Suicide bombings and failed cease-fire threaten Pakistan
Nearly 80 people have died in Pakistan in the last two days as militants avenge the Red Mosque raid and the Pakistani Taliban calls off the cease-fire.
The security situation in Pakistan has rapidly deteriorated following the July 10 raid of the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad. Islamic militants have avowed to avenge the mosque operation, and, in the past two days, suicide bombings have killed nearly 80 people. At the same time, the Pakistani Taliban, who operate in a tribal region along the Afghan border announced an end to a 10-month-old cease-fire and called for guerrilla attacks against Pakistani security forces.
Following the detonation of three vehicle-borne explosives in Matta Tehsil, a city in the Swat district, and another suicide bombing at a police recruitment center in Dera Ismail Khan, one Pakistani official compared the wave of violence to the situation in Iraq, reports The Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper.
"This was reminiscent of attacks on police recruitment centres in Baghdad," an official in Peshawar remarked, adding that the government would now have to go after the bases of militant groups in the tribal region.
Following the Red Mosque raid, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, announced that "extremism would not be tolerated anywhere in Pakistan." Although General Musharraf initially received widespread support for his handling of the standoff with the radical mosque, he now lacks both the time and the resources to effectively fight the nation's extremists, reports The Independent.
Should he seek to impose martial law - something about which there has already been speculation - he would further lose support among the professional classes, many of whom have been outspoken in their support of the country's former Supreme Court Chief Justice - seemingly ousted by Mr Musharraf for political reasons. A decision on a legal appeal by the Chief Justice is expected to be announced this week.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani Taliban's recent termination of the cease-fire in North Waziristan, the tribal region along the Afghan border, threatens to create further problems for Musharraf and the embattled nation. Signed in September, the agreement was intended to keep extremists, many of them foreign fighters, out by working with local tribes. Under the terms of the cease-fire, the Pakistani military would withdraw troops from the region if local tribal leaders policed their own neighborhoods and stopped fighters from conducting cross-border raids into Afghanistan, reports The Washington Post.
As recently as this spring, government officials had been pointing to clashes between local militias and foreign fighters as evidence that the deal was working. The tribes, officials said, appeared to be banding together to oust Uzbeks, Chechens and other fighters who had been sheltered in the region.
But criticism of the deal has grown in recent months. U.S. and NATO troops have confronted escalating violence in Afghanistan, with much of it traced back across the border into Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistani tribal areas have increasingly come under the Taliban's sway, with the group using force to push its extreme vision of Islamic law.
The Pakistani Taliban claim that their abandonment of the cease-fire is not connected with security forces' military action on the Red Mosque, reports Pakistan's The News International. Instead, they blame the government's refusal to remove military checkpoints from North Waziristan. The government contends that the checkpoints were necessary to combat an increase in kidnappings, car theft, illegal weapons deals, and other crimes.
Abdullah Farhad, a spokesman for the militants, said their Shura, or council, under the leadership of Hafiz Gul Bahadur had decided to end the peace accord and ordered their fighters to start guerilla attacks against the security forces deployed in North Waziristan. He said the Taliban fighters were advised not to launch attacks in populated areas so that civilians were saved from the consequences.
The militants, who prefer being called Pakistani Taliban, had threatened to end the accord by July 15 if the Pakistan Army troops redeployed at several roadside checkpoints in North Waziristan were not withdrawn. They termed it a violation of the controversial peace accord signed last year on September 5.
The Bush administration has supported Musharraf's pledge to root out extremists. But in a wave of media interviews, national security adviser Stephen Hadley said that the previous agreement had not been working, reports the British Broadcasting Corp.
"We have seen the Taleban pooling, planning and training in the north-west territories in Pakistan. There was an agreement with the tribal chiefs that President Musharraf did. It is not working the way he wanted, it is not working the way we want it," Mr Hadley said.
In an interview with CNN, Mr Hadley said, "He [President Musharraf] has a safe haven problem in an area of his country where Pakistan's central government has really not been present for decades or even generations."
As the turbulent North Waziristan region and other tribal areas descend even further into lawlessness, the US has pledged to help by providing $750 million to Pakistan's tribal areas over the next five years. US officials hope the aid money will work as part of a campaign to win the "hearts and minds" of residents of the tribal region. However, The New York Times reports that even the Pakistani government has warned that the lack of oversight in the region may make the US aid initiative an ill-advised policy.
"Delivering $150 million in aid [the first installment in the five-year plan] to the tribal areas could very quickly make a few people rich and do almost nothing to provide opportunity and justice to the region," said Craig Cohen, the author of a recent study of United States-Pakistan relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Yet it is here in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, as the region is formally called, that Washington is intent on using the development aid as a counterinsurgency tool, according to a draft of the Agency for International Development plan given to The New York Times by an official who worked on it.
The Los Angeles Times reports that before the Red Mosque siege began, "grass-roots" organizations had begun calling for new elections to challenge Musharraf, who came to power in a military coup. The recent tension with militants has many speculating that the Pakistani president will use the recent security breakdown as an excuse to postpone elections.
The turmoil has heightened speculation that Musharraf, who is also the chief of Pakistan's military, might cite the growing threat posed by militants as justification for declaring a state of emergency and putting off elections scheduled for this year.
Before the mosque raid, Musharraf had been under pressure from a grass-roots democracy movement to renounce his army post and allow free and fair balloting. But public sentiment indicated support for his decision to use force on those holed up inside the mosque, which had become the center of a vigilante-style, anti-vice campaign.
Even amid the tensions, there is already a public outcry against Musharraf. The Christian Science Monitor reported that Pakistanis sang a pop song strongly criticizing Musharraf during rallies for the chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was controversially dismissed by Musharraf.
The eight-year rule of General Musharraf has never felt shakier. Ever since Chaudhry's dismissal, tensions have only escalated. The bloody confrontation last week between police forces and radical Islamic students in the heart of the capital, Islamabad, has underscored for many that Musharraf is unable to effectively manage the host of crises now engulfing him. How could the regime allow extremists to mobilize in the capital for months, before switching gears to all-out confrontation with them, many newspaper editorials have wondered aloud.
"It's a contemporary folk song," explains Aitzaz Ahsan, Chaudhry's chief lawyer in the ongoing Supreme Court trial challenging the chief justice's dismissal. "And contemporary folk songs, like country music, mirror the deep-felt feeling of the people."