It’s not been great in ‘08 and it’s not going to be fine in ‘09
When George W Bush launched the War on Terror he promised it was going to be an eternal war. Now that he’s leaving office it is up to Bush’ successor to decide where the USS Overkill will dock next. And it looks likely that whoever wins the presidential election in November Pakistan will have to watch its step.
“Hmm… why Pakistan?” I hear you ask. Well, when Bush invaded Iraq and messed everything up over there he took the focus off Osama bin Laden. Instead of seeing the Afghanistan war through to its logical conclusion – i.e. catching bin Laden, destroying al Qaeda, etc – the US got bogged down in Iraq and picked up from where Saddam left off. If Barak Obama becomes US president he would refocus US priorities towards catching bin Laden.
But where is bin Laden? He is in Pakistan, apparently. Pakistan’s tribal areas to be exact. Otherwise known as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). Where, to all intents and purposes, Pakistani law doesn’t apply.
And if, on the off-chance, Americans vote for John McCain to be president Pakistan still wouldn’t have dodged the bullet. The US currently launches attacks on FATA and is sending troops from Iraq to Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. This is all being done on the advice of the people who will most likely advise President McCain.
Fighting in FATA
The tribal areas are on the border with Afghanistan. Ever since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, Afghan, Uzbek, Arab and Al Qaeda militants have been settling in these areas. The foreign militants aren’t the major problem though. There are Pakistanis in FATA who find common cause with the foreigners and want to be able to run their own affairs without interference from the national government in Islamabad. These are the Pakistani Taliban. The foreign militants and the Pakistani Taliban have been launching attacks inside Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistani army has responded by bombing FATA. But seeing as the Pakistani Taliban have nowhere else to go, the cycle of violence keeps repeating itself. The Americans are having a go too. American planes regularly bomb inside Pakistan to kill Al Qaeda operatives. Civilians are almost always among the victims and some American attacks have even killed Pakistani troops.
Refugees are streaming out of the tribal areas. They are fleeing not just the army but also the militants. The militants don’t just fight the army, they also attack Shias living in FATA. The Pakistani government has tried negotiating with the tribes in FATA, but people who talk to the government are themselves targeted by the militants. The army’ attacks kill not only militants, but also civilians. Locals are left with no option but to leave their homes and seek safer climes.
The violence however isn’t restricted to FATA. The army bombs militants and the militants respond with suicide attacks in Pakistan’s big cities. Not a week goes by without a suicide attack in Pakistan. It’s become the terror tactic of choice for every terrorist group going. The bombers target the army, politicians and almost always civilians. Suicide bombers tried to kill Pervez Musharraf several times when he was president and it was a suicide bomber who killed former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. However, most of the victims have been civilians. In the first attempt to kill Bhutto over 100 civilians died. Nowhere is safe – or sacred. Not even mosques. Suicide attacks inside mosques are nothing out of the ordinary anymore.
Pakistan’s politicians seem to be in no fit state to deal with the crisis. Pervez Musharraf was forced to resign as president. This took the military out of politics. The most powerful politician in the country is now Asif Ali Zardari. The husband of a former prime minister and also Pakistan’s second richest man. But the most popular politician in the country is Nawaz Sharif. A former prime minister and also Pakistan’s richest man. One is tainted by corruption and the other is power-hungry. OK, that applies to both. But one seems to be running from the law as fast as his little legs can carry him while the other is hugging the law with both of his chubby arms and refusing to let go. Make sense? No. Let’s start from the beginning.
Whilst his wife was prime minister Zardari committed massive corruption. He pocketed money that belonged to the country and spent it on golf courses, villas and mansions. There were corruption cases running against Zardari in several countries. When his wife was assassinated he went back to Pakistan once President Musharraf promised to drop corruption charges against him. Nawaz Sharif had also returned to Pakistan. But corruption charges against him weren’t dropped. Surely, Pakistan’s judges would have had something to say about all this?
Well, Pakistan’s judges are already some of the most corrupt judges in the world and have always been subservient to whoever is in government. The reason why Pakistan proved to be such a good ally in the war on terror was because Musharraf was able to subvert the law. Security services could pick people off the street, torture them, force them to confess to terrorist conspiracies and then pass the ‘intelligence’ on to the US. All this could be done and only human rights activists would kick up a fuss. But then Pakistan’s most senior judge took notice. Iftikhar Mohammed Choudhury brought security officers before the supreme court and forced them to release people who had been illegally arrested and tortured. This wasn’t good for Musharraf or the US. So Musharraf sacked Choudhury along with 60 other high-ranking judges and put in their place judges who did exactly what they were told and turned a blind eye to human rights abuses.
But now with Musharraf gone, the old judges can come back, right? Wrong. Zardari, now being Pakistan’s most powerful politician can’t afford to have the old judges come back. Now that he is so powerful he needs judges to be weak so he can boss them around. Besides he needs the corruption charges to remain dropped. Judges like Choudhury would bring corruption charges back up. Instead, Zardari is happy to have somebody who is charged with fraud be the chief justice.
Nawaz Sharif, on the hand, promised to bring the old judges back and, God bless him, he’s been trying. Mainly because his promises have won him massive support among ordinary Pakistanis. He could probably use this support to become prime minister again. If Sharif can get the old judges back then they’ll prosecute Zardari and allow Sharif to become top dog. But if Zardari can keep the old judges out, he can also keep Sharif out of power. A wily fox he may be, but Zardari is not an experienced politician and he may yet prove to be an incompetent – and even dictatorial - president.
America – Biden its time
Army bombings of the tribal areas leave people with the impression that Pakistan is fighting America’s war. And they have a point. US influence in Pakistan runs deep. The head of the army is the head of the army because he has the approval of the US. Zardari is president of Pakistan because he also has the approval of the US. He can rely on the support of powerful people in the US – namely Zalmay Khalilzad. Khalilzad also happens to be the person installed Hamid Karzai as the pro-US president of Afghnaistan. With Zardari as president of Pakistan, America’s new front in the War on Terror now has a pro-US leadership. Pakistan’s army is headed by General Ashfaq Kiyani. He took over from Musharraf but only after heavy vetting by the US. Given that the army is still Pakistan’s most powerful institution, the US is happy with Kiyani as army chief and that the army doesn’t like Zardari, the military could yet get rid of the politicians and take over government.
What does all this hold for the future? The prospects aren’t looking good. American troops are already being sent into Pakistan to carry out raids. An Obama or a McCain presidency will most likely send more troops into the tribal areas. And as has been happening already this will only force militancy further into cities such as Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.
Obama has appointed Joe Biden as his running mate. If Obama becomes president then Biden will be his vice president. Biden has a lot of experience of Pakistan. He regularly speaks to Pakistani leaders and Musharraf and Benazir would speak to him before they dared interrupt Bush’s midday nap. Biden says that the way to deal with the tribal areas is for the US to pay Pakistan’s government to build schools and hospitals. However, to do this Pakistan’s politicians will need to get their fingers out and avoid the temptation to funnel the money towards mansions, villas and Swiss bank accounts.
If Pakistan’s politicians fail to live up to Biden’s expectations, we’ll probably get a repeat performance of Iraq. Obama has said repeatedly that if Pakistan doesn’t act against Al Qaeda in FATA president Obama would. McCain, on the other hand, would continue the current Bush policy of missile attacks and ground raids on Pakistani territory. All this leaves Pakistan very much in the firing line as the War on Terror enters its eighth year.