This article originally appears in The American Thinker
While the bloody, ongoing drama in Iraq continues to occupy the attention of most Americans, events in Pakistan threaten to upset the delicate balancing act that President Pervez Musharraf has been forced to perform with more conservative, anti-American factions in the government as well as pro-Taliban tribes ensconced along the border with Afghanistan.
The strike at a madrassa in the northern federally administered tribal area of Bajur that was aimed at killing al-Qaeda Number 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri may have missed its intended target. But original reports that it was the Pakistani military that carried out the attack seems to have been issued solely for Musharraf’s benefit; the facts on the ground as well as leaks from US military sources point to missiles being fired from a US Predator drone as the probable means by which several top level al-Qaeda leaders may have been killed along with dozens of Taliban and al-Qaeda recruits.
From Musharraf’s point of view, the revelation that the attack was probably carried out by Special Operations units designated as “Task Force 145” could not have come at a worse time. Already, his enemies are calling for demonstrations to protest what they say was Musharraf’s acquiescence in a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. And, according to analyst Bill Roggio, the attack put a crimp in Musharraf’s latest effort to appease the Taliban by signing an agreement with local terrorist leaders in Bajur that would remove the Pakistani army from the region and effectively deny the military the ability to prevent access to Afghanistan by the militants:
The strike came just as the Bajur accords were supposed to take place (similar to the Waziristan accords that now prevent Pakistan’s military from operating in that region). Officials within the Pakistani government were supposedly worried when early reports surfaced that Faqir Mohammed may have been killed. Faqir Mohammed is a Taliban leader in the region who would have been a major signatory to the accords: if he were killed, the Pakistanis wouldn’t know who could enter into the accords with them (or, to put it cynically, with Faqir Mohammed dead they wouldn’t know who they were supposed to surrender to). However, Mohammed survived. He apparently felt so confident in his safety that he gave an interview to NBC News at the scene near the blasted school, and also attended—and spoke at—the funeral for the 80 who died in the strike.
At this point, the Bajur Accords are on hold. While we will probably see some payback from al-Qaeda and the Taliban, my source noted that there’s not a whole lot more they can do: these groups tried to kill Musharraf less than a month ago, and are already carrying out terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
The agreement reached with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in North Waziristan, while hailed at the time by the US State Department and Musharraf as a victory against terrorism has actually proved to be an unmitigated disaster for NATO forces in Afghanistan. Taliban fighters poured across the undefended Pakistani border into Afghanistan by the hundreds. Recent battles between NATO and the terrorists have taken place at the battalion level with the Taliban attacking with small arms as well as rocket propelled grenades and mortars. While several hundred Taliban fighters were killed in these battles, both the numbers of attackers and the quality of their weaponry underscores the fact that Musharraf’s efforts to rein in al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the tribal areas of northern Pakistan have been an utter and complete failure.
Musharraf probably realized this from the outset of his negotiations with the Taliban in Waziristan (now referred to as “Talibanistan” by locals). And he couldn’t have been deaf to the repeated calls by NATO commanders in Afghanistan that he do more to seal the border areas where Islamic militants infiltrate and carry out attacks against NATO and Afghan civilians. Why then the “terrorist outreach” program with the pro-Taliban tribes in Bajur?
As was the case in North Waziristan, Musharraf has simply accepted the reality that he cannot do as Washington wishes and fight the growing extremist elements that threaten his hold on power with any kind of consistency or fervor. Anti-western feelings have become a powerful political force in Pakistan and any move by Musharraf that could be seen as getting closer to Washington or doing America’s bidding places his rule in jeopardy. His alliance with the religious parties in Parliament as well as his relationship with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has made any bold military moves against al-Qaeda or the Taliban nearly impossible.
Hence, his negotiations in Bajur should be as one more indication that Musharraf sees the temporary appeasement of the Taliban as his only “out.” There are indications that he did not follow through entirely with conditions he negotiated with the terrorists in North Waziristan – specifically, he refused to release about 200 al-Qaeda operatives named in the treaty. This led to an attempt on the President’s life earlier this month. While it is unlikely that the strike against the madrassa in Bajur is connected directly to the assassination attempt, the strike nevertheless sent a message to the Taliban that Musharraf was not entirely a free agent; that he must also deal with Washington and their allies in Afghanistan.
And Musharraf’s relationship with Washington is becoming more and more problematic for both sides as time goes on. The resurgence of the Taliban, buoyed by funds from Afghanistan’s record opium crop last year, has meant that large swaths of Pakistani territory have been co-opted by the terrorists. Wherever the Taliban gains control, Pakistani sovereignty disappears. Musher initially tried using the military to clamp down in the tribal areas but found to his dismay that the Taliban fighters were both too elusive and supported by too many tribal leaders for his soldiers to make a real dent in the terrorist’s control of the region. Recognizing this, Musharraf has signed these agreements in North and South Waziristan as well as negotiated in Bajur as a means to survive. Washington may not like it. But it is, for all practical purposes, Musharraf’s only play.
Despite Musharraf’s attempt to play both ends against the middle in his efforts to appease his enemies as well as his benefactors in Washington, there really is nothing that can be done to change the strategic situation in favor of the west. Too many hands are raised against against him for any kind of dramatic reversal of policy to be in the offing. This analysis gives a pretty good summary of Musharraf’s perilous situation:
He is a difficult subject to interpret. He has at various times been a declared supporter of the Taliban, a committed enthusiast for the war on terror, a militarist, a peacemaker, a defender of liberty and a dictator. If that sounds an incoherent career, just look at the chaotic situation in which he operates and much of it becomes self-explanatory.
Like all military rulers, Musharraf has, first and foremost, to placate the armed forces on which his power depends. He has also had to make (unkept) promises to the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of Muslim, pro-Taliban parties. Then, in the broader perspective, he needs to keep the United States and its allies happy, playing the role of a zealous warrior against terror and jihad. It is a challenge at which an Italian Renaissance prince of the Machiavelli school might have balked.
The Predator strike may have been a way for the US to go over Musharraf’s head while giving the Pakistani President “plausible deniability” so that a popular uprising against his rule could be avoided. At the same time, it is would be a huge mistake to try and undermine Musharraf’s rule. Simply put, there is no one else in Pakistan who could cooperate with the US the way that Musharraf can. Anyone on the horizon who would take control in a coup that ousted the President would almost certainly be anti-western in their outlook and perhaps even ally themselves with the Taliban. And in a country that sports 60 nuclear weapons, it would be hard to come up with a more catastrophic scenario than that.
Instead, we must work to strengthen Musharraf’s hand where we can and pay lip service to his efforts to appease the Taliban in the tribal areas. An unsatisfying policy to be sure. But the alternatives are just too horrible to contemplate.