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    South Asia
     Aug 23, 2008
Militants ready for Pakistan's war
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Pakistan has two options. The country can give in to militancy or it can conduct military operations against it, influential advisor to the Interior Ministry, Rahman Malik, said on Thursday. And the government is not going to negotiate with militants, he added.

His remarks follow a suicide bomb attack outside the country's main defense industry complex at Wah, 30 kilometers northwest of the capital Islamabad, which killed as many as 100 people. The Pakistani Taliban immediately claimed responsibility, saying the attack was in response to the military's recent air bombardment of Bajaur Agency, which led to the displacement of 250,000 people.

Rahman's comments amount to a declaration of war on growing


Islamic militancy, but it could be that the new civilian Pakistani leadership is steering the "war on terror" in the wrong direction.

Rahman's remarks cannot be dismissed as a knee-jerk reaction in the heat of the moment. Only a few hours before the suicide attack, the chief minister of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), Amir Haider Khan Hoti, announced in a policy statement that even if militants shunned violence and laid down their weapons, they would not be pardoned.

Similarly, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gillani, who spoke to US President George W Bush by telephone on Thursday morning, rejected any possibility of dialogue with militants.

In the wake of Pervez Musharraf, who retired as president on Monday after flip-flopping on the country's approach to militancy for many years, the American-sponsored coalition of the willing in Islamabad appears ready for all-out war at any cost.

Ironically, this uncharacteristically clear Pakistani policy emerges as the political quagmire in the capital deepens. Former premier Nawaz Sharif has threatened to pull his Pakistan Muslim League out of the ruling coalition if judges sacked by Musharraf last year are not reinstated. He set a deadline for next Wednesday. The other main coalition partners, the Pakistan People's Party, the Awami National Party and the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam, said they would put the matter to parliament for debate, a proposal Sharif is not keen on.

Who do they intend to fight?
The government's approach will be different from that adopted by Musharraf when he signed onto the "war on terror" in 2001, officials in Pakistan's top strategic circles tell Asia Times Online.

Then, Musharraf, who was also chief of army staff, acted as he saw fit, often not to the liking of Washington, which often accused Islamabad of dragging its feet in the fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda militancy.

The new elected government is expected to be an active partner in the South Asian war theater and its military will help the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The coordination will be similar to that between Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and NATO.

NATO command will identify problem areas and Pakistan will hit those targets. A plan, drawn up between the Americans and Pakistan in 2007, will be implemented under which Peshawar, capital of NWFP, will serve as a base camp from where, under American guidance, the Taliban's bases will be targeted. The Taliban use these bases to launch operations into Afghanistan.

Channels have also been established for the US Embassy in Islamabad to coordinate with the Pakistani government. As a sign of the renewed goodwill, the US Embassy has announced US$50,000 as immediate aid relief for the people displaced from Bajaur. Other financial packages are expected to follow.

Up until 2007, under Musharraf, Pakistan made a clear distinction between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Takfiris (those who believe non-practicing Muslims are infidels) among al-Qaeda and criminal gangs who became a part of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The Taliban were viewed as a phenomenon spanning the southwestern Pashtun lands from Pakistan's Balochistan province to Afghanistan's provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Urzgan and Zabul. This is the heartland of the Taliban in which leader Mullah Omar and majority of his shura (council) live.

They have never troubled Pakistan and have not tried to impose sharia law or interfere in Shi'ite-Sunni feuds or meddle with the thousands of Hindus living in the border town of Chaman. These are the "real" Taliban and the core of the resistance fighting against the foreign occupation of Afghanistan.

Pakistan has never conducted any military operations against the Taliban in Balochistan - one NATO's main complaints.

In NWFP, the problem was more complex. There are Taliban such as Jalaluddin Haqqani steering the insurgency in Afghanistan, and Pakistan has never tried to target his outfit, despite repeated NATO requests.

Top al-Qaeda leaders also live here and in the tribal regions on the border with Afghanistan. They are not specifically anti-Pakistan and there was until 2007 a tacit agreement with the Pakistani security forces that they would be left alone. American intelligence was given a free hand to arrest them - al-Qaeda members had to look after themselves, with Pakistan acting more like a referee.

However, the Takfiris, who include aging Egyptian Sheikh Essa's group, are a different story. Pakistan has made a clear distinction with them, including Uzbeks under the command of Qari Tahir Farooq (Tahir Yaldeshiv) and has gone after them with its proxies in the tribal areas. The same went for Pakistani criminal groups such as the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, who joined the Takfiri camp, or camps under Pakistani Taliban Baitullah Mehsud, who is very close to the Takfiris.

Pakistan's relations with the Pakistani Taliban have depended on which leader they followed. If they were part of Mullah Omar's or Jalaluddin Haqqani's groups, they were left alone; if they were part of the Takfiri groups, the treatment was different.

In essence, this was Pakistan's war, and it fought it on its own terms, which was only partially beneficial to NATO. Under the new leadership, Pakistan's participation in the "war on terror" will be more for the benefit of NATO.

This could come at a very high cost. Those militants who were previously left alone will now be targets. In turn, they will conduct operations against Pakistan.

Osama bin Laden does not have the resources he had in 1989, when he tried to finance Nawaz Sharif to dethrone Benazir Bhutto's government (See The pawns who pay as powers play Asia Times Online, June 2, 2005). But his people certainly have ties within the security forces to allow them to launch operations like the failed one in the mid-1990s against Bhutto's government.

Last year, Bin Laden appointed an Amir of Khuruj (Revolt) for Pakistan, but he died of illness early this year. He has been replaced by Khalid Habib, a Moroccan, and he is now on standby for orders.

Thursday's attack at Wah is a portend of what lies in store for the country. That attack, although claimed by the Pakistan Taliban, was carried out by Pakistani criminal gangs with religious orientations and allied with the Takfiris.

Al-Qaeda has executed high-profile attacks, such as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last December and the one on Bagram base in Kabul during US Vice President Dick Cheney's 2007 visit.

Should the Pakistani government really commit to its all-out war on militants, it will feel more of such wrath.

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 (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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