Pakistan continues to lurch from one difficulty to another

The war in Afghanistan had spilled over into Pakistan long before the car/bus bomb explosion in Karachi on May 8 that killed 16 people, 11 of them French technicians working on Pakistan’s submarine project. General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, said that his country was “paying the price” for supporting the US war on “international terrorism”.

The people of Pakistan view the situation differently; the war on Afghanistan has been extremely unpopular in Pakistan (except for the small coterie of sycophants who applaud the ruler’s every policy, no matter how silly). Completely disregarding the wishes of Pakistan’s people, General Musharraf immediately jumped onto the American bandwagon after US president George Bush’s infamous threat, “You are either with us, or with the terrorists.” American policies were never popular in Pakistan; they are even more disliked since the US unleashed its might against Afghanistan on October 7 last year, slaughtering thousands of civilians.

While the identity of the perpetrators of the latest crime in Karachi is not yet known, fingers are being pointed at the usual suspects: al-Qaeda and Taliban supporters. The incident is undoubtedly a blow to Pakistan’s efforts to build its military strength. The French technicians were working on an Agosta-class submarine, three of which have been purchased from France. Only one has been delivered so far and the second was under construction at the Karachi shipyard. After the explosion France withdrew its remaining technicians from the country as the French defence minister arrived to confer with the Pakistani authorities. General Musharraf has called for an international inquiry into the incident, in order to ensure that if either India or Israel is found to be involved the world will not dismiss the finding as Pakistani propaganda.

There is great unease among Pakistanis about the expansion of US military operations, especially into Pakistan’s tribal areas of North and South Waziristan. These have been under way for several weeks, despite Pakistani denials, in operations that the Americans claim are aimed at al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants.

Several madrassas in Miran Shah, the main city in North Waziristan, have been raided by the Americans, with many students and teachers roughed up. There have also been reports in the Pakistani media, especially the Peshawar-based Frontier Post (May 6), that Taliban/al-Qaeda fighters captured at least 83 American soldiers near Khost. The Frontier Post cited this as the main reason for US operations in Waziristan.

According to Afghan sources, there are also some Canadians among the captured soldiers. If this is true, it may explain the heated debate in Canadian military circles about whether to extend Canada’s role in Afghanistan beyond the July 15 deadline. The other reason, of course, is the attack on April 18 by American planes that killed four Canadian soldiers and wounded several others. There has been little mention of this in the US, much less an apology for attacking and killing Canadian soldiers who are in Afghanistan to fight America’s war.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, two madrassa teachers – Mufti Altamash and Maulana Khizar Hayat, both of the Jami’at-ul Ulama-e Islam (Fazlur Rahman group) – were arrested by Pakistan army personnel from Bannu on May 8 and taken to Peshawar for interrogation. Both are accused of having taught John Walker Lindh, the American-born Talib, who was captured in Mazaar-e Shareef last November. Lindh is currently in a US jail awaiting trial on charges of waging war on America and plotting to kill American soldiers.

There was an immediate reaction to the two teachers’ arrest; Jami’at-ul Ulama-e Islam held an emergency meeting and a rally in Lakki Gate chowk (square) in Bannu, denouncing the army action and the military regime’s “alliance with the zionists.” The teachers’ arrest may be to do with the hunt for evidence against Lindh to be used at his trial in August. In the on-going war in Afghanistan, the US military has announced continuous “counter-insurgency” operations on both sides of the border with Pakistan that could go on beyond the summer, according to a report on May 6 in the New York Times. Having discovered that neither air power nor the use of so-called friendly Afghans was proving effective against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, the US has now turned to using rapidly-moving allied soldiers aided by intensive intelligence-gathering elements.

The action, as the paper pointed out, however, carries considerable risks: of American casualties; of mistakenly attacking the wrong people (like the unfortunate Canadians); of being misled by faulty intelligence (as happened in Khost on December 21 and near Qandahar on January 24); and of inflaming local hostility to foreigners on Afghan soil. This is already happening with the Northern Alliance, whose members are becoming increasingly restless about the Americans’ overstay.

Similarly, the British are not amused at their commandos being used while the US’s 10th Mountain Division claims that it has “no experience” of fighting in the mountains! So much for America’s military prowess. The US obviously prefers that British rather than American soldiers be killed in the mountains of Afghanistan. But as the operations drag on, they are bound to cause both more American and more allied casualties; they will also draw in people from Pakistan’s tribal belt, where ethnic Pashtuns live on both sides of the border.

The Afghan scenario is further complicated by rivalries not only between the majority Pashtuns and the minority Tajiks but also between Tajik and Uzbek members of the ruling Northern Alliance. For three days (April 29 to May 2), forces loyal to deputy defence minister General Abdul-Rashid Dostum (an Uzbek) fought fierce battles with those loyal to General Atta Mohammad, a Tajik and an ally of defence minister general Fahim.

The UN brokered an uneasy ceasefire after at least 20 people were reported killed, but both sides have been arming their supporters for more showdowns. Similarly, there is complete lawlessness in the country outside Kabul city limits. In such an environment, it is highly unlikely that the Loya Jirga will be convened in June as stipulated in the Bonn Agreement; even if it is, it will be able to achieve little in these circumstances. Various players are jockeying for positions that are bound to result in more firefights. Afghans settle such matters not at the negotiating table but with their guns.

This is bound to embroil foreign troops in more local conflicts, making it more difficult for them to extricate themselves from the Afghan imbroglio. Foreigners are beginning to discover that the Afghans cannot be relied upon; that even the “friendly” ones can suddenly turn nasty. Americans and their allies are likely to get many such surprises if they decide to hang around much longer.