Mar 18, 2004
US set Pakistan aflame
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI The flames of war have spread into Pakistan, with fierce fighting between government forces and tribespeople in volatile South Waziristan agency near the Afghanistan border, and the fire threatens to engulf neighboring areas. The spark was provided by United States pressure on the government of President General Pervez Musharraf to help in Washington's "war on terror", but ironically, the only gainer will be the anti-US Afghan resistance.
The fighting erupted as US-led forces began a spring offensive to eradicate Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants in Afganistan. The US plan depends on crucial support from Pakistan to keep a lid on its border region which is notorious for supporting and sheltering the Afghan resistance. Now the Pakistani military is fighting its own citizens there, and US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who timed a visit to Pakistan to coincide with the launch of the offensive and shore up support, will return home with the news that the situation is getting ever more out of hand.
The latest and most serious clash between tribals and Pakistani forces occurred Tuesday. At least 10 military personnel and 24 "suspects" were reported killed, most of the latter said to be tribespeople suspected of sheltering the militants. The day-long battle marked the eruption of tension which had been nearing boiling point for some time, as reported by Asia Times Online (Pakistan stirs a tribal war, Mar 3).
According to a prominent tribesperson in the town of Wana, South Waziristan, Pakistani authorities had made every effort to prevent armed conflict with locals in the tribal areas. A few days before the fighting broke out, the authorities levied penalties on the tribal leaders for their opposition to the presence of government forces. The tribal leaders in turn rebelled, but the authorities handled the situation prudently. They secretly gave money to the tribals and asked them to return the same money in a ceremony. The face-saving drama was publicized to give the US the impression that Pakistani forces were doing their best to smoke out terror suspects.
However, US pressure on Pakistan remained relentless, so much so that Musharraf himself visited the North West Frontier Province to address the tribal leaders and request their cooperation in the battles against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Well-placed sources have told Asia Times Online that the Taliban is regrouping in preparation for attacks on Afghan cities, and this is hot news among Pakistan's jihadis. The jihadis have been looking for new battles since the Kashmir front was totally shut down they were informed in a recent meeting presided over by a senior army officer that the Kashmir "game is over" and that they should shut up shop. Many of those jihadis have now made their way to Afghanistan. And according to reliable sources in Karachi, which is a hub for dedicated jihadis, several groups of fighters made the journey to South and North Waziristan to take part in the decisive battle between the Afghan resistance and US and Pakistani troops. Similar groups from Lahore, Quetta and the countryside of Punjab are also joining the struggle.
Before Tuesday's battle, all seven tribal agency leaders had warned Pakistani authorities to withdraw troops from tribal areas or face resistance. Despite the warning, US pressure via American officials situated in Wana alongside the Pakistani military upset the delicate situation. Earlier this month, Pakistani soldiers killed at least 11 people in a shooting incident in Wana a direct precursor of the violence now taking place. Had Pakistani authorities been left alone to deal with the situation, the outcome might have been very different.
For instance, the tribes had refused to allow any further operations in South Waziristan and had drawn a line, warning that if any Pakistani soldier crossed it , he would be targeted. Pakistan's political agent in South Waziristan called a meeting to which all tribal elders were invited, to ease the tension. However, on the directive of US officials present, the tribal leaders were arrested and the door to dialogue slammed shut.
There are three interested parties keeping keen eyes on the deteriorating situation:
The anti-Musharraf segment within the army, which will now likely exploit the situation as they feel
Pakistani soldiers have been misused in a war which is not theirs.
The US-led coalition, which was keen to conduct operations in Pakistani territory. Now that the tribespeople have also been branded by Pakistani authorities as "terrorists", the US military has a golden opportunity to enter Pakistan to crush the "terror networks".
The jihadis in Pakistan who are keen to participate in the Afghan resistance. Previously, it was difficult for Pakistanis to take part because controls in the border areas made entry into Afghanistan a challenge. Now, with clashes on the Pakistan side of the border, the fighters will find their way to the battlefields.
The most immediate threat to Pakistan's stability is within the Pakistani army, where a strong contingency rejects Musharraf and his accommodation of the US. This may push political parties like Jamaat-i-Islami to stage strong demonstrations of power in an effort to force Musharraf to step down.