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    South Asia
     Jan 12, 2008
Pakistan takes a step backwards
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - At a time when Pakistan's national decision-making institutions are suspicious of international plans to make the country's nuclear program controversial, there is serious consideration for repositioning the country's foreign policy as neutral in the United States-led "war on terror".

This would mean non-interference in the restive tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. These are virtually autonomous areas where Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have established bases and

vital supply lines into Afghanistan.

Such a move would have devastating effects on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) efforts to control the ever-growing insurgency in Afghanistan.

Following a meeting of the Pakistan corps commanders headed by the new chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Kiani, a press release said there would be a review of the situation in the tribal areas and, instead of citing any plans for military operations there against militants, the release said the military's decisions would be based on "the wishes of the nation".

Islamabad's rethink has been prompted by the violence and political crisis resulting from the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi last month. In turn, this has fueled intense speculation in the Western media of the possibility of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of militants.

Most recently, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the United Nations' atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, voiced concerns over the this possibility. "I fear chaos ... an extremist regime could take root in that country, which has 30 to 40 warheads," ElBaradei told the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat.

Such comments are viewed in Pakistan's strategic quarters as deliberate mischief on the part of the West. On the one hand it insists that Islamabad come down hard on militancy, but when this is done, the militants react against the government. The West then points to the problem of rising extremism and projects the danger posed to Pakistan's arsenal.

The former chief of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Germany, retired Lieutenant General Asad Durrani, told Asia Times Online, "I don't consider such statements [about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal] even worth commenting on. These are settled issues, any debate on settled issues is unnecessary. Washington is aware of the mechanisms for the protection of those weapons. There is no need to react. Reactions only generate confusion and there is no need to be confused about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. It is in safe hands."

Durrani, who regularly attends international sessions of British and American policy think-tanks, said Pakistan's military operations in the tribal areas as a part of the "war on terror" had resulted in problems in Pakistani cities.

When asked about the corps commanders' conference and the possibility of peace dialogue between the tribals and the government instead of military operations, Durrani said, "I don't know about the exact agenda of the conference, but you can't tell me of any disagreement anywhere in the country that Pakistan should shun military operations and initiate dialogue."

Durrani, who participated in the joint Pakistan-Afghanistan peace efforts in the Pakistani city of Peshawar last year, continued, "Nobody is in favor of operations, not even those who are actually doing the operations. Even people from [the port city of] Karachi, who are considered ultra-liberal [are against operations] and on the Lal Masjid [Red Mosque] operation, I found them calling it irrational." Durrani was referring to security forces storming the radical mosque in Islamabad last year to root out militants.

Should Pakistan scale down or halt its operations in the tribal areas, where it has thousands of troops, the US might be forced to act. Reports have been swirling for some time of US plans to undertake aggressive covert operations inside Pakistan.

The George W Bush administration is concerned over intelligence reports suggesting that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are intensifying their efforts to destabilize the Pakistani government. Reports say that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and top national-security advisers recently met to discuss the proposal, which is part of a broad reassessment of US strategy following the death of Bhutto. Bhutto had been promoted by Washington as an acceptable liberal face to soften the image of President Pervez Musharraf and his administration.

The meeting also discussed how to handle the period from now to the February 18 general elections and the aftermath of those elections. Several of the participants are said to have argued that the threat to the Musharraf government is now so grave that both he and Pakistan's new military leadership are likely to give the United States more latitude. Asia Times Online investigations suggest that Pakistan might submit to US demands and conduct operations in the tribal areas, but they will be half-hearted at best.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, former leader of the opposition in Parliament and probably the most fervent pro-Taliban cleric in the country, told Asia Times Online, "We are hearing a lot of news about operations in the tribal areas. Everybody is talking about the mobilization of troops in the coming days for an extraordinary military operation in Waziristan [tribal area] which would amount to an all-out war.

"A logical outcome of this would be a delay in the election process. But believe you me, we are experiencing an extremely normal situation in the tribal areas, especially in Waziristan. Everything is normal and I don't sense any operations from the Pakistani army. I cannot talk about the American initiative, but as far as the Pakistani army is concerned, I don't see any escalation."

Rehman is head of the Jamaat-ul-Ulema Islam Pakistan (Islamic Party of Religious Leaders) and was the main driver behind the peace agreements of 2006 between the Pakistan Taliban and the government, and he also mediated British- and US-sponsored peace efforts between the Taliban and NATO troops in Afghanistan. These resulted in an agreement to start jirgagai (small tribal councils) which would for the first time give the Taliban representation. The process was stopped when the Pakistani military began intensive operations to combat militancy in the Swat Valley in North-West Frontier Province towards the end of last year.

"Though the government has not contacted me for any mediation, I tell you that I don't foresee any operations in the tribal areas - if it happens, it would be a result of immense US pressure - and there is no indication that Pakistan wants that," said Rehman.

"This has been our principle position, that peace should be given a chance and that's why my party and I have always tried for reconciliation. However. I feel that some vested interests don't want peace in the region," Rehman responded when asked about the chances of successful dialogue between the Taliban and NATO.

"Military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan have only bred extremism. Pakistan should avoid that. The West should learn the lessons of British India days, when the empire stayed away from the tribal areas and even signed an agreement for the independent nature of the tribal areas, and Pakistan also abides by the same agreement with the tribes," Rehman said.

Ironically, while the US is talking about military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and Pakistan is leaning towards peace accords, al-Qaeda itself is against any peace overtures in the tribal areas. This, in a sense, puts al-Qaeda and the US on the same side. A few days ago, al-Qaeda killed nine tribal leaders trying to make peace agreements.

A senior security analyst commented to Asia Times Online, on the condition of anonymity, "Pakistan is once again at a strange crossroad where its national interests are at stake. We have been under immense US pressure because of which we abandoned our national Afghan policy [support for the Taliban]. We don't actually have any option because of the huge American pressure. But it should be recalled, we didn't actually succumb on the Kashmir issue. We did compromise in our support for the armed opposition of Kashmiris against Indian forces, but not completely. And I think this is the time for us to reconsider our options and priorities in the region."

Washington may be in the process of losing a friend.

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

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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