Wednesday, March 8, 2006

In private huddles with American interlocutors, Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf agrees, in principle, with any U.S. concept or notional future option for the war on terrorism. No sooner is the U.S. visitor airborne than survival instincts dictate how fighting is done every step of the way.

In Pakistan, the military ruler’s “yes” or “no” is only an interim response. This convoluted modus operandi prompted President Bush, on his 24-hour, first-time visit to a Pakistani capital city in total lockdown, to say, “Part of my mission today was to determine whether or not the president is as committed as he has been in the past to bringing these terrorists to justice, and he is.” But Mr. Musharraf is also hemmed in by six politico-religious parties — known as the Muttahidda Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA coalition — that govern the two provinces that border Afghanistan and whose followers sympathize with al Qaeda and Taliban.

A pariah under the Clinton administration, Pakistan’s promotion to “major non-NATO ally” by Mr. Bush applies primarily to Pervez Musharraf. The people he rules are overwhelmingly anti-U.S., and, according to public opinion surveys, trust Osama bin Laden more than President Bush. Mr. Musharraf’s perpetual motion machine is a death-defying balancing act between pleasing Mr. Bush and not provoking the pro-jihadist elements that run Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province, control 25 percent of the federal assembly, and see Mr. Bush as the villain and bin Laden as the hero.

In India, Mr. Bush has a 70 percent favorable rating; in Pakistan, it’s 70 percent unfavorable. MMA leaders Sami ul-Haq and Fazlur Rehman kept repeating publicly and in the media Mr. Bush is in Islamabad “to reward Musharraf for having enslaved Pakistan to Bush’s dictates.”

This explains (1) why there have been eight known assassination plots to kill Mr. Musharraf and (2) why Osama bin Laden and his No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri have eluded arrest since they escaped from the battle of Tora Bora in Dec. 2001.

When the Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) is told to redouble its efforts to find the al Qaeda pair in North or South Waziristan along the Afghan border, the motto seems to be, “If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence you ever tried.”

Angered by U.S. drone airstrikes on al Qaeda “safe houses” inside Pakistan, the “cartoon war” lingered in Pakistan long after it petered out in the Middle East and Europe. Mobs went on trashing symbols of U.S. consumer culture — Pizza Hut, KFC, McDonald’s and others — in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.

A week before Mr. Bush arrived, the Pakistani army, backed by attack helicopters, swooped down on a suspected al Qaeda base, killed 45 foreign fighters, including an al Qaeda Chechen commander. Normally, the 80,000 Pakistani soldiers along a 1,400-mile border remain in fixed mountainside machine-gun positions, with interlocking fields of fire, that are less effective than the Border Patrols along the Rio Grande.

The day before Mr. Bush arrived, a suicide-bomber killed a U.S. diplomat and three others in Karachi. And as Mr. Bush conferred with Mr. Musharraf, militants counterattacked in North Waziristan and briefly occupied the district capital of Miramshah before being chased out by Pakistani gunships. At least 120 were killed on both sides.

Taliban militants now call the shots throughout Waziristan except for Miramshah and Wana, headquarters for the Pakistani “political agent” in south Waziristan.

The last time the Pakistani army ventured out of fixed positions in 2004 to take on the now well-entrenched remnants of Taliban and al Qaeda in the two Waziristans, at least 300 Pakistani soldiers were killed and almost 1,000 wounded. There are an estimated 1,500 foreign fighters, now living in these regions, married to local women, and who have become part of the larger tribal family. They are Tajiks, Uzbeks, Chechens and several Arab nationalities. Pakistani gunships wiped out a training facility at Saidgai that was shared by several mud-baked villages. But government ground troops are under orders not to breach the sanctity of private homes.

Pashtun tribesmen who worship Osama bin Laden and hate the military interlopers populate these Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where the Pakistani Army was kept out by treaty for the last half-century since independence.

Mr. Musharraf first ordered them in at President Bush’s behest, to block retreating al Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas who had escaped the U.S. bombing of the Tora Bora mountain range.

Pakistani soldiers, witnessed at that time on the ground by this reporter, moved slowly and got to the Tirah Valley three days after bin Laden and his party had made their getaway on horseback. SUVs with darkened windows awaited them — and they headed off toward Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, on Nov. 9, 2001.

For the Pakistani Army, heeding a U.S. demand to ditch their Taliban allies after September 11, 2001, was tantamount to abandoning its defense in depth in case of Indian aggression. The confrontation with India over Kashmir was the army’s original raison d’etre.

After last October’s massive earthquake on both sides of the Kashmir demarcation line between Pakistani and Indian forces, relief operations, mostly on the Pakistan side, overshadowed erstwhile confrontation between the two nuclear powers.

Nor did the Pakistani Army relish the idea of a third front, this one in Baluchistan that borders on Iran and Afghanistan. It was the fourth insurrection in Baluchistan since 1939, when it was still part of India. Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, is where Taliban officials, chased out of Afghanistan by U.S. forces in late 2001, reside with impunity, protected by ISI and the provincial government, itself a coalition of religious parties that empathize with bin Laden and Taliban.

Baluchistasn also is a base for a resurgent Taliban in four of Afghanistan’s border provinces — Kandahar, Helmand, Kunar and Paktika. U.S. troops will be disengaging from some of these areas this spring to be replaced by NATO contingents from Europe. Now trained by veterans of the Iraqi insurgency in suicide bombing and Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) techniques and tactics, Taliban hopes to demoralize a soon-to-arrive Dutch battalion by inflicting casualties to arouse antiwar sentiment in the Netherlands.

Bill Clinton’s description of Pakistan during his last year in the White House was and still is accurate: “The most dangerous place in the world.” Who gets control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal after the Musharraf political era remains unanswerable.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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