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    South Asia
     Mar 7, 2006
Pakistan battles the forces within
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Protests against the administration of President General Pervez Musharraf and against the US took off in Pakistan about a month ago in the guise of rallies denouncing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

These protests have now reached the stronghold of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan: the self-proclaimed "Islamic State of

North Waziristan", a volatile tribal area on the border with Afghanistan.

For the past few days this region has been the scene of fierce battles between the Pakistani armed forces and the Taliban and their supporters. This, analysts believe, is the starting point of taking the nascent Tehrik-i-Nizam-i-Mustafa movement to other areas in Pakistan, that is, to enforce the Prophet Mohammed's way of life, or sharia law, on society. Underground Islamic radical groups will surface in support of this struggle that could ultimately lead to the ousting of the Musharraf government.

People in North Waziristan who spoke to Asia Times Online claimed that the present battles between the armed forces and the tribals are unlike those of the past, which in essence were skirmishes. They said that now there was a virtual mass mutiny against both Pakistan and its pro-US government in Islamabad.

Asia Times Online broke the story about the establishment of an Islamic state in North Waziristan (see The Taliban's bloody foothold in Pakistan, February 8) after the Taliban took control of the area. Initially, Pakistani authorities avoided clashes and restricted themselves to the district headquarters, Miranshah. There was an unwritten accord between the Taliban and Pakistani forces that they would not encroach on each other's areas.

However, an air raid last Friday, a day before the arrival of US President George W Bush in Pakistan, changed everything. Pakistani authorities claimed they had attacked a group of militants who were infiltrating North Waziristan after attacking a US base in Afghanistan. Local tribes maintain that the air raid killed a number of innocent men, women and children who had nothing to do with the suspect group.

In reprisal, tribals seized control of the district headquarters of Miranshah. Many Pakistani armed-forces personnel were killed, while dozens were forced to surrender and were arrested by the local Taliban.

Pakistan's ground forces could not take on the tribals, so more gunship helicopters were sent in, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 tribesmen on Saturday, according to local estimates. And on Sunday, dozens more were killed. Despite the air cover, Pakistani ground troops are not prepared to risk advancing too far beyond their bases.

Taliban sources tell Asia Times Online that had Pakistan not begun the air raids, sharia courts would have been operational from this month. The Taliban have already established centers all over the tribal area to run local affairs, including their own system of policing.

The fight spreads
The Taliban intend to extend from their base in North Waziristan to Afghanistan to fuel the resistance there against the US and its allies. Similarly, the movement will spread to "mainland" Pakistan in an effort to topple the pro-American government in Islamabad. Pakistan is a key component of the United States' "war on terror".
This anti-government movement will need a leader. The jihadi hardcore is looking for one who will be untainted and not hand-in-glove with the military establishment. So far, a general consensus is emerging that international cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (Pakistan Justice Movement), might be the man for the job.

Khan took a lead role in the protests against Bush's visit to Pakistan, although he received some support from the six-party opposition religious grouping the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA). In fact, Khan was placed under house arrest before his main rally, and in his absence his workers gathered in Rawalpindi, where they were dispersed by police and many people were arrested.

In his distinguished cricket-playing days, the charismatic Khan was featured on the cover of international magazines, and he had a huge following in his own country because of his exploits on the field. Pakistani Islamists, a constituency in the army and the powerful Jamaat-i-Islami Pakistan party saw Khan as a leader who could be cultivated as a figure to charm the masses for Islamic revolution in Pakistan.

This was soon after Pakistan won the Cricket World Cup in Australia in 1993, when Khan's popularity knew no bounds. At this time, he retired from the sport and became involved in establishing a cancer hospital.

However, Khan's marriage to Jemima Goldsmith, a daughter of British industrialist James Goldsmith, messed up the designs of the Islamists, and the whole scheme was put on the back burner.

Educated at Oxford, England, and coming from a family that is considered among the elite of Lahore, Khan nevertheless turned out to be a genuine ally of the Islamic radicals as he sided with their cause and the Taliban. The majority of his party comprises progressive thinkers, women's-rights activists and a faction of Marxists, some of whom left the fold because of Khan's tendencies toward Islamic radicalism.

Yet Khan remained a vocal voice against US designs in the region, and even launched a campaign in support of some army officers who were arrested for alleged al-Qaeda connections, and he openly supported the Taliban movement.

Khan is now divorced, so in the eyes of many he is once again in a position to become a leader.

Before his rally in Rawalpindi, he was scheduled for a meeting with this correspondent in Islamabad. But because of his house arrest, he called by telephone to express his anger.

"There may be many dimensions to Bush's visit to Pakistan, but the basic thing is the reinforcement of US influence in Pakistan, which is situated at an ideal strategic location. Musharraf is the vehicle to reinforce American designs in the region," Khan said.

He called the ongoing operation in North Waziristan a prelude of radicalization in Pakistan. "The post-September 11 [2001] events perpetuate the present situation [unrest] and the current North Waziristan situation will further radicalize Pakistani society," Khan said.

He claimed that Musharraf was living in a house of cards and that a single powerful push could force him to step down. "Had Pakistan not been hit by an earthquake [last year], the opposition parties would already have begun their movement to oust Musharraf, but you will see that he will not be able to resist any longer against the present movement."

A million-person march was staged in Karachi on Sunday, and now there is a few days' lull due to Senate elections. In the meantime, the specter of North Waziristan will loom large in the consciousness of the establishment: the fear of a religious hard core, waiting for a leader, joining with the Islamic State of North Waziristan.

According to a report by Pakistani intelligence agencies, as many as half a million Pakistanis stayed in Afghanistan during the Taliban period from 1996 to 2001. Many of them took military training, while others only sought ideological inspiration.

After the September 11 attacks in the US, Pakistan took drastic steps to contain pro-Taliban organizations in Pakistan. Still, tens of thousands of jihadis and their supporters are believed to still be active. At present, the main problem of the religious hard core is to get all of them united in a battle against the establishment and mobilized on the streets.

To achieve this, a revolutionary leader is required who will be popular in the armed forces, with the religious hard core and among the masses.

Stubborn, defiant and extremely popular among the Taliban, Imran Khan might be such a leader.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Bureau Chief, Pakistan Asia Times Online. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

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Fiery Pakistani welcome for Bush
(Mar 4, '06)

Musharraf losing his grip (Feb 22, '06)

Mixed motives stoke Pakistan's flames (Feb 17, '06)


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