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    South Asia
     May 31, 2008
US terror drive stalled in political quagmire
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Anti-American sentiment in the South Asian "war on terror" theater is on the rise, leaving Washington in a dilemma over how to intervene and preserve its interests.

A speech by former premier Nawaz Sharif on Youm-e-Takbeer (the 10th anniversary of Pakistan's testing of a nuclear device on May 28, 1998) illustrates how anti-Americanism has become a


tool of politicians to mobilize the masses. He stated:
I will not absolve [President Pervez] Musharraf from the accusations against him of devastating the country by selling it to foreign powers, carrying out the Lal Masjid massacre, incarcerating nuclear scientist Dr [Abdul Qadeer] Khan and superior court judges and handing over innocent Pakistanis to American agencies in return for dollars.
Sharif was referring to Musharraf signing onto the US-led "war on terror" after September 11, 2001, initiating the military raid on the pro-Taliban radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad last year, imprisoning Khan, the father of Pakistan's bomb program, and last year sacking judges opposed to Musharraf continuing his presidency.

Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), clearly does not want Musharraf to quietly fade away. He wants him accountable for his years in power after staging a military coup in 1999. The PML-N helped form a coalition government following February's elections, with the dominant Pakistan People's Party (PPP), but since then it has had an uneasy relationship with its new political partner.

Sharif's speech came ahead of a scheduled visit to Pakistan by Richard Boucher, the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs. Boucher was due to coordinate with the PPP-led government, the presidency and the military over a better strategy in the "war on terror".

However, Boucher's trip was put on hold by the Pakistani ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, because of the high anti-American sentiment in the streets and the PML-N's plan to stage demonstrations on his arrival - this could have been embarrassing for Pakistan-US relations.

Perhaps not coincidentally, a series of telephone interviews by Khan, who is under house arrest, was aired recently by selected local television networks. Khan lambasted the US, as well as Musharraf, over his detention. In January 2004, Khan confessed to having been involved in a clandestine international network of nuclear weapons technology proliferation from Pakistan to Libya, Iran and North Korea. He was pardoned by Musharraf, but placed under house arrest.

Khan now denies leaking atomic secrets, according to the British Broadcasting Corp, citing a telephone interview with the scientist whose details were published on Thursday. Khan said pressure was put on him to accept the charges "in the national interest", the BBC said on its website. "These are false allegations," he told the broadcaster's Urdu service. When asked why he was put under pressure to confess, Khan said: "If one person takes responsibility, you save the country."

Earlier, in a little-noticed move, a former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) official, retired Squadron Leader Khalid Khawaja, applied to register a police case against Musharraf, General Tariq Majeed, the then-Corps Commander Rawalpindi and now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, as well as other civilian officials, in connection with killings during the storming of the Lal Masjid.

Khalid was once friendly with Osama bin Laden and helped set up Sharif's many meetings with the al-Qaeda leader in an attempt to topple Benazir Bhutto's government in 1989. (See The pawns who pay as powers play Asia Times Online, June 22, 2005.) After many denials, Sharif finally admitted to those meetings in a recent television show, saying that at the time even the Americans were meeting with bin Laden.

Khalid also applied for the registration of several other cases in connection with abductions - people suspected of al-Qaeda and Taliban links detained by the security forces without any police case being laid against them.

Musharraf was cited in these cases and should he resign from the presidency the cases against him will immediately be activated and could lead to his arrest and trial, which is what Sharif hinted at in his Youm-e-Takbeer speech. Rumors have been circulating in Pakistan over the past few days that Musharraf is about to step down.

Another showdown involves retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, a former head of the ISI. A number of retired military officers plan to lay siege around President's Lodge on June 10, demanding that Musharraf vacate the house and resign as president. Formerly known as Army House, the Rawalpindi residence was renamed President's Lodge after Musharraf quit as army chief last November and decided to continue living there for security reasons.

On June 12, lawyers say they will restart a movement for the restoration of the judiciary, and Sharif has declared that he will be beside them.

Mystery over Musharraf
Rumors over Musharraf's possible resignation were heightened this week when a former army chief, retired General Aslam Beg - a self-proclaimed Islamist - claimed that the military had already taken Musharraf into safe custody and that he would soon present his resignation and arrange for exile in either Turkey, the US or Britain. (Beg later retracted the statement.)

This uncertainty has placed the country's pro-American allies in the country - the PPP-led government, Musharraf himself and the military - under immense pressure and effectively stalled any moves they might want to make in line with regional US policies.

Crucially, this coincides with the Taliban's offensive in Afghanistan. On Thursday, the Taliban shot down a US helicopter in Khost province's Yakoobia area, with several Afghan soldiers killed, and they launched several attacks in Farah, Herat province, the capital Kabul and in Helmand and Nangarhar provinces.

Hamstrung with its internal problems, the Pakistan government does not have any option but to retain its peace deals with Taliban in the country's tribal regions, which allows them to freely go into Afghanistan.

Asia Times Online has received information that Pakistani pro-Taliban tribal warlord Baitullah Mehsud - against whom a case has been registered in connection with the assassination of Bhutto last December - will be given compensation money to be distrubted among tribals who lost property and men during recent battles with Pakistani security forces. The money is likely to be delivered next week, after which an agreement will be formally signed between Pakistan and Baitullah Behsud.

Even if Musharraf does resign, it is likely there will be a showdown between the PML-N and the lawyers' movement on the one side and the PPP on the other, again reducing the country's ability to cooperate in the "war on terror".

In another development in Afghanistan, the Taliban and leaders of the Afghan National Front led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president and mujahideen chief and now opposition leader, have admitted to holding negotiations. Warlords associated with Rabbani's group have always felt sidelined under President Hamid Karzai's government and are looking for a new role.

As in Pakistan, domestic developments in Afghanistan are taking on a life of their own beyond the dictates of the US and its local allies.

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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