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Pakistan-US tensions escalate

Pakistan-US tensions escalate

Author: Ahmed Rashid
Publication: The Nation (Pakistan),
Date: November 29, 2002
URL: http://www.nation.com.pk/daily/291102/main/top2.htm

Mir Zafrullah Khan Jamali, the 58-year-old Baloch politician has pledged to continue President Pervez Musharraf's foreign and economic policies. Within the first few days of his new government taking office, that is already proving extremely difficult especially in the realm of foreign policy. The self-effacing Jamali faces a fractured ruling coalition and the most aggressive anti-military opposition in the country's parliamentary history. He also has to deal with an all powerful President who remains army chief and retains the power to dismiss the Prime Minister and parliament, an army dominated National Security Council and an uncertain regional and international situation. He also faces dealing with Musharraf's legacy in foreign policy which has seen Pakistan take twist and turn in the past 12 months.

Despite Pakistan's support to the US in the war on terrorism and President George Bush's continuing public expressions of support to Musharraf, Islamabad faces mounting criticism from within the Bush administration. ''Musharraf has made so many unfulfilled promises and pledges to the US that his credibility here is at an all time low,'' says a senior US official in Washington. ''There are too many contentious issues coming to a head and the (US-Pakistan) relationship is skating on very thin ice,'' he adds.

Members of the US Congress are demanding that Pakistan be punished for allegedly aiding North Korea's nuclear weapons programme in exchange for receiving North Korean made nuclear capable missiles. Pakistan's public denials were coupled with private assurances from Musharraf that no such cooperation took place on his watch. That argument suffered a setback after leaks from the CIA appeared in the US media that cooperation between the two countries was taking place as recently as July. US Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Pakistan on Tuesday that it could face ''consequences'' if the US discovers that Pakistan continues to make alleged nuclear transfers to North Korea. ''In my conversations with President Musharraf, I have made clear to him that any sort of contact between Pakistan and North Korea we believes would be improper, inappropriate and would have consequences,'' Powell said on a visit to Mexico. Since then a North Korean spy now living n Japan has alleged there were Pakistani engineers working in North Korea as early as 1994.

US officials also say Pakistan continues to allow infiltration of militants into Indian Kashmir despite Musharraf's pledge in June to cease doing so a charge Pakistan denies. US officials have warned Pakistan not to underestimate India's possible military reaction if there are major terrorist attacks in Indian Kashmir this winter. Last weekend some 50 people - militants, Indian security personnel and civilians - died in violence in Indian Kashmir. There appears to be little change in Pakistan's policy of backing militancy despite a new government in Srinagar that has pledged to address Kashmiri grievances and talk to the militants. The need for a political strategy from Islamabad to deal with India and Kashmir has been profoundly lacking in the past few months.

US officials also say several Western intelligence agencies have determined that although the Pakistan military is still continuing to help arrest al-Qaeda militants based in Pakistan, it is pursuing a more aggressive policy in Afghanistan by harbouring former Taliban leaders and supporters of the renegade Pashtun militant Gulbuddin Hikmetyar who is a prime target for US forces in Afghanistan. Hikmetyar has issued a call to his fellow Pashtuns for a jehad against US forces and the government of President Hamid Karzai. Military officers say there is strong resentment in the ISI of the huge influence of India and Russia in Kabul and the loss of influence of the Afghan Pashtuns in the Kabul government. Pakistan has always supported the Pashtun population of Afghanistan although its clients over the past two decades have all been from extremist Pashtun factions.

Moreover, after an audio tape made by Osama Bin Laden was handed over to an Arab reporter in Islamabad in broad daylight on November 12, Musharraf faced severe international embarrassment. In the past Musharraf has repeatedly asserted that Bin Laden is dead and Al'Qaeda has little presence in Pakistan, but FBI officials have said that the tape is real and that bin Laden is alive. US officials now say that they believe Bin Laden is hiding either in Pakistan's tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan, while Al'Qaeda maintains significant communications and logistics hubs in Islamabad and Karachi or that he may have escaped to Yemen from a Pakistani port on the Arabian Sea. In the past few days Pakistani and FBI officials have arrested at least 16 suspected terrorists in the past few days, who are suspected to be involved in handing over the tape. But with the ISI supposedly watching over the activities of Arab journalists in Islamabad, especially those with well known contacts with Al'Qaeda, what the government has failed to explain is how such a tape could be delivered in the nation's capital without the culprit being caught.

For the moment an open rift between the US and Pakistan is unlikely. US officials say Secretary Powell is trying to keep the nuclear issue and other bones of contention with Pakistan under wraps because the State Department is wary of opening a front with Pakistan when it faces renewed threats from Al'Qaeda, a war in Iraq and continuing Indo-Pakistan tensions. For its part Pakistani officials have warned Washington that with anti-American feeling on the rise across the country, Musharraf has no choice but to show some independence from US pressures and demands.

However the real fear is that the MMA which openly supports the Taliban and has refused to condemn Al'Qaeda for terrorism, will now step up the harbouring of Taliban leaders hiding in the NWFP and also implement tough Islamic policies including the imposition of Sharia law when it forms the provincial government. On Wednesday Bakht Jehan, an MMA candidate was elected as Speaker of the NWFP provincial legislature in the first step towards MMA forming the government. Before the vote MPs led prayers condemning the US for its war in Afghanistan and prayed that America be ''ruined and destroyed.'' ''We have opposed the government's pro-US policies particularly operations aided by the US,'' said MMA leader and MP Akram Durrani who is expected to be elected as Chief Minister of the NWFP. ''We will neither allow our land to be used for terrorist activities, nor will we allow any operation particularly involving FBI agents,'' he added.

The advent of the MMA government is already creating grave apprehensions in Washington and Kabul. ''We are extremely concerned at the election victory of friends of Taliban in the Frontier province,'' says Zalmay Rassoul, the national security adviser to Karzai who was visiting Washington. ''We want a declaration of non-interference from all our neighbours,'' he adds. President Karzai and the UN will hold a meeting of all the Foreign Ministers of countries neighbouring Afghanistan on December 22 in Kabul, in order to extract a pledge of non- interference in Afghanistan's affairs. However the MMA are likely to ignore such pledges and defy Islamabad by continuing support for the Taliban.

Jamali's narrow majority and the debt he owes Musharraf for his elevation means he will have to depend largely on political support from the military rather than his own fragile political alliance. He has to take a vote of confidence from parliament in the next 60 days and both opposition groupings are threatening to cooperate to bring his government down. The army's aim is to keep the opposition divided which will imply its continued interference in parliament. Warns PPP's Shah Mehmood Qureshi, ''Jamali has to decide whether power lies with the elected parliament or with the army.''

Jamali's fragile majority and precarious grip on power has to be seen in the context of a worsening relationship with the world's only superpower and the fact that India and other adversaries will only try to take advantage of the emerging impasse which the new government is faced with. For the military it is convenient to have a civilian façade to now defend its convoluted foreign policies which are now coming home to roost, except that the first casualty is likely to be the military's credability both at home and abroad, as it is no secret that the army continues to dominate all key areas of the nation's foreign policy.

For the moment Musharraf remains in charge. A few days before Jamali was elected, Musharraf issued a controversial Ordinance which allows security agencies to detain a terrorist suspect for up to a year without any charges or even the need to produce him in court. The move was immediately denounced by human rights and lawyers groups, who said the law would be used to harass the political opposition. Musharraf did not respond to their concerns as the move was supported by Washington. What is at stake now is that for how long can Musharraf continue to depend on US support.
 


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