Daily Times : Pakistan’s Al Qaeda zone poses dilemma for Musharraf

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Pakistan’s Al Qaeda zone poses dilemma for Musharraf

* Analysts say Musharraf unlikely to conduct full-scale operation against militants

ISLAMABAD: With conditions in Pakistan reaching a boiling point, President Pervez Musharraf faces a tough dilemma in the militant-infested frontier zone where Al Qaeda’s leaders are allegedly holed up, analysts say.

The US has pressured the president to use the momentum from last week’s operation against Lal Masjid to launch a decisive operation along the frontier. Meanwhile, Taliban militants in North Waziristan cancelled a peace deal signed with the government last September, increasing the sense of insecurity. However, analysts say Musharraf also knows that the region’s fiercely independent tribes have “bloodied the noses” of all who have tried to subdue them.

“Musharraf is in a very difficult position with very limited choices,” Rasool Bakhsh Raees, professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management and Sciences, told AFP. He said the president had been “considerably weakened” by a political crisis over the suspension of Pakistan’s chief justice. Musharraf should not push the limits of the public support for the Lal Masjid raid, he added. “The use of force has to be very prudent, you cannot crack everybody’s head and [then] hope to relax. That is equally dangerous,” Raees said.

Force has rarely been a successful policy in the tribal areas. The region provided thousands jihadis against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s — and welcomed back Taliban and Al Qaeda militants who fled the US-led invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11..

Army operations in North Waziristan and neighbouring South Waziristan to drive out the Taliban have left more than 700 soldiers and 1,000 militants dead, while angering the Pashtuns. This led to the signing of several peace agreements between the government and tribal elders. However, US and NATO officials have slammed the accords, saying they have led to an increase in multinational troops fighting the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Washington has even stated that Al Qaeda has regrouped in the region and used the peace pacts to enhance its ability to carry out attacks on international targets.

Political analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert in Afghan and tribal affairs, said it was unlikely Musharraf would go for an onslaught against the militants in the tribal areas. “I don’t think he can afford to,” Yusufzai said. “In Islamabad he had to do something, it was hurting his image. But this is a very different situation.”

Operations in Waziristan — which effectively pit Pakistani troops against Pakistani tribesmen — were often unpopular with the army’s rank and file, he said, not least because of the danger involved. Yusufzai said the government was focusing on efforts to exploit divisions within the Taliban militants operating in the tribal areas, some of who want to expel foreign militants in line with the government’s wishes.s.

Even less likely is an operation on the Swat Valley just outside the tribal zone, which was the site of several attacks in the last week and where a radical militant cleric with ties to the mosque, Maulana Fazlullah, is based. “Musharraf will not do anything abruptly. He knows the consequences,” Yusufzai added.