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
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  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
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 [email protected].