Asia Times : From Washington to war in Waziristan

Sunday, October 21, 2007

From Washington to war in Waziristan

By Syed Saleem Shahzad | October 11, 2007

A dramatic sequence of events in Pakistan has grabbed global attention, but few have so far connected the dots between the hurried issuance of a National Reconciliation Ordinance on October 5 and the savage fighting that is currently raging in the North Waziristan tribal area.

The National Reconciliation Ordinance, issued by President-elect General Pervez Musharraf, grants immunity to current and former lawmakers who have been accused of corruption. It paves the way for a political settlement between Musharraf and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, which is expected to result in a civilian-based consensus government after parliamentary elections in about three months' time.

The ordinance was issued just 24 hours before Musharraf’s reelection as president, yet only three days prior to the Musharraf-Bhutto deal, which is what the ordinance amounts to, Musharraf’s representatives had declined to accept Bhutto’s conditions.

And within 12 hours of Musharraf's reelection, he was commanding what has become the most bloody military operation against al-Qaeda and Taliban in North Waziristan.

On October 1, Bhutto announced in disillusionment that talks on a political settlement with Musharraf were completely stalled. Islamabad had categorically rejected Bhutto’s demand for tangible confirmation of a guarantee that if she supported Musharraf’s bid for the presidency and the formation of a new government after parliamentary elections, she would be absolved of all corruption charges pending against her in national and international courts. A verbal assurance that the cases would be withdrawn was not enough for the twice elected former premier, whose previous governments were both removed on charges of corruption.

News of the breakdown in the dialogue reached Washington - the chief broker of a Bhutto-Musharraf settlement - in a very short time. Indeed, Pakistan’s political transition is the most important link in US strategy in the southwest Asian region and to some extent in the Middle East. The US State Department's Richard Boucher has visited Pakistan and United Arab Emirates (where Bhutto has been living) six times in the past nine months in an attempt to reconcile Musharraf and Bhutto and thus ensure a friendly government in Islamabad, thus retaining an ally in the "war on terror" as well as curbing any adventurous designs by the Pakistani military and safeguarding Pakistan’s nuclear assets.

While last week's political machinations were under way in Pakistan, the US was providing intelligence to Islamabad about a massive regrouping of the Taliban in the Pakistani tribal areas in preparation for a big campaign against NATO forces in southeast Afghanistan. The US feared that a disruption of the political dialogue would mean a hiatus in Pakistan’s political transition, and delay military operations against the thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces gathering in North Waziristan before launching attacks on the Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Gardez and Ghazni, and then Kabul with unending waves of suicide missions. If the Taliban were allowed to hatch their plans unmolested during a political vacuum in Islamabad, Washington believed the Taliban would seize the upper hand in Afghanistan.

That was the situation when a representative of the US spoke to Bhutto and noted her minimum demand for a political deal: “At least a signed letter by General Pervez Musharraf which would document his promises against my demands.” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice then spoke to Musharraf by telephone, and immediately thereafter, Musharraf’s legal team promulgated the National Reconciliation Ordinance.

In Pakistan, certain circles are immune from ordinary legal recourse. Corruption in the military, for example, can only be probed and punished by the military. Under the new reconciliation ordinance, politicians and parliamentarians can now only be questioned by parliamentary committees and not through ordinary laws, and all past corruption cases against those who have held political positions in the past have been withdrawn. Some analysts have criticized the ordinance as permitting the rise of the rule of political mafias in Pakistan.

As soon as ordinance was issued, Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party separated itself from other opposition parties and did not resign from the assemblies. However, the party remained firm on its "principled stand" that it would abstain in Musharraf's reelection vote. Musharraf swept the election as there was virtually nobody to oppose him.

Within a day of Musharraf's victory, Pakistani F-16 aircraft were flying sorties from Kohat Airbase to bomb the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali, acting on intelligence and satellite maps provided by US intelligence. Top al-Qaeda ideologues, reportedly including the group's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were believed to based in the town.

The fighting in the area is continuing for a fourth day, in what has become the biggest battle in the tribal areas since 2003. So far, over 600 casualties have been reported, the majority of them civilians. Several dozen militants have been killed. The Paksitani armed forces have reported 45 military casualties, but a jirga (assembly of elders) handed over 73 bodies of Pakistani soldiers to the commander of the 7th division of the Pakistan Army on Monday. Another jirga handed over 50 wounded soldiers to army commanders. The aerial bombardment continues, causing a mass migration of the local population to nearby cities.

The flames of Waziristan fires always reach Islamabad and Karachi. When Benazir Bhutto’s aircraft lands in Karachi on October 18, the battle of Waziristan will be reverberating there. The top commander of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, has already openly vowed to kill her, and a strong Taliban cell in Karachi is ready to perform the task.

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