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    South Asia
     Oct 31, 2006
Another deadly blow for Pakistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf wanted to draw a line in the sand in his struggle for the spiritual soul of the country by early next month, ramming through parliament a controversial bill regarding women's rights that is seen as a move to purge Islamic laws from the constitution.

Instead, helicopter gunships raining death on a village in the remote Bajour agency tribal area on Monday morning significantly escalated Musharraf's battle with militant Islamic forces fiercely

opposed to any softening of the state's Islamic legislation.

A pre-dawn attack on a madrassa (Islamic seminary) in a village in the Bajour tribal district in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) claimed the lives of scores of people.

Pakistani authorities claimed immediately that the raid was carried out by Pakistani forces. However, Asia Times Online contacts on the spot are convinced that the raid was undertaken by North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces. Recently, Islamabad agreed with NATO that it could conduct operations in Pakistan from across the border in Afghanistan.

Monday's attack came two days after thousands of pro-Taliban tribesmen held an anti-US, anti-NATO rally in Damadola in the Bajour area close to the site of a US missile attack that killed several al-Qaeda members and civilians in January.

Authorities say information that Taliban or al-Qaeda fugitives were in the region prompted Monday's raid. The border village lies opposite the Afghan province of Kunar and is considered a major corridor for militants to enter Afghanistan. In May, Pakistani authorities said a senior al-Qaeda figure, Abu Marwan al-Suri, had been killed in Bajour during a clash with local police.

Just as they are denying NATO involvement in Monday's attack, Pakistani authorities also initially denied the US had carried out the January attack.

Political fallout
Soon after Monday's raid, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the chief of the powerful Islamic political party, the Jamaat-i-Islami Pakistan (JI), announced that two leading JI members had resigned their posts - a senior minister in NWFP, Sirajul Haq, and a member of the federal parliament from the Bajour agency, Haroon Rasheed.

The JI is a part of the six-party religious alliance the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which has been at the forefront of agitation against the proposed legislation on women's issues, as well as in opposition in general to Musharraf and his pro-US stance in the "war on terror".

Haq was quoted as saying that protests would be staged throughout the northern tribal region on Tuesday.

Significantly, Pakistan and Taliban authorities struck a peace deal in Bajour only two days ago and were scheduled to sign a document to that effect on Monday. This lends credence to the possibility that it was NATO and not Pakistani forces that made the raid.

Clearly, any peace deal in Bajour is now off the table, and the MMA will seize on the raid to ramp up and expand its campaign against the proposed women's legislation. The MMA has already threatened to resign from the central parliament and all four provincial assemblies, two of which have a controlling MMA presence.

Behind this political activism in the garb of religious issues, though, lies the fear that any demonstrations will turn anti-West - and violent. Under cover of violence and chaos, various smaller underground religious groups as well as militants will mobilize for the fulfillment of their agendas.

Militants already have immense power in the country and have forced the government to step away from the tribal areas, notably North and South Waziristan, where the Pakistani Taliban have a heavy footprint. The same was to happen in Bajour agency.

Bajour is home of the powerful Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammedi, which was the group responsible which gathering more than 10,000 Pakistani youths to go to Afghanistan before the US invasion of 2001.

Bajour is also the strategic back yard of the Hezb-i-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which is active in the Afghan insurgency. Many prominent al-Qaeda leaders use the area while in transit in the Nooristan-Kunar Valley.

Musharraf in the crosshairs
With the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, pockets of jihadi groups have sprung up in Pakistani cities and villages, and to them the symbol of hatred is Musharraf.

After the attacks on the US of September 11, 2001, Musharraf came up with a guarded approach to handle jihadis. He held many secret meetings with their leaders at which he expressed his resolve in the cause of Islam, as well as in jihad.

He tried to convince the jihadist leadership that Pakistan's decision to ditch the Taliban was made under duress from the US and that as soon as Pakistan could it would resume its support of the Islamic forces in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, the bridge continued to widen between the jihadis and Musharraf, to a point where Musharraf was repeatedly a target for assassination by jihadist groups allied with disaffected military officers.

Pakistani military operations in Waziristan further alienated the jihadist outfits from Musharraf, even as his dependence on the US grew. Recent Pentagon documents indicate that disbursements to Islamabad amounted to about US$3.6 billion for operations from January 2002 through August 2005, an amount roughly equal to one-quarter of Pakistan's total military expenditure during that period. At the same time, as the Taliban revival in Afghanistan continues, the United States' dependency on Musharraf has grown.

Musharraf appears to forget that Pakistan is still a traditional society in which the majority of the people live in a tribal setup. Traditions are generally the final word, and the true literacy rate (which only means capability to read Urdu-language newspapers) is hardly 25%.

In such an environment there is a blind following in religious issues, as in the case of the Women's Protection Bill, which all traditional clerics from north to south and from east to west are unanimous in rejecting.

Military dictatorships, as is Musharraf's, tend to care more their constituency (the armed forces) than the masses. Yet any development that is perceived as an intervention against religion will have a serious impact, as Islam is specifically the soul of the Pakistani army, thanks to the rule of the late dictator General Zia ul-Haq and his Islamification program.

Monday's bombing in Bajour brings Musharraf's showdown, and the line in the sand, with Islamic forces just that little bit closer.

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

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Militants, Musharraf circling (Oct 20, '06)

Afghanistan's stability lies with Pakistan (Oct 19, '06)

Al-Qaeda scare jolts Pakistan into action (Oct 17, '06)


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