The recent bombings in Pakistan's tribal areas — one a hotly disputed explosion at an alleged terrorist training facility in Miran Shah in North Waziristan, which killed over 30 persons, followed within days by a concerted shelling by NATO forces on North and South Waziristan killing over 33 persons, including women and children — have the potential of pitting President Pervez Musharraf, this time, against U.S. interests in Afghanistan in the months ahead.
The United States wants the Taliban to remain confined to areas in southern Afghanistan and not gain more ground to threaten the fragile government of Hamid Karzai. Pakistan views the Taliban as a strategic tool to keep a finger in the pie and hence is keen to keep it alive and growing. This divergence of interest is reflected most aptly in the tribal areas, particularly south and North Waziristan where Pakistani forces, sometimes collaborating with the U.S. forces, have been trying to gain an upper hand since 2002, without much success.
After the Pakistan army's botched operation in the spring of 2004, the region has become a staging ground for global terrorists, spawning countless offshoots of extremist elements across the world.
There is growing fear in the western world, particularly in the United States about the possibility of these terror networks operating out of the region to launch another September 11 attack. The United States is therefore keen on carrying out covert operations in the region to neutralize the network at the earliest. The recent bombings are part of this campaign which has been in progress, very cautiously, since last year. It is quite obvious that any overt U.S. operation on Pakistani soil will spell serious trouble for Mr. Musharraf, besieged by a host of troubles at home.
Although the Pakistan army has denied any U.S. role in the bombing of the mosque in Miran Shah, there is increasing evidence, as reported in the Pakistani media, that the U.S. Special Forces had used a new weapon system known as High Mobility Artillery Rockets, or "Himars" which can be configured to shoot a wide array of rockets and missiles, from cluster bombs to a single missile system up to a range of up to 300 kilometers. U.S. Special Forces are deployed in the Khost province of Afghanistan which is quite close to Miran Shah.
The bombings may not really threaten Mr. Musharraf for the time being, but it is certain to raise more than merely eyebrows within his army and might add to the discontentment which has been brewing in the forces for quite sometime. The October 2006 bombing of a mosque in Bajaur agency and the January 2007 bombing of another building in the same area did trigger questions at a corps commanders' conference. The Army commanders were not pleased with the bombing of its own citizens and, according to media reports, the president was questioned on the decision to allow U.S. forces to operate in Pakistani territory.
Fears were expressed that such bombings in the tribal areas could split the army. More than 700 soldiers have been killed in the military campaign in North Waziristan alone since 2004, and at least six mid-level army officers have been court-martialed for refusing to fight. This growing dissent within the officer corps was probably one of the reasons Mr. Musharraf negotiated a truce with tribal leaders and pull back troops from Waziristan.
What might jeopardize Mr. Musharraf's calculations would be the growing impatience within NATO and the U.S. security establishment for his over-cautious approach in dealing with the Taliban and al Qaeda elements fighting the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. In the Western media, there is increasing skepticism about on Mr. Musharraf's Waziristan truce, reflecting in substantial measure the views gaining ground in the Capitol Hill. Mr. Musharraf went into the truce with the tribal leaders more in a bid to prevent any backlash from the army leadership rather than, as he presented to Washington, to prevent al Qaeda and the Taliban from regrouping in Waziristan and other areas in FATA.
Within Pakistan, there is an equally strong opinion that Mr. Musharraf's gamble in Waziristan has failed, putting him in a no-win situation. While the United States and its allies involved in Afghanistan are bound to lean heavily on Mr. Musharraf to rein in al Qaeda and the Taliban, the recent bombings are likely to raise questions about his ability to protect the sovereignty of the country and embroil him deeper in the simmering civilian and military discontent. There is no way Mr. Musharraf can send in the troops a second time without facing serious dissension within the ranks.
There are already signs of these unprovoked American bombings in the tribal areas fortifying religious hardliners and extremist forces not only in Waziristan but also in other parts of Pakistan, particularly in North West Frontier Province, threatening to upset Mr. Musharraf's fragile hold over Pakistan.
Wilson John is a senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.