By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - Over the past few months, the Pakistani military's new leadership has devised a roadmap aimed at national reconciliation without compromising the country's commitment in the "war on terror". The plan centered on developing an understanding with the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas that at the onset of a planned military offensive there, both sides would attempt to keep losses to the minimum; that is, they would go through the motions while Pakistan fulfilled its obligations in the eyes of the world in cracking down on militancy. Initially, the project went well. But, coinciding with the visit this week to Pakistan - the second in a month - of the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, and a series of suicide attacks, the situation has changed.
Mullen was due to meet with President Pervez Musharraf and military leaders to discuss US assistance for a massive military operation in Pakistan, under US supervision, against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In the latest suicide attack on the military, the fourth in five days, bombers on Tuesday targeted the Navy War College in Lahore, killing six people and injuring 18. This string of attacks leaves the new military chief, Lieutenant General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, with the unpopular choice of having to take off the velvet glove to reveal an iron fist against militancy. The chief beneficiary of this would be Musharraf, who has rapidly been losing his grip in the wake of Kiani's popular steps of reconciliation. Politicians elected in last month's polls for a new Parliament have already indicated they want to oust Musharraf for his heavy-handed role in prosecuting the "war on terror" during his eight years as a military ruler. The militants are also concerned now. Under Kiani's initiative, they would have been restricted to isolated areas on the border areas and, apart from token raids against them by the Pakistani military, been allowed to get on with their "business". The understanding was that once the Taliban and al-Qaeda were thus contained, it would create space for the forces of democracy to assert themselves in the country under the new government, and Musharraf could walk into the sunset. In the longer term, these measures could have ended the hostilities in Pakistani society that were the result of eight years of military rule and Pakistan's active participation in the "war on terror". Guns at the readyAccording to Asia Times Online contacts, a military operation is imminent, starting from a base camp in Peshawar in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The main focus will be Mohmand and Bajaur agencies, and some other tribal areas, to pre-empt the Taliban's spring offensive in Afghanistan. Under the initial plan, the operation would have been largely symbolic and the militants had been convinced that if they remained at the forefront and fought against Pakistani troops, their positions would be exposed to the foreign supervisors and they would sustain huge losses. Instead, if they struck ceasefire deals and retreated from forward positions to the border regions, they would be helped with advance information about possible raids and they could take alternative measures for their survival. They were categorically told that the operation was inevitable, so it would be best for them to take rear positions and flit on both sides of the border for their survival. The military rationale for adopting this approach was based on pragmatic grounds - that it would cause the militants to evacuate the main tribal areas for Afghanistan or the tribal fringes. This would allow secular Pashtun sub-nationalist forces to regain a hold in the area and develop an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation. The military would ensure that Musharraf could then make an honorable exit. These steps were aimed at ending hostilities between the military establishment and political parties, as well as the militants. At the same time, it would help bring the extremely alienated right-wing military section in NWFP and in Punjab province (mostly non-commissioned officers) on board. They have been actively involved in leaking information to militants, and in some cases have been hand-in-hand with them in attacking officers and camps. A senior official told Asia Times Online that Tuesday's attack in Lahore could have been done by members of the camp. The grand bargain is unraveling, though. The recent missile attack by a US Predator drone on militants in the tribal area helped stir the militants' skepticism of any deal and different independent groups continued to attack the security forces. The first glimpse the iron fist came last week when Kiani ordered more than 1,000 raids in several cities and hundreds of suspected militants were arrested. This was the biggest operation in the past 12 months and followed the assassination of the surgeon-general of the Pakistani army. Pakistan therefore finds itself back at square one, with the old divisions of pro-American and anti-American revived in the military and no doubt stoked by Musharraf during his meeting with Admiral Mullen. This is Musharraf's chance to regroup in the pro-American camp by presenting himself as being in the best position to serve US interests in the region. For the militant camps, they realize their attacks on the security forces will benefit their real enemy - Musharraf - and cause unity in the secular camps. But they also have doubts about Kiani's moves that will banish them to rear positions while at the same time facilitating tribal jirgas (councils) to devise a strategy to combat the Taliban! Last weekend, such a jirga was held in Derra Adam Khail, about 40 kilometers West of Peshawar, in which ideas were discussed among tribal leaders to curb the Taliban in their area. When the jirga concluded, a suicide bomber attacked the crowd, resulting in the death of over 50 people. With Kiani's hand being forced, and militants not ready to roll over just yet, Pakistan is a long way off peace.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org