- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2007

The eruption of violence resulting in many casualties in Pakistan when the Islamists entrenched in the Red Mosque in Islamabad clashed with government troops storming the compound is just the tip of the jihadi iceberg President Pervez Musharraf faces.

Islamist groups outlawed by the Pakistani government several years ago fell back on social networks, a classic strategy of Islamist organizations, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Tracking their moves has become almost impossible for security and intelligence services. Despite their disregard of most everything Western and/or modern, Islamist groups have not shied away from using modern electronic communication facilities.

“They communicate via text messages, which is very difficult to trace,” said Alexis Debat, director of the Nixon Center’s program on terror and national security and just back from a fact-finding mission to Pakistan. Islamists linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network have found many sympathizers in Pakistan’s intelligence service known as the ISI.

Mr. Debat questions the reliability of the ISI, whose loyalty to the regime has long been in doubt. “With all its eyes and ears,” said Mr. Debat referring to the thousands of ISI informants, “they did not seem to know what was going on inside the mosque. Indeed, they should have known.

“What struck me in the mosque was the extraordinary quality of military organization. It had been turned into a fort. The people who set up the defenses were extremely professional. Very clearly this was a military operation set up to… to suck the Pakistani government into a confrontation.”

The jihadi infrastructure is extremely coherent, said Mr. Debat, He says the crisis shows the Pakistani government clearly must learn new ways to address that issue. It’s also very clear nothing the United States or the Pakistani government has done to combat the Islamists has had any effect.

The outcome of the army’s attack on the Red Mosque compound, where massive amounts of arms and ammunition were found, led to reprisals by the Islamists on Pakistani military and police forces, resulting in many deaths.

The radicals are entrenched mostly in remote regions bordering Afghanistan, where they share the same culture and religious beliefs with neighboring Afghan tribes. Pakistan’s limited efforts to dislodge them has proven futile.

“Clearly the military option has not worked,” said Mr. Debat. “You flank them out of one area, they appear in another.” Given the region’s remoteness, the extreme difficulty in securing the border area and the radicals’ support from their coreligionists on the Afghan side of the border, Mr. Musharraf seems to tread water with no alternative plans on dealing with the dilemma. “The truth is that there is no Plan B when it comes to tribal areas,” said Mr. Debat.

The Bush administration should become more serious about fixing Pakistan, said Mr. Debat.

Mr. Musharraf is now at a dangerous junction, in the midst of the intersection with heavily loaded freight trucks speeding toward him. If he does nothing, the Islamists will end up far more powerful, and with sympathizers in the country’s intelligence services, they are one successful assassination attempt away from the presidency. So far, there have been nine attempts on Mr. Musharraf’s life.

Continued military assaults against the Islamists, as mentioned earlier, failed to produce tangible results.

More cooperation with the United States is placing Mr. Musharraf in even more negative light with many of his citizens. One avenue that seems to be left open to Mr. Musharraf is to extend an offer of reconciliation to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

But, again, can she fix Pakistan? For Mr. Debat, the former prime minister in exile may be part of the problem rather than the solution. “You have to shake Pakistani society to the core,” he said. “I don’t see her doing that.”

Fixing Pakistan will require much more U.S. and World Bank involvement, said Mr. Debat and other experts.

Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar with the Middle East Institute, and an expert on Pakistan said, “There is no coherent program among Pakistani political groups.” Most politicians’ strategy is to regain power and keep it.

“Without a sense of vision,” said Mr. Weinbaum, “Pakistan is headed back to the 1990s.” Meaning the years of political turmoil. To break a mindset, you need an alternative. Mr. Musharraf does not have the alternative. Most likely neither will Mrs. Bhutto.

The Islamists look around them. They look to Afghanistan where NATO forces will most likely not hold much longer, eventually retreating and leaving the Afghanis to sort out their own mess. They turn to Iraq again, where the United States will eventually pull out its military, leaving the Iraqis to their own destiny. And they count on the same short attention span that the West, and particularly the United States, has when it comes to foreign policy.

Most American politicians think in four year increments — from one presidential election to the next. And with the change of administration usually comes a change of policy. Any government or political entity wishing to do business with the current administration, knows it simply must wait at most four years before all the rules change.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.