KARACHI – With Admiral William J Fallon, US commander of CENTCOM, due in Pakistan on Thursday to finalize collaboration on pressing issues concerning the “war on terror” in Pakistan and Afghanistan, besides addressing the tension over Iran, top decision-makers in Islamabad are in a quandary. The issue is whether Pakistan can afford to take bold steps in the “war on terror” without taking extraordinary steps to solidify the regime of President General Pervez Musharraf.
The matter is one of extreme urgency. Almost the entire North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered TribalAreas have revolted against the state of Pakistan in favor of the Taliban. And polls conducted by US institutions suggest the hunt for al-Qaeda is extremely unpopular in Pakistan, which also faces wave after wave of suicide attacks in its bigger cities.
The Pakistani Taliban have refused offers of a ceasefire in North Waziristan and South Waziristan, and are extending their engagement of Pakistani troops in the Swat Valley in NWFP where Pakistani troops face attacks from all sides, including the local population.
A local television station has shown footage of people collecting money for what they call the “mujahideen”. The station reported that at one place in the Swat Valley, people collected Rs1.5 million (about US$24,500) in just three hours. Such popular support for the militancy forces Islamabad to question whether it should continue this losing battle, or launch a full-scale war against terror.
However – and this is crucial – should Musharraf decide on the latter approach, he would need to do so under special powers, such as martial law or a state of emergency.
Asia Times Online contacts confirm that in the past three days Musharraf has held several high-level meetings that included all four provincial chief ministers. The discussions centered on the issue of extraordinary powers. The same issue was raised with the policy planning section of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League.
Former premier Benazir Bhutto, who at the last minute canceled plans to travel to the United Arab Emirates, where she had spent years in exile, urged the government on Wednesday not to impose a state of emergency.
A senior security official speaking to Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity, said, “Major surgeries are essential in cases like Lal Masjid [a militant mosque in Islamabad], but such extraordinary events need extraordinary powers. If the courts intervene in such matters, the security forces will stop working and nobody will be able to stop the march of the Taliban into the bigger cities of Pakistan.”
The official continued, “This is a major crossroads in the ‘war on terror’ at which Washington will have to approve an all-powerful government, even at the cost of democracy. Otherwise it can say goodbye to Pakistan as a ‘war on terror’ ally as it [Pakistan] would simply not be able to get results.”
The massive engagement of the Pakistani armed forces in the Swat Valley has disrupted controls along the Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the result that in a matter of weeks, hundreds of fresh fighters have reached southeastern Afghanistan to bolster the Taliban-led insurgency from Jalalabad to Khost.
In this respect, Fallon’s visit to Pakistan is significant as Washington wants Pakistan to stop this flow of precious Taliban assets from the Swat Valley before the US entertains the idea of a new theater in Iran. (King Abdullah of Jordan is also expected in Pakistan soon, as is US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.)
This returns Pakistan to the dilemma described above, of whether to go for all-out war, and if so, how to go about it as the country’s judiciary has over the past several months steadfastly blocked any high-handed government moves. Even the results of last month’s presidential elections, which Musharraf won, are under judicial review.
And a full frontal war would be unpopular among the masses, where Musharraf’s standing is already low. The US-based World Public Opinion (WPO) revealed in a recent poll that fewer than half of urban Pakistanis support attacking al-Qaeda and cracking down on fundamentalists, and Pakistanis overwhelmingly rejected the idea of permitting foreign troops to attack al-Qaeda on Pakistani territory.
WPO reported that four out of five Pakistanis said their government should not allow US or other foreign troops to enter Pakistan to pursue and capture al-Qaeda fighters. And three out of four opposed allowing foreign troops to attack Taliban insurgents based in Pakistan. The findings also reveal that a majority of urban Pakistanis believed their government’s decision to attack militants based in the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in July was a mistake.
A suicide attack on Tuesday, meanwhile, in a highly sensitive military zone, sent a strong warning to the government of the militants’ strength. The bomber set off explosives about a kilometer from Musharraf’s offices in Rawalpindi, killing seven people, including himself, and injuring at least 14 others.
And clearly there is more to come. On Thursday, a suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying Pakistan Air Force employees, killing at least five people and wounding about 40, the military confirmed. The incident took place near Sargodha, a city in eastern Punjab province.
Against this backdrop, Musharraf has to decide whether Pakistan can afford to ditch democracy in the fight against terror, or whether Pakistan safeguards democracy and closes its theater of the “war on terror”.