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l May 2004 l

The Kashmir Bachao Andolan Publication

l Vol 4, No 1 l

S P O T L I G H T

Tribal comedy show shows Pak chutzpah

Kaushik Kapisthalam


It now appears that Pakistan’s strongman Gen. Pervez Musharraf has perhaps based his anti-terror policy on the apocryphal quotation attributed to legendary showman P.T.Barnum - “There's a sucker born every minute.” The recent activities in the infamous “tribal areas” of Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan, have clearly demonstrated that Gen. Musharraf would rather put out dog and pony shows for Western media and governments, rather than seriously tackle terror.

The latest episode began on March 18th, when Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf casually mentioned in an interview with CNN's Aaron Brown that it is likely that Pakistani troops have surrounded a "High Value Target" in the tribal "agency" of South Waziristan. Some enterprising Pakistani official leaked to the eager journalists that the person encircled could be Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number-two man of Al Qaeda. Within hours, an entire army of international and Pakistani media landed up in the town nearest to the fighting, Wana, in the South Waziristan autonomous agency. After many days of confusing reports, the whole operation ended like a damp squib, with no "top terrorist" being apprehended or killed and the Pakistan Army cutting a deal with terrorists by giving them blanket amnesty. In return for this amnesty, Pakistan did not even require the terrorists to surrender their weapons or give up further attacks on Americans. In a speech to the jubilant tribal terror supporters, Gen. Safdar Hussain, the commander of the XI Corps of the Pakistan Army went as far as excoriating America for “unfairly” attacking Afghanistan after 9/11.

Throughout this operation, the various military spokesmen, including the head of the Pakistan army public relations agency, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, played the role of Ringling brothers to Gen. Musharraf's P.T.Barnum, by issuing contradictory and comical statements about the status of the fighting. After the al-Zawahiri claim went bust, word leaked out about an Uzbek militia leader who later morphed into a Chechen guerilla. There was a claim of Pakistanis looking for an al-Qaida spy chief "Mr. Abdullah", which sounded like looking for a shaven-head man in Tirupati! The "Mr. Abdullah" later turned out to be a "local spy chief" of al-Qaida, whatever that meant. The Pakistanis also organized a “tribal force” to supposedly nab the terrorists. But all they ever did was to wear tribal costumes and stage a “war dance” for the cameras followed by a charge at the hills with red tags on their guns, to prevent them from shooting at each other.

Maj. Gen. Sultan also extolled the capture of about many "foreign" fighters, who at first sight appeared to be elderly locals. In a report in the weekly “The Friday Times,” Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Gul said that after the Russian and Uzbekistan governments formally petitioned the Pakistani officials to give them access to their nationals allegedly captured, Pakistani authorities quietly backpedaled on the "foreign fighters" claim. It now turns out that the Pakistanis have released all but a handful of the captured fighters, after tacitly admitting that they were local Pashtuns, not foreigners. Unable to account for the remaining terrorists, Pakistani authorities, including the tribal area security head, Brigadier Mehmood Shah claimed that the fighters used secret tunnels to escape the army dragnet. It later turned out that those "tunnels" were decades old irrigation channels that had dried up due to lack of water. Imtiaz Gul, who later called Pakistan Army’s “escape tunnels” claim the “lie of the century,” also quoted unnamed irrigation experts who have visited the area as saying that the irrigation channels were well known amongst government officials for a long time.

As a military operation, it is clear that this has been a disaster for the Pakistan Army. Nearly 10,000 well-armed Pakistani troops, supported by attack helicopters, could not even make a dent against a few hundred lightly armed tribal fighters. After getting humiliated and losing at least 150 men, the Pakistani troops double-timed it back to base, making a “tactical retreat” as is their wont. A retired Pakistani army officer commented recently that the ineptitude of the Pakistani troops in the tribal areas was not surprising because many of them stopped seriously training a long time ago, instead spending time watching movies on videos!

Some analysts interpret the tribal area operations as Musharraf's "Wag the Dog" move that went bad when the tribal fighters refused to follow the script. The Pakistani leader is usually good at arranging for spectacular arrests of "top" Al Qaida figures timed to coincide with his visits to the US or the visits of American officials to Pakistan. This time around, this operation coincided with the visit of Secretary of State Colin Powell to Islamabad. Others see this as a possible attempt by the wily General to change the subject from the A.Q.Khan nuclear proliferation scandal.

The other fact is that this whole operation is a red herring. The fighters threatening Afghanistan's stability are not Chechens or Uzbeks, but Pashtuns loyal to the Taliban and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and their Arab al-Qaida allies. Western journalists have long known that the locus of these operations is not the tribal areas but near big Pakistani urban centers of Quetta and Peshawar. Intrepid British journalist Christina Lamb managed to interview top Taliban ministers including Maulana Abdullah Sahadi, the former deputy defense minister of the Taliban, in the Pakistani city of Quetta before she was kicked out of the country by Pakistan's spooks. Scott Baldauf of the Christian Science Monitor was not only able to speak with a Taliban commander, Maulvi Pardes Akhund but was allowed to observe him recruit Pakistani fighters in Quetta for cross border attacks on American troops in Afghanistan. Another one of Baldauf's reports mentioned that while he a group of journalists were speaking with a Pakistani national legislator from the Baluchistan province, which includes the city of Quetta, a local reporter's mobile phone rang. The caller happened to be a Taliban commander, and he asked the reporter to hand the phone to the Pakistani leader for a "quick chat”. Indeed, if Gen. Musharraf was serious about cracking down on the Taliban, his focus should have been Baluchistan, not the tribal areas.

This fact is not totally lost on the US authorities. The commander of American troops in Afghanistan has publicly criticized the Pakistani amnesty charade. In a press conversation en route to the subcontinent, Secretary of State Colin Powell wondered if Pakistan could do "a better job of apprehending Taliban persons" identified by America. The US Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has also repeatedly talked about the need for Pakistan to eliminate Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries within its territory. Time magazine recently quoted U.S. intelligence officials as saying that the U.S. possesses satellite photos that show Pakistani army trucks picking up Taliban troops fleeing back across the border after a failed attack. After the U.S. confronted Pakistani officials with the photographs, signs of visible Pakistani aid to the Taliban ended.

Despite all this, the State Department and other Bush administration officials try to cover up for Gen.Musharraf by using bromides like "The alternative is worse" or "Musharraf is doing his best". The sad fact is that the Pakistan's "strong cooperation" against terror is a mirage that looks good so long as one doesn't look for the specifics. But the devil, as another bromide goes, is in the details. Former Reagan administration official and Afghanistan expert Dr. Elie Krakowski recently related his conversations with Pakistani officials on a radio talk show. He said that many of the Pakistanis he spoke to said that it was "very easy to con the United States" and that to satisfy the Americans all the Pakistanis had to do was make "a few arrests once in a while." By that standard, Gen. Musharraf's actions would make even P.T.Barnum envious. The Pakistani tribal joke, unfortunately is at America’s expense.
  

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