Saturday, November 11, 2006

Big Trouble In Pakistan's Tribal Areas

The word in security circles in Washington is that the attack upon the madrassa was indeed conducted by the U.S..

Two months ago, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, triumphantly announced a peace pact with Islamic extremists in the North Waziristan tribal district near the Afghan border, saying he hoped it would become a model for curbing domestic Islamic militancy and cross-border insurgent attacks in Afghanistan.

Today that model lies in shreds. Northwestern Pakistan's fragile political peace has been shattered by two devastating attacks: a government missile strike that killed 82 people at an Islamic school in the Bajaur tribal district on Oct. 30, and a retaliatory suicide bombing Wednesday that killed 42 army recruits at a training camp in the Malakand tribal district.

The missile strike was based on U.S. intelligence reports that the school was being used as a training site for Islamic insurgents, who have found sanctuary across the semi-autonomous tribal areas where Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures may also be hiding. Now, officials are predicting a new wave of violence, as anti-government anger spreads and religious extremists call for holy war against the Pakistani military and Western forces fighting in Afghanistan.

"This is a disaster. We all recognize the gravity of the situation," said a senior military official in this northwestern provincial capital, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's a nightmare to have an army being attacked on its own soil and by its own people." After the two incidents, he added, "the doors to peaceful negotiated settlements are closed. I am afraid we are on a war course in the tribal areas."

Public condemnation of the missile attack has been almost universal in Pakistan. Many people say they believe it was actually carried out by a U.S. Predator drone, which witnesses described as circling overhead before Pakistani helicopter gunships arrived. U.S. and Pakistani officials have denied that. ...

Pakistani military and intelligence officials said they had little choice but to bomb the site after they received overwhelming proof from U.S. intelligence sources that it was being used as a training center for insurgents. A refusal to act, the Pakistanis said, would have badly damaged their relations with the United States, which counts Pakistan as a key ally in the war against al-Qaeda and fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.

"They loaded us with evidence. The strike was absolutely inevitable," said a senior intelligence official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. Another official called the attack a "major test" of military and intelligence cooperation between the United States and Pakistan. "We thought about other options, but the Americans weren't ready to take any chances," he said. "We were caught between the devil and the deep sea." ...

(T)he growing violence has led to urgent calls for mass tribal conflict-resolution meetings, known as jirgas. Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently proposed a series of jirgas in both countries, and the Awami National Party, which represents the ethnic Pashtuns who predominate in Pakistan's northwest, has called for a separate tribal jirga. Party leaders say the only antidote to Islamic radicalization is the ancient tribal code known as Pashtunwali, which prescribes consensual pacts to halt feuds. ...

Ansar Abbasi, Islamabad bureau chief for the News International newspaper, called the Bajaur attack "outrageous" and argued in a column that while it might have raised Musharraf's tough-guy image in the West, it served no national interest and could only exacerbate conflict between the army and the civilian populace. "Have we not fallen into a U.S. trap?" he asked.

One political leader in Peshawar said the Bajaur site was definitely a terrorist base but that it was not "politically correct to say so" in the region. Bajaur elders had reached a peace accord similar to the Waziristan pact, he said, but the missile strike came just hours before they were to sign it. "People find this mind-boggling and impossible to understand," he said.


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