Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
There have been many contradictory reports this week about whether Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, had died. Pakistan’s Geo television channel said that the leader of the Pakistani Taliban had died of kidney failure after a long illness, while a Taliban spokesman dismissed the report.
I’m not going to add to that speculation here. What does strike me, though, is that the attention paid to talk of Mehsud’s death was greater than that given to reports that frequently do the rounds about the fate of Osama bin Laden.
In a detailed profile in the Long War Journal, the author writes that Mehsud is now considered to be “a threat as big as, or bigger than, even Osama bin Laden”. A guerrilla leader credited with uniting many of Pakistan’s often disparate militants under the banner of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan late last year, Mehsud gained worldwide notoriety when he was accused of involvement in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto – an accusation he has denied.
So does Osama bin Laden matter any more?
As the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, it is Mehsud, rather than bin Laden, who is seen as the leader of a movement that has fuelled a series of bomb attacks inside Pakistan, and challenged any attempt by the Pakistan Army to tame the tribal areas along Pakistan’s border which are home to both Pakistani and Afghan insurgents.
Depending on who you read, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari was either an embarrassment for trying to flirt with Sarah Palin during his trip to New York last week, or a street-smart wheeler-dealer bravely standing up to Islamist militancy after the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto.
Time revisits the encounter between Zardari and Palin – in which he told the vice-presidential candidate she was gorgeous and threatened to hug her in a scene now frequently being replayed on YouTube – writing that it led to Zardari being “pilloried at home as a source of national embarrassment and accused of sexism and impropriety”.
Just two days after a suicide bomb attack on the Marriott killed 53 people in the heart of Islamabad, there were reports of trouble both on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and on the Line of Control with India.
On the Afghan border, Pakistani troops fired on two U.S. helicopters that intruded into Pakistani airspace on Sunday night, forcing them to turn back to Afghanistan, according to a senior Pakistani security official. On the Indian side, Pakistani and Indian troops exchanged fire across the Line of Control dividing Kashmir, in the latest breach of a ceasefire agreed in 2003. And as if that was not enough, Afghanistan’s top diplomat was kidnapped in Peshawar.
Both the United States and Osama bin Laden are losing support in Pakistan, according to the latest Pew Global Attitudes report released this week (download the full PDF report to see details on Pakistan).
The poll, conducted before the resignation of former President Pervez Musharraf, showed faith in U.S. intentions towards democracy was weaker than ever - only 20 percent believed the United States favoured democracy in Pakistan, down from 39 percent in 2005.
One of the more recurrent themes in U.S. political punditry these days is the need to nudge India and Pakistan towards peace. The theory is that this would bolster the new civilian government in Islamabad by encouraging trade and economic development, reduce a rivalry that threatens regional stability, including in Afghanistan, and limit the role of the Pakistan Army, whose traditional dominance has been fuelled by a perceived threat from India.
So what are the chances of progress? (assuming the latest bombings just being reported in Delhi do not trigger a new downwards spiral)
Last week, after U.S. forces were reported to have launched their first ground assault in Pakistan, the website Registan.net asked the obvious question: “Did We Just Invade Pakistan?” Nearly a week and several missile attacks by U.S. drones later, I am still pondering the same question.
We have just witnessed what may have been the most sustained U.S. military action against targets inside Pakistan, not just since 2001, but since 1947 when the country was founded. Yet it is not any clearer what is going on. The Council on Foreign Relations has produced an excellent round-up of media reports on Pakistan, published by the Washington Post. But I’d defy anyone to read through them and come up with a coherent hypothesis that does not immediately run into a contradiction. Here are some of the ideas being discussed:
The irony is hard to miss. Just as Pakistan is struggling with the fallout of the first known breach of its territorial sovereignty by U.S. ground troops and all the odium associated with it in a proud nation, India has been welcomed into the nuclear high table, almost entirely at America’s behest.
Two unrelated events but coming days apart seemed to underline the divergent paths the two nations are embarked upon. One has a gun pointed to it; the other is being wooed.
Senator Barack Obama has accused Pakistan of misusing U.S. military aid meant to help it fight al Qaeda and the Taliban to prepare for war against India. In an interview with Fox News he also says the United States must put more pressure on Pakistan to crack down on Islamist militants, hold it accountable for increased military support, and be prepared to act aggressively against al Qaeda; “if we have bin Laden in our sights, we target him and we knock him out,” he says. However he adds that “nobody talked about some full-blown invasion of Pakistan.”
The latter part of his comments is not that new, nor indeed that different from the policies of the current U.S. administration. But it is his comment about India that has been seized upon by the media in South Asia. ”We are providing them military aid without having enough strings attached. So they’re using the military aid that we use, to Pakistan, they’re preparing for war against India,” he says.
“There’s a vast majority, a significant middle of the population of Pakistan (that) is democratic and middle-class. But what’s happening is, absent free elections, you’re forcing them underground, radicalizing them, and you’re giving great sway to that portion of the population that’s already radicalized,” he was quoted as saying.
KABUL (Reuters) – Intelligence reports said insurgents planned an ambush or might have planted an Improvised Explosive Device under the bridge west of Kandahar so a patrol was sent to check it out. “Probably bullshit,” said the U.S. major. “But we got to go take a look.”