The Guardian yesterday had a long must-read examination of the current state of political play in Pakistan. It isn't healthy.
President Pervez Musharraf's rule has been "catastrophic" but his regime could yet "turn really nasty" said Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution in Washington and author of The Idea of Pakistan. "The country hasn't had a crisis of this magnitude since the 1970s when East Pakistan split off and became Bangladesh. But in this case it's an Islamist movement that wants to transform the country from within."The pressure for change is two-fold, from Islamist extremists
Nerves are on edge. "We are very scared," said Enver Baig, a senator with the opposition Pakistan People's party, who says his wife calls him several times a day to check he is still alive. "If we don't mend our ways, it could spell the end of the country. The Islamists have sleeper cells in every city. We could have a civil war."
The gravest threat comes from the tribal belt, where pro-Taliban militants have already declared war on the state. Since July 3 - the first day of the Red Mosque siege - suicide bombers have killed more than 200 people, mostly tribal policemen and soldiers. Al-Qaida is also involved. Yesterday a Libyan commander who escaped a US military prison in 2005 urged Pakistanis to overthrow Gen Musharraf. "Destroy the fortification of his weak army and the nest of his filthy intelligence agency and the core of his infidel rule," Abu Yahia al-Libi said in a video statement.and a secular pro-democracy movement revitallized by the recent furore over the Chief Justice.
The fighting is most intense in Waziristan, a mountainous area along the Afghan border where US intelligence says al-Qaida is regrouping. There, Islamabad has lost control. Pakistani soldiers are largely confined to base and travel by helicopter - much like Nato soldiers fighting the Taliban on the far side of the border. When they venture out, they are attacked. A firefight near Miran Shah on Tuesday left 15 militants dead, according to unconfirmed army figures.
An explosion of private television channels has revolutionised Pakistani politics. Previously coverage was censored; today channels zing with lively debate. Live coverage of riots in Karachi in early May, when armed government supporters killed dozens of rivals, was a turning point for Gen Musharraf.But as far as the latter is concerned, there are signs of a possibly fatal split which will weaken any democratic ressurgence.
The civilian revolt reached its climax 10 days ago when, against all expectations, the supreme court threw out Gen Musharraf's case against the chief justice. Never before had a civilian taken on a military leader and won. Gen Musharraf was silent, and US and British policies excusing the military dictatorship went up in smoke. "It shows that while Pakistanis may be at times incapable of operating a democracy, they want one," said Dr Cohen.
After years of casually disdaining his rubber-stamp parliament, Gen Musharraf now needs it to shore up his rule. He wants the chaotic national assembly - the product of a rigged vote in 2002 - to return him as president for another five years later this year. For this he needs a deal with Ms Bhutto, and has reportedly promised to lift long-standing corruption charges against her. The US and Britain are behind him, apparently convinced Gen Musharraf is still their best bet.The situation in Pakistan has become a US hot campaign issue, with Barrack Obama in particular being criticized for recent pronouncements. But the idea that the US should unilatreally attack terrorist positions inside Pakistan is one which has the backing of Bush administration advisors too. "We must be clear with Gen Musharraf that if Pakistan won't take out al-Qaida, the United States will," Lee Hamilton, a member of President George Bush's homeland security advisory council, wrote on Monday. And should Islamist extremists with ties to the Taliban and Al Qaeda win out in Pakistan's struggle for power, how many hawks, either Republican or Democrat, would balk at the notion of a pre-emptive first strike with nuclear weapons to deprive such a regime of its own nuclear arsenal?
But the plot could easily come unstuck. The supreme court could shoot it down. And it is an especially high-stakes game for Ms Bhutto, whose father was hanged by a general and who sneered at Gen Musharraf as a vile dictator during her nine-year exile. Now she risks a revolt from supporters who consider Gen Musharraf to be political poison.
"This is very demoralising and could undermine the whole process," said Talat Masood, a retired army general and liberal commentator. "Benazir has bracketed herself among the opportunists. Her support will dip, and it will be taken up by the religious right."
The cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan called it a "fatal mistake" that could drive Pakistan into the hands of extremists. "She's completely out of touch. I fear that Pakistan could become another Algeria. We need someone who believes in talking, not guns," he said.
After all, many such hawks were quietly approving of calls to do exactly that to the old Soviet Union at the height of Cold War confrontation, and the Soviets had far more retaliatory capability. It's a convenient issue to bash Obama for his "naivety" right now, but watch later how many hawks conveniently forget their mock-horror at a later date.
Update AFP has a statement from the Pakistani government that says Bush personally phoned Musharaff to contradict his own officials' pronouncements on unilateral attacks on Pakistani territory:
US President George Bush telephoned Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf Friday to reassure him after US threats of unilateral action against Al-Qaeda on the Islamic republic's soil, a statement said.Bush the dove does away with the Bush Doctrine? Do you think rightwing hawks like Captain Ed will even mention it? Me neither.
The call from Bush to his embattled ally in the "war on terror" comes after recent statements from US officials, and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, warning of possible US strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas.
"President Bush stated that the United States fully respected Pakistans sovereignty and appreciated Pakistans resolve in fighting Al-Qaeda and other terrorist elements," the Pakistani foreign ministry statement said.
"He said that such statements were unsavoury and often prompted by political considerations in an environment of electioneering. He agreed that such statements did not serve the interests of either country," it added.
...Senior US State Department troubleshooter Nicholas Burns said last week that Washington would retain the option of targeting Al-Qaeda in the Pakistani-Afghan border areas in some circumstances.
A few days earlier the White House's top counter-terrorism official Frances Townsend caused a stir by refusing to rule out a similar military incursion.
The comments have been alarming for a close ally that has received billions of dollars in US military aid since abandoning support for Afghanistan's Taliban movement after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
The foreign office statement said Musharraf also raised the issue of recent legislation on funding for Pakistan adopted by the US Congress on the implementation of the 9/11 commissions recommendations.
He "expressed concern over elements that reflected negatively on the Pakistan-US bilateral cooperation and relations."