If a $25 million reward didn’t get anyone to betray Osama bin Laden and his comfortable underground headquarters in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border, who is the genius who thought $50 million might do the trick? A senior intel type, mimicking bin Laden listening to the news of the new ransom in mock horror, turns to his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, “Man, now we’re in real trouble.”
There are many people, including Pakistani officers in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, who know where bin Laden is, protected by fiercely loyal tribal chiefs in the Hindu Kush mountain fastness. Fierce Pushtun tribesmen who populate the seven FATA territories belong to the 1 billion Earthlings who make $2 a day or less. Bin Laden is their hero, (President) Pervez Musharraf, their enemy.
Two of Pakistan’s four provinces — the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan — border Afghanistan. Both are governed by Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of six politico-religious parties, admirers of the al Qaeda leader and friends of Taliban chief Mullah Omar. NWFP passed a law setting up a Taliban-style department under a cleric to enforce Islamic morality.
NWFP’s Chief Minister Akram Khan Durrani, campaigned against U.S. attacks on Afghanistan and Mr. Musharraf’s surrender to U.S. “diktats,” and won by a landslide. Public opinion polls in those two provinces have shown President Bush outvoted by bin Laden 10-to-1. Mr. Durrani had no compunction telling this reporter about his Taliban likes and American dislikes.
These widespread sentiments persuaded Mr. Musharraf to sign cease-fire agreements with tribal leaders in North Waziristan Sept. 5, 2006. The Pakistani army was to withdraw to its cantonments after losing some 700 killed and 2,500 wounded in a losing campaign conducted at the behest of his friend at the White House, widely resented by the military. In return, the tribal chiefs agreed to disarm Taliban fighters and al Qaeda operatives, and keep all troublemakers on Pakistan’s side of the border.
The compact was a sham from the get-go. The paper signed by tribal chiefs was, in effect, a deal with Taliban, whose guerrillas continued to cross the mythical border with impunity. Mr. Musharraf’s perceived weakness was rewarded with the affair of the “Red Mosque” in Islamabad. Last January, religious extremists took over a mosque and two schools that occupied two square blocks a stone’s throw from parliament and the presidential palace.
The ubiquitous ISI, heavily involved in domestic politics, kept tabs on the black market weaponry smuggled into the mosque compound including rocket-propelled grenade launchers, scores of boxes of grenades, anti-aircraft missiles (against helicopters), and AK-47s. Retired ISI chief Hamid Gul, fiercely anti-American, and a “strategic adviser” to MMA, praised the two brothers, both long-bearded clerics, for standing up to U.S. puppets now running Pakistan.
Religious zealots sallied out of the Red (-colored) Mosque to close a Chinese-supplied rehabilitation facility (detaining six Chinese women they accused of supplying sexual massages, embarrassing Mr. Musharraf and angering close ally China). They also vandalized video and music stores.
Finally, an exasperated Mr. Musharraf ordered the army to close the mosque and arrest the troublemakers. A 10-day siege ensued with heavy firing from both sides — and well more than 200 men, women and children killed, not the less than 100 conceded by the government. Authorities supplied 500 shrouds. The bodies were burned and buried inside the compound.
Under heavy U.S. pressure to do something about al Qaeda and Taliban bases in FATA, a reluctant Mr. Musharraf ordered the army back into action in North and South Waziristan. Well-entrenched fighters, anticipating the move, ambushed a Pakistani convoy, killing 80 soldiers the first week. A roadside bomb killed another 17.
In the rest of the country, protests continued against Mr. Musharraf’s summary dismissal of the country’s chief justice, who had objected — government denials notwithstanding — to green-lighting another five years for Mr. Musharraf as both president and army chief. A suicide bomber killed 16 near one of the rallies in central Islamabad. The Pakistani Supreme Court then decided to override Mr. Musharraf’s decision and reinstated Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry, yet another blow to the president’s hold on power.
Mr. Musharraf has never seriously cracked down on religious zealots who want him dead for “capitulating” to President Bush. And he now finds himself on the horns of a painful dilemma. He can see what most of the world perceives as an inevitable humiliating U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, followed by a collapse of the NATO consensus in Afghanistan.
Both the Dutch and Canadian parliaments and media, two countries that have sustained killed and wounded in Afghanistan, are reacting much the same way as Democrats and some Republicans do in Washington over U.S. losses in a no-win conflict in Iraq. But Mr. Musharraf knows he cannot afford to ignore President Bush’s resolve in the light of a new National Intelligence Estimate, which said publicly and unequivocally al Qaeda and its Taliban allies are back in business in FATA — big time.
“Mr. Bush will give him a little more time to establish his bona fides against the terrorists in FATA” said one former CIA operative who once served in Peshawar. And if he doesn’t? U.S. Special Forces will have to move in, backed up by Predators and other unmanned bombers.
Easier said than done. Both the army and ISI oppose the operation now under way. Many junior officers, who grew up with a madrassa (Koranic school) education, sympathize with MMA’s religious zealots. Junior air force officers were also involved in one of the nine assassination attempts on Mr. Musharraf’s life. But if Mr. Musharraf doesn’t act decisively, he risks losing more than $1 billion a year in U.S. aid, as well as U.S. air strikes and U.S. Special Forces operations inside Pakistan, which would most likely lead to an ISI-engineered coup against him.