Another flash point abuilding?

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Thu May 23 2002 - 16:02:51 BST

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    Subject: Another flash point abuilding?
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    The following story was downloaded from the Far East Economic Review. It
    shows a side of the situation in Pakistan that American newspapers don't
    seem aware of.



    By Ahmed Rashid

    Issue cover-dated May 30, 2002

    For the first time since independence in 1947, Pakistan's army is facing a
    crisis on two fronts--the threat of invasion by India in the east and an
    uprising by tribal warlords in the west. As if that is not bad enough,
    President Pervaiz Musharraf faces even heavier fire, literally and
    figuratively, from within the country. For the first time in the history of
    Pakistan, which has fought India three times, politicians and the public are
    refusing to rally around the army as it faces the possibility of war again.

    Public confidence in Musharraf's military regime is at its lowest ebb
    following the holding on April 30 of a referendum, widely condemned as
    rigged, that saw his mandate extended by five years. Almost the entire
    political spectrum has united in condemning the military, while extremist
    Islamic parties have regrouped and are challenging Musharraf. The Islamic
    parties object to his cooperation with the United States in its war on
    terrorism. To top it all, the economic malaise has worsened.

    All this raises questions as to whether Musharraf can deliver on his pledge
    to hold a general election by October, three years after he seized power
    from an elected government. "We have lost our way again," says a bank
    executive. "Musharraf has gone a full cycle from being a pariah leader
    before September 11, to the toast of the world and now it's downhill all the
    way." Reflecting the pessimism in business circles, the Karachi bourse
    plunged 7.5% on May 20.

    But Musharraf does not seem to recognize the threat facing his regime and
    has firmly rejected any kind of cooperation with those he regards as his
    political enemies--ousted former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz
    Sharif--that could help ensure stability. He also does not seem to recognize
    that Islamic militants are a threat to internal and regional stability, but
    he does realize that a concerted crackdown could alienate his support base
    in the army and intelligence services. And thus Pakistan's lackadaisical war
    on terrorism at home has not satisfied India and other overseas critics.

    The internal problems stem partly from the determination by Musharraf and
    the army's corps commanders to secure their position following the October
    1999 coup that ousted Sharif. Musharraf appointed himself president in June
    2001 and pledged to hold a general election by October 2002. But he failed
    in his attempt to set up a political group--gathering defectors from
    existing parties--that would contest the election and implement his policies
    afterwards. So the president decided to cement his power by holding the

    The government claimed a 70% voter turnout, while opposition parties and
    independent monitoring groups said it was no more than 5%-10%. Nevertheless
    Musharraf claimed a massive victory, polarizing the country and giving
    divided political alliances a common issue on which to challenge the regime.

    The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which monitored the election,
    claimed that, among other illegalities, ballot boxes were tampered with,
    many people voted more than once, there were no voters' lists and civil
    servants were mobilized to encourage people to vote.

    Although the U.S. was silent because it needs Pakistan's help in its war on
    terrorism, both the Commonwealth and the European Union questioned the
    outcome of the referendum and the future of democracy in Pakistan. "I will
    have great difficulty persuading the European parliament to continue to
    support Pakistan as we would like, if it looks as though the government is
    moving away from what it said about democracy or the promises it made on
    dealing with terrorism," Chris Patten, the EU's external relations
    commissioner, told Dawn newspaper after the referendum.

    Meanwhile, opposition at home to Musharraf's government coalesced after the
    controversial referendum results and despite the renewed spectre of war
    after a deadly attack on an Indian army camp in Kashmir on May 14. All the
    major secular political and Islamic parties have now joined hands. An All
    Parties Conference, convened in Lahore on May 19, recognized the threat from
    India, but then demanded that Musharraf step down and a caretaker government
    hold immediate elections. "Musharraf stands discredited and lacks the
    stature and moral authority to deal with the current threat to national
    security," a statement read. The parties also demanded that the ban on
    political activities be lifted "because wars cannot be fought unless the
    nation backs the armed forces."

    But Musharraf has shown no inclination to compromise and the military still
    seems determined to engineer the outcome of the election, though that looks
    more and more difficult. Bhutto has pledged to return to Pakistan in August,
    even if she is arrested on a conviction for corruption. "Musharraf is
    determined to keep Bhutto and Sharif out whatever the cost to the country,"
    says a disgruntled senior Pakistani bureaucrat. The suggestion is that the
    issue is more personal than principled--the government publicly says the two
    cannot return because they are criminals.

    There is an another threat. Militant Islamic groups--banned by Musharraf
    under international pressure in January after an attack on the Indian
    parliament--are regrouping. Some observers fear they are using terrorism in
    Pakistan to destabilize the regime and in Kashmir to try and provoke a war
    with India.

    In fact Musharraf's promised crackdown was a sham. Some 2,000 militants were
    freed after a few weeks. Islamic militants are believed by the government to
    have been behind bomb attacks that left five people, including two
    Americans, dead in a Protestant church in Islamabad on March 17 and 14
    people, including 11 French defence technicians, dead in Karachi on May 8.
    Meanwhile, 13 Shia Muslim doctors have been gunned down in Karachi this year
    by Sunni Muslim extremists. Technocrats, teachers and moderate Islamic
    scholars have also been killed and thousands of professionals are trying to
    leave Pakistan.

    The army's unwillingness to crack down hard on extremism is due to a mixture
    of fear and expediency. Sympathy for anti-U.S. Islamic militancy is still
    strong in sections of the army and the intelligence services, and by
    clamping down too hard Musharraf risks alienating this support base. Also,
    in the past the army has used the militants to back the Kashmiri insurgency
    against India. "The army has failed to snap the umbilical cord with the
    Islamic groups, because it would mean an abject abandonment of the Kashmir
    cause," says a senior European diplomat. "But Musharraf is losing everything
    he has gained since September 11."

    The regime refuses to acknowledge any threat. "We banned the militant
    parties because they broke the law. They are not a threat to the army nor
    are they trying to destabilize the country," says a senior general advising

    While Western diplomats believe it is unlikely that Pakistan instigated
    attacks on Indian army camps in Kashmir on May 14 and May 20, they say these
    raids showed that the militants cannot be controlled by the army.

    The threats from India are coupled with rising protests from heavily armed
    ethnic Pashtun tribesmen who are opposed to the army's cooperation with U.S.
    special forces in rooting root out remnants of the Al Qaeda terrorist
    network along the border with Afghanistan. "American troops, in violation of
    the tribal code of honour, are raiding houses and religious schools in the
    tribal areas," Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the influential
    Jamaat-e-Ullema Islam party, told reporters in mid-May.

    Rehman accused Musharraf "of jeopardizing the sovereignty of the country . .
    ... by dancing to the American tune." The U.S. is pushing for more Pakistani
    troops on the ground, but the senior general says: "We cannot go to war with
    our own people and our troops are tied up on the Indian front."

    For a few months after September 11, it appeared that the army had finally
    found its moorings by backing the Western coalition. But the political
    crisis at home is so multi-dimensional and threatening that once they've put
    out one fire, another has sparked up somewhere else, and the army is
    desperately searching for a way out.


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