Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf maintains a precarious balance. On one hand, he must tread carefully among the Muslims who make up 97 percent of his country’s population. On the other, he must appease his international supporters, among them the United States, who demand that he crack down on Islamic extremists. The balancing act just got harder: Mr. Musharraf appears to have struck a deal with Pakistan’s pro-Taliban militias in the country’s restive border provinces that could create a haven for Taliban refugees from Afghanistan.
Mr. Musharraf came to power seven years ago when he overthrew a democratically elected regime. He has stayed in office by railing against corrupt politicians, promising to hand over power to civilians and, when those arguments lose force, warning that he is the only thing that stands between the world and a radical, nuclear-armed Islamic government. It is hard to tell how much of that last argument is a self-serving myth.
Many of the Muslim faithful in Pakistan are radicals; even moderates are unhappy with Mr. Musharraf’s support for the U.S. position in the war against terror, which they consider a war against Islam. Afghanistan’s Taliban regime was born in Pakistan and its members maintain powerful ties to co-religionists and clans with which they share ethnic origins.
There have been several assassination attempts against Mr. Musharraf. After the most recent attempt, in 2004, Mr. Musharraf sent his troops into North and South Waziristan, two of the country’s most lawless provinces. There they encountered al-Qaida forces and pro-Taliban groups. Army losses were high and desertions common. A bloody stalemate prompted Islamabad this month to strike a deal with the militants. In exchange for the local chieftains agreeing to expel foreign forces — al-Qaida and the Taliban — Pakistan would withdraw its military from the area.
The deal establishes peace with the army, a core constituency for Mr. Musharraf. Many Pakistanis complain that the army is fighting a U.S. war and that the Taliban pose no threat to Islamabad, and indeed were installed in power in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s support. Critics charge that the agreement will create a haven for al-Qaida and remnants of the Taliban regime, enabling them to regroup and launch new offensives against the government in Kabul.
Both Pakistani and U.S. officials reject that charge. Pakistan has denied that significant numbers of foreign fighters are in the region — a few hundred, admitted a retired general recently — and insists that it is doing its best to fight terrorists wherever they’re found. Nonetheless, the deal has empowered the local radical Islamist group that brokered it. Few analysts expect it to last long. It will prove especially short-lived if coalition forces in Afghanistan launch attacks against suspected al-Qaida forces in the area, as has happened in the past.
The deal with the Waziristanis is understandable, but it is a product of the same political expediency that has pushed Pakistan to the edge. At one point, Pakistani officials assure the world that they are a bulwark against Islamic extremism and that no sympathizers are in positions of power within the government or behind the scenes. In the next breath, those same officials might plead for consideration when demands are made upon the government, implying that it is in a precarious position and could be swept away by an Islamic backlash. There is some truth in both assertions and Mr. Musharraf deserves some sympathy and support. Nonetheless, it must be asked how much of this situation results from the government’s reluctance to take on the extremists said to be within its own ranks.
But there are other reasons why Islamabad may be reluctant to crack down. One is ethnic links: The 28 million Pashtun in Pakistan share close ties with the Pashtun in Afghanistan, who make up 42 percent of the population. And Pakistan has long considered Afghanistan part of its sphere of influence. The creation of the Taliban was designed to fill a political vacuum in Afghanistan and provide another launching pad for attacks on India.
The deal in Waziristan comes as Taliban forces have launched some of the most brutal offensives since they were driven from power in 2001. The head of NATO forces in Afghanistan has said he needs more troops to fight the growing insurgency. Although European governments are preparing to send troops to peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, it is increasingly doubtful that he will get them. The failure to defeat the Taliban is a threat to the democratic government in Kabul, and the world has seen firsthand what happens when Taliban control the country. Mr. Musharraf’s deal seems to make that resurgence more likely.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.