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    South Asia
     Sep 11, 2007
Pakistan's military kitted for new power
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Pakistan has established itself over the past six years as the strongest link in the West's chain of influence in South and Central Asian countries whose internal stability is linked to progress toward Western goals in the region, especially in the US-led "war on terror".

Pakistan's military establishment has used this for both its de facto and de jure rule and for its broader strategic regional goals. Therefore, when US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte

arrives in Pakistan on Wednesday, after visiting Afghanistan, he will finalize a blueprint for a fresh and aggressive two-pronged US approach to defeat radical Islamists in Afghanistan and to nurture a new popular political leadership in Pakistan.

The major contractor of US policy in Pakistan will remain the military, which, under President General Pervez Musharraf, aims for a smooth political transition of power from civilian-military rule to complete civilian rule.

Amid much publicity, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif arrived in Pakistan on Monday after seven years in exile, only to be deported within a few hours. Lebanese leader Saad Hariri and Saudi Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz were in Islamabad to persuade Sharif to return to exile in Saudi Arabia to avoid muddying the region's political waters.

The Supreme Court's decision to allow Sharif - ousted in a coup by Musharraf in 1999 - to return to Pakistan came at a time when Washington and Islamabad were putting the final touches to the formation of a consensus government between Musharraf and another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Under this arrangement, Musharraf is likely to be re-elected as president, after which he will shed his uniform and position as army chief of staff and share power with Bhutto. The aim is to bring more stability to Pakistan, as Musharraf currently faces widespread popular opposition.

The real battle in the "war on terror" can then begin. Negroponte is expected to spell out Washington's aims in very clear terms to Pakistani authorities. He will provide precise targets for Pakistan to tackle, such as al-Qaeda and Taliban bases in Pakistan, and if Islamabad fails to act within a given timetable, North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led forces from across the border in Afghanistan will take matters into their own hands.

Over the years, Pakistan has tried to deal with the problem of militants in the tribal areas, with both the iron fist and the velvet glove. The problem remains, though, and in the latest show of force, militants this month captured more than 400 Pakistani troops and security officials in the North Waziristan tribal area.

That man Osama again ...
After news leaked last week of a new video by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) informed Pakistan about the presence of a new militant base in the valleys of the Shawal, a remote, inhospitable region that spans the Pakistani-Afghan border.

The CIA suggested that the tape might have been shot in the Shawal, and that high-value targets such as bin Laden's deputy, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Tahir Yaldeshiv, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, might be in the area.

In response, Pakistan sent troops to the Shawal on Saturday, but they immediately came under fire in the mountainous terrain. Though a spokesman for the Pakistan Armed Forces, Major-General Waheed Arshad, denied the claim, independent Asia Times Online sources confirmed that 35 troops died during the Shawal operation, which failed.

However, Pakistan will continue to mount operations on targets given by the Americans, and this process will speed up after Negroponte's visit. At the same time, the US and Pakistan will continue their strategic dialogue process and share notes on developments.

In this regard, Washington has broadened its contacts to include the Pakistan Army, as the military is a key player in the country and any breakdown of Musharraf's military-backed government would be a severe loss to the army. It has therefore been included in the negotiations with Bhutto.

The political endgame is expected this month, with Musharraf announcing that Parliament will re-elect him as president, in uniform, and at the same time he will announce a date this year to change into civilian clothes. A new chief of army staff will also be named.

Washington is absolutely right in including the army in its plans, despite the popular political face of Bhutto, as militants will remain a threat across the country. In fact, Bhutto will need the army to protect her and the government's security. In such a "protected" atmosphere, Bhutto, Washington's ace card, will be beholden to General Headquarters Rawalpindi and its regional games. All the same, the army will stay behind the scenes as far as politics is concerned, but it will be the only channel through which Washington will deal.

The next few weeks will clearly be of immense importance for Pakistan, which is why the military was relatively calm over the seizure of hundreds of its troops, which normally would be a major affront. (Most of the captives were released on Monday morning.)

Once a smooth transition of government is completed, the demands of the militants for a complete withdrawal of Pakistani forces from the tribal areas will be met and a ceasefire agreement between the security forces and the Taliban is likely by November.

At the moment, talks between the Taliban and coalition forces in Afghanistan are stalled because of Pakistan's internal situation. However, Taliban sources signal that ceasefire agreements are expected by the winter in southwestern Afghanistan, after which talks for a political settlement will start. In the coming few months, as the changes in Pakistan take place, no major offensives are anticipated in Afghanistan, beyond unplanned skirmishes.

Coalition headquarters in Kabul are fully aware of the Taliban's strength, which will be further boosted once the Pakistani military is withdrawn from the tribal areas, as the Taliban will be able to consolidate their bases there to support operations in Afghanistan.

Pakistan will be in a position to build new bridges between the military and the Taliban, which will guarantee a new Pakistani-sponsored "easy to talk to" Taliban leadership, which will push for a political settlement in Afghanistan.

The dynamics in the "war on terror" will be changed toward peaceful resolution or, if that fails, the whole process will give the Pakistan-backed Taliban enough breathing space for a major offensive next year.

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

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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