Regional politics give Musharraf room for manoeuvre – The Irish Examiner

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America protests the clampdowns, but still has a strategic relationship with Pakistan, writes Simon Roughneen.

THE cliché runs as follows: this is the world’s most dangerous country. It is the combination of nuclear weapons, a Taliban-run enclave in the north-west, Islamist extremists bent on takeover, a history of military coups and flawed democracy. All of which mean that Pakistan, apparently a Western ally, cannot be allowed lapse into anarchy.

But Pakistan may be allowed lapse into cast-iron military rule, at least for now. And given the bigger regional picture, there is little that the US or NATO allies mired in Afghanistan can do about it. US President George W Bush had what was described as a frank 20-minute phone discussion with Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf on Wednesday, but do not expect demands that elections be held as soon as Washington hopes, or for Musharraf to step down from the army.

Last Saturday, Musharraf declared a state of emergency — in reality martial law. Islamabad’s military regime put boot to the throats of hundreds of lawyers, rounded up civil society opposition and gagged the press. All for fear of a deeply unstable country, nukes and all, being overtaken by the Taliban.

So far, all the talk has been of Pakistan’s 2008 elections, the possibility of a Burma-style street stand-off, and the need for the US to review its alliance with Pakistan. Not so simple.

On Tuesday Afghanistan’s worst suicide attack killed over 40, including a high-profile Shi’ite politician prominent in maintaining the Northern Alliance that joined the US in driving the Taliban and its al-Qaida guests from Kabul post 9-11.

And this brazen assassination is key to understanding just why Musharraf felt he could impose virtual martial law. It took place in northern Afghanistan, far from southern areas where the Taliban fought NATO troops since 2006. This is a sure sign that the Taliban will take the fight to the north, which has been the most peaceful region in Afghanistan since 2001.

And no wonder they feel emboldened. The US failed to extract any commitments to increase troops at the recent NATO defence ministers meeting. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Kabul last Saturday but refused to deploy German NATO troops in the volatile southern provinces of Afghanistan. NATO has been riven by rows over some member states’ fear of combat, with US, Britain, Canadian and Dutch contingents doing most of the fighting against the Taliban, in a UN-sanctioned mission. But it seems the Germans and other combat-wary contributors may have the fight brought to them.

Already this week the Taliban overran two border districts in the western Iranian border region of Afghanistan. And back in the north of Pakistan, Taliban-aligned Islamists recently took a number of villages in Swat province, four hours from Islamabad, and are holding hundreds of Pakistani troops hostage. Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s return from exile saw Pakistan’s own worst suicide attack, with over 140 killed on the streets of Karachi.

The seven Federal Autonomous Tribal Areas lining the north-west frontier with Afghanistan have been beyond state control for most of Pakistan’s existence as a sovereign state. Since early 2002, they have emerged as Islamist-run fiefdoms, self-styled ‘emirates’ giving sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and Taliban leaders such as Mullah Omar.

Pakistan’s secret service, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), was the bulwark behind which the Taliban original drove to power in Afghanistan in 1996. And those links die hard. Despite US$10 billion (€6.82bn) in declared bilateral aid to Pakistan since 9-11, around 70% of which is given to the military, Pakistan has not been able to quell the Islamist insurgency on its soil, or hinder Taliban cross-border incursions against NATO and the Afghan army.

Rogue elements in the ISI may well aid the Taliban, with Pakistani Pashtuns covertly supporting their Afghan Pashtun ethnic kin, in defiance of the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani army elites, who are more eager to clamp down on Islamists. Pakistani support for the Taliban first arose when civilian governments were in power, Bhutto included. An Islamist Afghan- istan was seen as a safe bet, and may even now be seen by Islamabad as a better option than the current New Delhi-oriented Karzai government.

And with a stalled US-India nuclear technology deal still on the table, Musharraf feels that a reminder to the Americans just how high the stakes are in Pakistan may be necessary.

The double game being played by Islamabad will continue, with half-hearted attempts to curb Islamist extremists being coupled with occasional bloodbaths such as that seen at the Lal Masjid mosque standoff earlier this year.

Musharraf and the generals do not trust a civilian government in the current domestic and regional strategic environment. When the US and Britain pushed Musharraf into accepting the return of Bhutto as part of the democratisation process, it was apparently too much for the General to take.

While the Americans have protested this week’s clampdown, Musharraf knows the US will not push him too hard, given the Taliban’s continued attacks in Afghanistan and stakes surrounding an uncertain transition in Pakistan itself. And finally, Pakistan’s tacit cooperation will be needed if and when Iran is attacked.

Journalist Simon Roughneen was in Pakistan with GOAL in 2005/6, and has written on south Asian politics in the Kashmir Times, South Asia Analysis Group and with ISN Security Watch, as well various Irish and UK newspapers. © Irish Examiner – Thomas Crosbie Media – Thomas Crosbie Holdings, Ireland, 2009.

© Irish Examiner – Thomas Crosbie Media – Thomas Crosbie Holdings, Ireland, 2009.

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