Sharif picked to tame Pakistan's
militancy By Syed Saleem
KARACHI - Seven years after the
invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, Dell
Dailey, the US State Department's counterterrorism
chief, reveals there are "gaps in intelligence"
about militants in the Pakistani border regions
and there is not enough information about what's
going on there.
There's not enough
information on al-Qaeda, on foreign fighters and
on the Taliban, yet speculation is rife that
nuclear-armed Pakistan will soon be under siege by
Islamic militants. And Major General David
Rodriguez, who commands US forces in eastern
Afghanistan, warned this week that Taliban and
al-Qaeda militants have postponed their spring
offensive in Afghanistan as they want
focus their efforts on destabilizing the Pakistani
Therefore, given the
assassination of the "great hope" Benazir Bhutto
last month, the million-dollar question is: What
political force can calm this visible storm raging
in the country?
It is now emerging that
Washington and London, the two major stakeholders
in the "war on terror", see former premier Nawaz
Sharif as the answer.
The British Foreign
Office played a crucial role in backroom talks
with Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shebaz Sharif to
get them, since their recent return from exile, to
play a major political role once Parliament is in
place after next month's general elections.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML) is expected
to win a considerable number of seats, if not a
Should this happen, the
issue will then become Sharif's working
relationship with President Pervez Musharraf.
International and Pakistan players are now trying
to address this problem.
retired Brigadier Niaz Ahmad, one of the country's
richest ex-serviceman. He owns and operates
several companies with international business,
including one which supplies material to
Pakistan's atomic laboratory at Kohota. He was
retired general Musharraf's senior in the army and
a family friend of Sharif's. He is trying to
bridge the gap between Musharraf and Nawaz, an
animosity that dates to Nawaz being deposed as
prime minister by Musharraf's coup in 1999.
Senior PML leaders admit that Niaz met
Sharif's brother in London, but say there was no
political dealing. "It was purely a personal
meeting. We braved eight years of the military
dictatorship of Musharraf and at this stage, when
he is on his way out, we will not strike any deal
with him," the central vice president of Sharif's
PML, Mushahidullah Khan, told Asia Times Online.
He added his party will not be part of any
international agenda. "We have been opposing the
policies of the [George W] Bush administration in
the region and we will not support them in any
form," Mushahidullah maintained.
Asia Times Online contacts believe the matter
transcends local political wheeling and dealing
over power-sharing, and that Washington and London
want Sharif, as he will rally popular support for
the "war on terror" as he is close to the
religious segment of society and the most likely
to be able to tame militancy.
The next few
days could be crucial. After attending the World
Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Musharraf
has a two-day stopover in England. According to
the official version, he will spend quite time "at
a farm house". But Asia Times Online contacts
maintain he will meet with Lebanese parliamentary
majority leader Saad Hariri to discuss guarantees
and a modus operandi for a relationship
between the Sharifs and Musharraf.
slain father Rafik Hariri previously was the
guarantor of a deal between Sharif and Musharraf
which allowed Sharif's release from jail in 2000 -
he had been sentenced to life imprisonment on
charges of hijacking - to go into exile in Saudi
Arabia. Sharif initially denied this deal, but
later admitted to it.
Leader Khalid Khawaja commented to Asia Times
Online, "We are fully aware of these developments,
and you would be surprised to learn that I
recently met a person in the UAE [United Arab
Emirates] who divulged that America's real point
person has always been Nawaz Sharif. The reason is
simple, he has inroads to the militants and he is
considered among them to be a better person in
comparison to all others."
Khawaja was a
close aide of Osama bin Laden's after retiring
from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)and the
Pakistan Air Force. Khawaja also arranged bin
Laden's meeting with Nawaz Sharif in the late
1980s in Saudi Arabia to hatch a plan to topple
Khawaja would not
name the person he had met in the UAE, other than
to hint he is part of the ISI's and the US State
Department's initiative of backroom meetings
between Pakistani officials and the opposition.
A matter of urgency The need to
work out a deal between Sharif and Musharraf is of
paramount importance, given the security situation
in the country. The security forces have
launched an operation to eliminate former
Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in the
South Waziristan tribal area, but they have
admitted they are clueless about his network.
Mehsud was recently "sacked" by Taliban
leader Mullah Omar because of Mehsud's obsession
with waging war against the Pakistan state. Mullah
Omar wants the Taliban to concentrate on the
struggle in Afghanistan.
militants in the port city of Karachi apparently
divulged details of Mehsud's plans to attack
Pakistan's strategic installations. As a result,
security has been beefed up around intelligence
and military installations. Officials even fear an
imminent country-wide clash between security and
efforts to eliminate militant cells has been
hampered by the loss of several key people. Former
members of Musharraf's ruling coalition and
ministers such as Sheikh Rasheed and Ejaz ul-Haq
have been discredited in the eyes of the
militants. This is because of their role in the
Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) incident last year when
the radical mosque was stormed by security forces.
They had been close to the militants.
former opposition leader Fazlur Rehman, who played
a major role in striking a ceasefire deal in the
tribal areas, is now on al-Qaeda's hit list for
trying to broker a ceasefire between Taliban
commanders and Western intelligence agencies in
All eyes are now
on Sharif to rescue the situation, whether in the
role of a friendly opposition (as the six-party
religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal did in
the past) or as part of a ruling coalition.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia
Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be
reached at[email protected]