian issues. 'We have a policy that looks increasingly bankrupt, but I don't see the administration prepared as yet to move away from it or the military dictator' who stands at its core."

Riedel said the Pentagon simply doesn't have the forces for large-scale military operations in Pakistan, especially after the "surge" of troops to Iraq.

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