One crisis after another for Pakistan
By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - A week-long campaign of suicide bombings that has killed more than 130 people across Pakistan has seriously demoralized security personnel in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. These areas are a safe haven for the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Directed at police and army targets, the bombings are believed to have been carried out to avenge last week's storming of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, an operation in which 75 pro-Taliban militants were killed, according to official figures. The
bombings were also to protest the support given by President General Pervez Musharraf to the "war on terror" prosecuted by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Afghanistan.
The unrest coincides with a growing political crisis for Musharraf over his suspension in March of Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the chief justice. The 13-judge bench of the Supreme Court was due on Friday to hear Chaudhry's appeal for reinstatement and the quashing of the case brought against him by Musharraf for alleged misconduct.
Since Chaudhry's suspension, the country has seen widespread protests by the legal profession, opposition politicians and civil-rights groups. On Tuesday, 18 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack at a rally in support of Chaudhry in Islamabad.
Whatever the verdict in the appeal, it is unlikely to ease the pressure on Musharraf. If Chaudhry is successful, the opposition will be emboldened. If it fails, the protests can be expected to grow in intensity.
Defense lawyer Ali Ahmaed Kurd said on Friday that nothing but the reinstatement of the chief justice would be acceptable. He hinted that if the court gave the "wrong" decision, it would mean it was under duress from the military establishment.
After suffering the heaviest casualties ever sustained by Pakistani security forces during peacetime, many security personnel in the tribal areas have gone on long leave or are going about their work in plain clothes.
"We are scared to be seen in our uniforms. The militants are better equipped than we are. And there is no way to stop suicide bombers," said a police constable in Swat, North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). He said the threat was real enough for senior officials to approve the idea of police performing their duties in plain clothes.
NWFP has a total of 35,000 police for a population of 22 million, while the Federally Administered Tribal Agency (FATA) has 7,000 khasadar (local police) for about 4 million people. These forces are considered inadequate, although the NWFP can also call on the services of the 17,000-strong Frontier Constabulary.
About 80,000 regular army troops are also deployed along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan to check cross-border movements by militants. But the army is being held back by a ceasefire agreement made with tribal leaders last September that the government is keen to keep going.
"Our forces lack proper training, equipment, vehicles and weaponry, due to which their preparedness is very low," a high-ranking police official said. He confirmed that hundreds of police officers had applied for leave out of fear for their safety.
Most of the attacks over the past week have taken place in NWFP, with at least 70 of the 110 people who have died being soldiers. "It is mostly in the tough areas of Swat, Tank and Dera Ismail Khan that our men have to avoid wearing uniforms," said a police official.
On Thursday, in the latest attack, a bomb-laden car exploded in Hub, about 30 kilometers west of Karachi, killing 26 people, seven of them policemen. Six more police officers and civilians were killed at a police training center in the town of Hangu in the NWFP, officials said.
The bombings are the most serious challenge yet to the eight-year military government of Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999 and who has successfully staved off domestic and international demands for the restoration of democracy through his usefulness in the Afghanistan campaign.
The attacks on troops in the northwest came after tribal leaders unilaterally renounced the September peace deal under which the Pakistan Army was withdrawn from the tribal areas in return for pledges to stop Taliban and al-Qaeda militants from carrying out cross-border raids into Afghanistan.
This year, Pakistan has seen 21 suicide attacks that have killed 225 people. The suicide bombers have targeted police, army and other paramilitary personnel with some degree of precision.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has time and again accused Pakistan of being covertly involved in training and sending suicide bombers into his country, but increasingly targets are being sought within Pakistan.
The United Nations recently asked its staff in FATA and NWFP to avoid getting close to installations of the police or the army. All UN bodies have halted their activities.
Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao had a narrow escape when a suicide bomber blew himself up at his public meeting on March 18 in Charsadda, NWFP. Earlier, two top police officials were killed in separate incidents in Peshawar, the capital of the NWFP.
"The militants want to scare policemen and army soldiers, and they have succeeded in their mission," said Ashraf Ali, who is working on a doctorate on the Taliban at the Area Study Center, University of Peshawar.
He said Musharraf now feels politically isolated and is trying desperately to please the US. "The only way for Musharraf to get US approval is to fight the militants," said Ali.
The Awami National Party (ANP), a pro-Pashtun political outfit, on Wednesday appealed to the militants and the Taliban to stop suicide attacks on innocent people and members of the law-enforcement agencies.
"This situation is the handiwork of Pakistan's secret agencies. They had planted the mujahideen [Taliban] against the Russian army in Afghanistan [in the 1980s]. Now, the Taliban are being targeted in the name of 'war on terror'," said Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, senior vice president of the ANP.
Political analyst Afrasiab Khattak, an expert on Afghanistan affairs, said that ideally the government should take the local population into its confidence by engaging them in talks if it is serious about tackling militant activity in their midst.
"All the decisions regarding the 'war on terror' are being taken by a few individuals in Islamabad. People in NWFP and FATA are not taken into confidence, which is why the situation has come to such a sorry pass," Khattak said.
(Inter Press Service)