Is Pakistan becoming the major new battlefield in the global war on terrorism?
With the recent multiplication of terrorist attacks, including at least six suicide bombings in the past two weeks alone, the question is no longer academic.
Also, there are reports that armed groups, using the label "Pakistani Taliban" are conducting operations outside their traditional hideout in the tribal areas of Waziristan. Since Pakistan has already deployed 70,000 troops in Waziristan to contain the terrorists, it is clear that far bigger resources, in terms of manpower and weaponry, would be needed to face a nationwide terror campaign.
Some analysts blame President Pervez Musharraf's ambivalent policy towards the Taliban for what may be a looming crisis for his regime.
Last September, Islamabad concluded an accord with the Pakistani Taliban in the hope of mollifying at least some of them. However, the move had the opposite effect. The accord was almost immediately followed with fatwas by radical clerics preaching "Jihad" against the Musharraf regime. Some analysts see the fact that the government took no measures against the clerics who issued the fatwas as a sign of duplicity.
To make matters worse, a new "authentic" Taliban group, led by a certain Haji Omar, appeared on the scene to denounce the accord as the work of "faint-hearted ex-Jihadis". A notorious gangster with a criminal record in Dubai and Peshawar, this Haji Omar claims to be a link between the Afghan Taliban and the remnants of Al Qaeda. And, yet, this self-styled "Commander of the Faithful", seems to have no trouble putting in appearances in Wana, a town in Waziristan supposed to be under Pakistani military control.
Is Musharraf playing a double game: acting tough against the "Arab Afghans" but donning the kid gloves when it comes to Afghan and Pakistani Jihadis?
The answer is: yes and no.
Musharraf has no sympathy for the terrorists using religion as an ideology. At the same time, he hopes to maintain the Taliban alive as a card that Pakistan could play in Afghanistan after the US and its allies leave. And that, in turn, makes it virtually impossible for him to get tough on Pakistani Taliban who provide the backbone of support for the remnants of Mullah
Muhammad Omar's army in Afghanistan.
Musharraf's calculation may have made sense in the context of old-style "Great Game" power plays that included the use of tribal chiefs and religious leaders as pawns against real or imagined adversaries.
That calculation makes no sense in the context of Musharraf's own long-term strategy for Pakistan.
What is that strategy?
As I understand it, Musharraf hopes to de-enclave Pakistan, secure for it a geopolitical depth through Afghanistan and Central Asia, and turn it into a major link in global trade.
To achieve that he has defused the tension over Kashmir, thus making sure that Pakistan is not hostage to a parochial conflict. While strengthening Pakistan's traditional ties with China, Musharraf has also restored the alliance with the West, led by the United States, and expanded relations with regional Arab powers.
The heart of this strategy is the plan to develop Gawadar, now a backwater on the Arabian Sea coast of Pakistani Baluchistan, into one of Asia's greatest international ports.
The planned port would be the terminus of a new railway line linking Russia, Kazakhstan, Central Asia and Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean. It would also be the terminal for oil and gas pipelines bringing the energy resources of the Caspian Basin to the global market.
Musharraf must know that such an ambitious strategy cannot succeed if someone like Mullah Omar is in charge in Kabul. The only way that the strategy could succeed is for both Afghanistan and Pakistan to have pluralist, pro-West and pro-market regimes capable of attracting the capital and the technology needed to build the infrastructure, and then the trade to keep it profitable.
While trying to keep the Afghan Taliban afloat and cuddling their Pakistani counterparts, Musharraf has used the iron fist against the Baluch in Pakistan. Last August, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the octogenarian chief of a Baluch rebellion that started in the 1960s, was killed in a Pakistani air raid on his home in what looked like targeted killing. The elimination of Bugti, a leftwing nationalist, however, could only help the Jihadis who have so far failed to gain spread in Baluchistan.
Nor has Bugti's "targeted killing" ended the Baluch revolt. Armed Marri tribesmen led by Nawab Khair Bakhsh are still attacking government forces in the Kohlu area. And two other formerly rebellious tribes, the Bizenjo and the Mangal, are moving back on the warpath.
Instead of admitting the errors of the iron fist policy, however, Islamabad is trying to blame outsiders for the rising tension. Iran is blamed supposedly because it does not want Caspian oil and gas pipelines to be built outside its territory. Dubai is blamed because it is supposed to fear losing its status, as the region's main port, to Gawadar.
Even if Iran and Dubai were behind the revolt in Baluchistan, which they most probably are not, the current tension must be blamed on the contradictions of Musharraf's policy.
Musharraf's grand strategy cannot be taken seriously without a broader base for his new emerging Pakistan. That requires lifting the ban on Pakistan's major political currents, including the Peoples Party and the Muslim League.
What is needed is a united national front of the political parties and the Pakistani armed forces against terror and extremism under any label. Such a front would have no need of cuddling Mullah Omar or bribing Haji Omar or treating Baluchistan as a war zone.
The radical Jihadi groups and the secessionist Baluchis might thrive under an authoritarian regime, but would fade under a people-based government.
Pakistan is expected to hold a general election before the end of this year. This provides an excellent opportunity for lifting the ban on political parties, and prominent political alders, and allowing a fair and accurate picture of current Pakistani popular opinion to emerge.
Sadly, however, there is no sign of movement in such a direction. On the contrary, a policy of intimidating, and in some cases, eliminating, non-religious political activists seems to be in place. Over 400 political activists have "disappeared", in circumstances that recall Argentina and Chile under military dictatorship. Six local officials from the Peoples Party have been gunned down and many more threatened with death.
When he was forced into power by circumstances almost eight years ago, Musharraf was seen by many as a temporary ruler. He has proved such predictions wrong, and became one of Pakistan's most successful leaders. Nevertheless, it is clear that he needs a change of tactics. He could do better. And he should.