Musharraf’s big chance

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During my recent meeting with President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad, it was apparent Pakistan has been sinking deeper into inner turmoil. The intensity of radicalism in the tribal areas and throughout the country is an ever-growing threat to the Musharraf government.

The recent Red Mosque standoff, which was promoting the Talibanization of Pakistan and culminated in a government raid, proved that violence from radical Islamists had now reached Islamabad. In the clashes that have followed, some 170 people died in insurgent attacks.

This recent upsurge in violence may finally force Mr. Musharraf to take a hard-line stance against radicals. His not doing so may precipitate a U.S. tactical intervention over the Afghan border to quell cross border raids on the Taliban. This is an eventuality neither Mr. Musharraf nor the U.S. would like to see.

Since the September 2006 peace agreement, al Qaeda has enjoyed a virtual safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the northern border with Afghanistan. By pulling back barracks and removing military checkpoints, Mr. Musharraf hoped for peaceful co-existence with this troubled region, but the deal gave the Taliban and al Qaeda breathing room.

The recently released National Intelligence Estimate confirms this, saying al Qaeda has “regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability.” Indeed, a CIA official recently testified on Capitol Hill that al Qaeda appears “to be fairly well settled into the safe haven in the ungoverned spaces of Pakistan…. We see more training. We see more money. We see more communications.” For the sake of our security, we had better see action.

The FATA should not be overlooked, the way many turned a blind eye to the radicalization of Afghanistan under the Taliban’s control. Allowed to operate freely, terrorists were able to train and plot virtually unimpeded. The attacks on America of September 11, 2001, were the result.

Past efforts by Mr. Musharraf to bring order to the FATA have failed. His offers of amnesty to militant tribals who “surrender,” while fighting those who resist, did little to rid the region of Islamist radicals. Other fighting has done little to uproot tribal ties to the Taliban and al Qaeda, bringing sizable death tolls to both sides while further entrenching distrust between the FATA and Islamabad.

One reason for its failure to root out radicalism in the FATA has been Islamabad’s unwillingness to fight the Taliban with the same ferocity it has fought al Qaeda. Radical religious schools or madrassas throughout the country have long spewed anti-American sentiment and continue to radicalize the FATA.

The Musharraf government has placated the U.S. while refusing to sever ties with the Taliban. Its timely capture of notable Taliban leaders have routinely corresponded with high-level U.S. visits, as in the apprehension of the Taliban’s former defense minister, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, caught just hours after Vice President Dick Cheney met with Mr. Musharraf. The recent events at the Red Mosque severed these ties, however.

While human-rights pressures can be quelled by granting greater government transparency and increased political rights, the Islamist fundamentalists can not be reasonably addressed. Those holed up in the Red Mosque did not seek free and fair elections. Their goal is a Taliban-type rule based entirely on Islamic law.

Mr. Musharraf’s livelihood has been tied to U.S. good will. Nothing would better help secure his place as an ally of the U.S. government than the presentation of Osama bin Laden, who is believed to have found refuge in Pakistan. With a total of nearly $5 billion (or an average of $80 million per month) in aid disbursed to Islamabad since 2002, we had better see some return on our investment.

Doubts will rightly exist. If Mr. Musharraf will not take the necessary steps though, then it may force Washington’s hand to deal with the FATA on its own. This last weekend the Bush administration suggested this.

Our direct action would run the risk of further destabilizing Pakistan. That would be weighed against the risk of another large-scale attack on the homeland. Given the stakes, let’s hope Mr. Musharraf’s Red Mosque moment proves to be a milestone in a battle against militancy.

Ed Royce, California Republican, is ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade Subcommittee.

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