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The new Afghanistan

The new Afghanistan

Author: Arnaud de Borchgrave
Publication: The Washington Times
Date: September 2, 2002
URL: http://www.washtimes.com/commentary/20020902-4189790.htm

Trying to refocus America's war on terror, Gen. Tommy

Franks couldn't mention the country by name without provoking a collective case of gastric distress in the Bush administration. This war "won't be finished," he said during a visit to the Bagram air base near Kabul, until terrorist cells are hunted down throughout the region.

Pakistan, not Iraq, was in the general's cross hairs. The unspeakable is that Pakistan is the new Afghanistan, a privileged sanctuary for hundreds of al Qaeda fighters and Taliban operatives. Some estimates go as high as 5,000.

The Iraqi-al Qaeda connection is yet to be established beyond the fact that so-called Afghan Arabs hailed from 22 Arab countries, including Iraq, and most other Muslim nations. The Pakistani-al Qaeda connection is visible to all but the geopolitically challenged.

To concede the obvious would not only undermine President (for life?) Pervez Musharraf, now busy tailoring democratic sheep's clothing for a military dictatorship, but would be an admission of military failure in Afghanistan. Most al Qaeda fighters slipped out of the Tora Bora trap last December and into the mountainous Pakistani tribal areas where the Pakistani army claimed to have deployed a "watertight" blocking force. Those of us in the area at the time saw no such thing and even Pakistani army officers told us this was "mission impossible."

By mid-December, there were only 4,500 Pakistani troops along several hundred miles of possible escape routes. They were unfamiliar with the terrain as tribal areas had been off-limits to the army since independence. It was hardly surprising that Pakistani military intercepted only a handful of al Qaeda fighters. Further inland, security forces caught some 300 out of several thousand who got away.

Some 15,000 Pakistani jihadis (holy warriors) - not including the 10,000 who were pressed into "volunteering" by their mullahs to assist collapsing Taliban forces last October - were trained in al Qaeda camps since 1997. Most of them are now part of a formidable clandestine network that is made up of mosques and madrassas (Koranic schools) that cover the entire country.

Indian intelligence has verified the claim of a prominent Pakistani tribal leader that Osama bin Laden and some 50 escorts escaped in the second week of December and moved into Peshawar, the teeming capital of the Northwest Frontier Province. Most of its 3.5 million inhabitants are anti- military government and pro-al Qaeda and Taliban. In the past two weeks, according to the same sources, bin Laden and several members of his family moved to Karachi, the sprawling port city of 12 million 900 miles to the south on the Arabian Sea. Bin Laden's second in command, Ayman Al- Zawahiri, is still with him.

U.S. Special Forces have been working covertly with the Pakistani military throughout FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) for most of the year. It has been slim pickings. Al Qaeda terrorists have long since scattered deep inside Pakistan and in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir where they enjoy the protection of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. ISI supervises infiltrations of "freedom fighters" into Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim state.

Gen. Musharraf pledged to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Rich Armitage to "permanently" halt these infiltrations across the Line of Control as Pakistan's contribution to lowering tensions with India. But Gen. Musharraf reneged - or ISI did for him - as accusations flew about the land that he had betrayed the "sacred cause" of Kashmir. At a closed meeting with Pakistan's top media editors, three newspaper editors called him "coward" to his face.

Despite last April's rigged plebiscite that gave Gen. Musharraf five more years as president and chief of the armed forces, hostile forces besiege Gen. Musharraf. He has survived six assassination plots. Like Cerberus, the three- headed dog of Greek mythology guarding the entrance of Hades, he is keeping at bay:

(1) The unreconstructed and largely irresponsible political parties that have pushed the country into military dictatorships for half its lifetime since independence.

(2) The medieval clergy whose idea of progress is Taliban.

(3) And the military spooks of ISI whose idea of global power is al Qaeda with nukes.

The man orchestrating hostile extremist forces is the ubiquitous former ISI chief Hamid Gul, who is an admirer of Osama bin Laden and a friend of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the former Taliban leader. In his latest media statement, Gen. Gul said this week: "America should concede defeat in Afghanistan. All it controls is Kabul, and even there it's shaky. The country is slowly but surely coming back to [Taliban] control."

Gen. Musharraf's numerous political opponents point to his appointment of Raja Irshad as deputy attorney general as proof he is keeping his options open on the extremist side of the political ledger. One of Mr. Irshad's sons was a member of al Qaeda and died in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. A posthumous prayer service was conducted by Hafiz Saeed, chief of the extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, banned by Gen. Musharraf. Mr. Irshad is a known defender of the jihadi (holy warrior) cause.

Some of the FBI agents working in Pakistan with their Pakistani counterparts say privately they sometimes get the feeling they are operating in a wilderness of distorting mirrors. The ISI chief and his top lieutenants are with Gen. Musharraf, but part of the 12,000-strong organization is ignoring directives and supporting the religious opposition financially and politically.

Gen. Musharraf remains Pakistan's most popular man in the West. At home, he is now arguably the most unpopular. He has antagonized every key segment of Pakistani society, even his own beloved army. Ambitious corps commanders in the queue for a fourth star are now looking at retirement while Gen. Musharraf still holds the top military job, a situation Gen. Gul keeps exploiting to agitate Islamist generals further down the promotion ladder.

Gen. Musharraf is between two dangers, either of which is difficult to avoid without encountering the other - a classic Hobson's choice. If Gen. Musharraf rigs the national elections, now scheduled for Oct. 10, as is widely suspected he will have to do, he will face a formidable array of opponents, both political and military. And if the elections are free and fair, his opposition will write the music and Gen. Musharraf will have to learn some new political dance steps - or dissolve Parliament, which one of the 29 amendments to the constitution he has decreed permit him to do.

The president can now appoint the prime minister, Supreme Court justices, armed services chiefs, 10 corps commanders and the heads of intelligence and security services. A dictatorial democracy is a chimerical political construct. More worrisome is the bitterness of Islamist generals who backed both Taliban and al Qaeda. It is most likely from their ranks that the seventh assassination attempt will come.

(Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.)

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