Pakistan takes a step
backwards By Syed Saleem
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".
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Washington may be in the process
of losing a friend.
Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau
Chief. He can be reached at