Goodbye Musharraf, hello Taliban
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - As if on cue, the Taliban launched two of their most daring attacks
in Afghanistan on the day that Pervez Musharraf resigned as president of
Pakistan, opening up a political vacuum in that country and throwing into doubt
its continued cooperation in the United States' "war on terror".
Over 100 Taliban ambushed French soldiers on patrol with Afghan National Army
troops at Sarobi, just 50 kilometers south of the capital, Kabul, killing 10
Frenchmen and injuring 21 in a battle that raged for more than 12 hours. France
has 2,600 soldiers in Afghanistan, mostly as part of the International Security
Assistance Force (ISAF), and has lost 24 in action or accidents since sending
them there in 2002.
In another incident, several car bombs on the perimeter of Camp Salerno, the
US's second-largest base in Afghanistan, in Khost province 20 kilometers from
the Pakistan border, killed 10 Afghans and wounded 13. Seven insurgents
including six suicide bombers were killed, the ISAF said, denying a report by
the Taliban that they had killed 40 American troops.
In Pakistan, the Taliban on Tuesday attacked a fort in Bajaur Agency, killing
several security people. There was also a suicide attack in Dera Ismail Khan in
North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), targeting a Shi'ite gathering. There were
several casualties, including some policemen.
These incidents highlight the Taliban-led insurgency's growing clout in
Afghanistan and the militants' strength inside Pakistan.
The whole of NWFP, except for the Peshawar Valley, is in the hands of militants
and Asia Times Online contacts confirm that al-Qaeda headquarters in the
Waziristan tribal areas have developed a plan to step up attacks in Pakistan
and Afghanistan to stir up the masses and exploit the current difficulties in
Islamabad following Musharraf's departure.
Asia Times Online's contacts in Pakistan's strategic quarters maintain the
militants' action is a response to a recent meeting of a tripartite commission
in Kabul comprising representatives from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO), the Afghan army and the Pakistani army, at which a coordinated plan was
drawn up to take on militants across the region. The militants want to step up
attacks on Pakistan to force it to reduce its cooperation in this fight against
the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Significantly, the latest surge in violence in Afghanistan, especially in
Wardak, 30 kilometers east of Kabul, and in Sarobi, is not the result of
Taliban guerrillas alone. Local tribal chiefs, clerics and warlords who
previously submitted to the writ of the Kabul government have rallied under the
generic name of the Taliban to drive out foreign occupation forces.
The authoritative Senlis Council, an international policy think-tank, said in a
statement on Wednesday that international efforts to contain the Taliban
insurgency in Afghanistan are failing and reinforcements are needed. The latest
fighting "sends a clear message that current Western strategy in Afghanistan is
failing", it said.
"Until now, Western leaders have been in denial about the true extent of
Taliban presence in Afghanistan, and their ability to move swiftly on the
Afghan capital." The council said NATO, which has about 53,000 soldiers in the
country, should increase its force to 80,000.
A vacuum in Pakistan
This is the security situation after nearly nine years of Musharraf acting
(some would say not acting) as the US's point man in the "war in terror" - he
was president as well as chief of army staff.
The direction Pakistan takes in the immediate post-Musharraf era will have a
crucial bearing on the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan and militancy in
Pakistan. The new president will not necessarily be integral to this - the
position is now largely a ceremonial one. Rather, the military and the civilian
government will determine the country's direction.
But within 24 hours of Musharraf's exit from the presidential palace tensions
had already resurfaced between the lead parties of the ruling coalition
government, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of assassinated former prime
minister Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led by
another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.
The parties had temporarily buried their differences in a drive to impeach
Musharraf, but the problems have re-emerged, notably that of the reinstatement
of the judiciary, which Musharraf dismissed last year to ensure his re-election
Sharif is obsessed that the judiciary be restored, including deposed chief
justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, as this was one of his main election promises. Asif
Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto and head of the PPP, has told Sharif
that he does not trust Chaudhry. Zardari is concerned that Chaudhry will revoke
the National Reconciliation Ordinance which protects him from corruption cases
registered against him in local and international courts.
At the same time, Zardari aims to get indemnity through parliament for
Musharraf against any possible charges, but this is the last thing to which
Sharif would agree.
The lawyers' movement that emerged when the judiciary was dismissed is
threatening more protests, and it has grown into a potent force.
This is clearly a government of disunity, destined to endless feuding and
paralysis - a situation militants will exploit to the full, as they have since
Musharraf shed his uniform last November.
One of the key tactics of Islamic militants is to exploit political power
vacuums, economic crises or any other problems to push a country towards
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, this process is underway. In Zardari's case, his
presidential pardon through an ordinance could be withdrawn by the courts, and
his political career would be over. In Kabul, President Hamid Karzai only
survives because of the foreign troops in the country, and his writ barely
extends beyond Kabul. If the militants manage to present themselves in an
articulate manner to the masses, it would be a catalyst for change, and not the
way the West would want.
"All sorts of social, political and economic vacuums are growing in Muslim
societies and it is an historical fact that in the Muslim world the reaction to
such situations has always emanated from movements led by the religious
forces," Pakistani Muslim intellectual Shahnawaz Farooqui, author of three
books on the relation of Islam and the West, told Asia Times Online.
The Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan and the militant strongholds in
swathes of Pakistan appear to prove the point.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at email@example.com