When it comes to Pakistan, that’s the understatement of the decade.
The above words were uttered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and they refer to the increasingly open defiance of Pakistan’s government by the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and allied groups in the country’s North West Frontier province.
A brief summary of the deteriorating situation:
- The central government has little or no control of the province, which is all but autonomous.
- The Pakistani army is either unwilling or unable to use military force to quell the Islamist militias active in the mountainous regions near the Afghan border.
- President Pervez Musharraf is deeply unpopular, and has lost the confidence of most of the country.
- The Taliban and Al Qaeda have publicly declared their ability and intention to take over the country and its nuclear weapons.
- Al Qaeda in Afghanistan operates with impunity in the border regions of Pakistan, so much so that its leader was interviewed on Pakistani television.
So the outlook in Pakistan is increasingly grim. How does Ms. Rice respond to a situation that could have grave strategic consequences for the United States?
“More needs to be done.”
A descent into typical State Department bureau-speak.
The passive voice. An understatement of the problem. A knee-jerk refusal to make any public acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation.
What needs to be done? By whom? Who can do it? What will be the consequences for the region and the world if it is done?
One thing is for sure: whatever it is, General Pervez Musharraf is incapable of doing it.
Before I get into today’s news on this topic, let’s take a look at a report from earlier this month in The Australian. Surprisingly enough, there’s a senior State Department official who does understand the gravity of the situation, and is willing to discuss it:
The issue facing nuclear-armed Pakistan, [US Assistant Secretary of State Richard] Boucher insists, is not President Pervez Musharraf.
“This is not the problem that Pakistan faces right now,” he maintains, in what was taken as a warning to the country’s floundering civilian Government, installed in office only 100 days ago.
“There’s danger of bombings and suicide bombers. There’s rising food prices. There’s energy difficulties. Their electricity is being cut off through load shedding.”
And, he might have added, there is a leadership vacuum and administrative paralysis in what many regard as one of the world’s most strategically important nations, which has opened the door to al-Qa’ida and Taliban militants, who are cutting a swath through much of the countryside and even steadily encircling one of its main cities, Peshawar.
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Little by little, militants are moving in strength ever closer to the city’s perimeter, threatening the security of the highway that is the main supply route for weapons shipped to the port of Karachi and bound for the NATO-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.
According to most sources, in much of Pakistan’s northwest the Government’s writ is virtually nonexistent.
In vast stretches of territory (significantly, including areas where the country’s nuclear resources are deployed), al-Qa’ida and Taliban militants enjoy a largely free rein, unchallenged and unhindered as they impose sharia law and send columns of fighters into Afghanistan. Boucher’s message to Islamabad was plain, according to diplomats in the Pakistan capital. “For God’s sake, the clock’s ticking and getting closer to midnight. Start governing and get on with meeting the challenge posed by the extremists before it’s too late,” one envoy says.
And, most significantly of all:
Indicators have shown that about 73 per cent of Pakistanis have an unfavourable view of Musharraf.
The era of Pervez Musharraf is drawing to a close, and the United States and the West can no longer depend on his iron fist to keep a lid on the seething cauldron of jihad in the hinterlands of Pakistan. Whatever can be done, needs to be done, ought to be done, or has to be done will not be done by General Musharraf.
And now for the even grimmer news from today’s Australian:
Rebels could win Pakistan’s nuke haven
A crisis meeting of Pakistan’s new coalition Government has been warned that it could lose control of the North West Frontier Province, which is believed to hold most of its nuclear arsenal.
The warning came yesterday from the coalition leader, who, although he is part of the new Government, is regarded as having the closest links to al-Qa’ida and Taliban militants sweeping through the region.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman bluntly told his colleagues: “The North West Frontier province is breaking away from Pakistan. That is what is happening. That is the reality.”
This came just days before new Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s scheduled meeting with US President George W. Bush to discuss al-Qa’ida and Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Yesterday, the army was reported to have abruptly ended an operation in the Hangu district, close to Peshawar, after threats by militant leaders.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the ANP members blamed the worsening situation on “President (Pervez) Musharraf’s eight-year policy to deal with the issue through the barrel of a gun, and the alliance with America”.
The crisis meeting resolved to pursue dialogue with the jihadis, a policy derided by US and NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.
It also declared itself to be implacably opposed to US or other forces entering Pakistani territory to deal with the growing jihadi militancy.
Analysts in Islamabad believe the warning about the situation in the NWFP will prompt renewed concern about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking in Australia, suggested the restive border region was the source of a surge in Taliban-related violence in Afghanistan, and said Pakistan needed to do more to prevent attacks.
“We understand that it’s difficult, we understand that the North West Frontier area is difficult, but militants cannot be allowed to organise there and to plan there and to engage across the border,” Dr Rice said.
“So, yes, more needs to be done.”
Yes, we all know that. But what?
Does America need to invade Pakistan and secure the country’s nukes? Does the government of Pakistan need to cede territory in the NWF province to a brand-new sovereign nation of Pashtunistan? Does the President of Pakistan need to appoint a Taliban government?
What, precisely, does Dr. Rice propose?
There’s no way to tell. Vague declarations and bromides are all that the US government has to offer.
Al-Qa’ida’s operational commander in Afghanistan, a 53-year-old Egyptian named Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, was interviewed on Pakistani television yesterday and claimed the organisation’s strength in Afghanistan was growing so rapidly it would “soon occupy the whole country”.
He claimed that “the morale of our fighters in Afghanistan is very high and they are putting up a tough fight against US troops”.
He also claimed responsibility in the interview for a terrorist attack on the Danish embassy in Islamabad.
The fact of the interview, as much as what he said, is seen as indicating an important new stage in the crisis.
“The bad guys are even popping up and giving television interviews: that’s a reflection of what’s happening,” one foreign diplomat in Islamabad said last night.
No photo-op with an American president at the door of Air Force One is going to top that. President Musharraf is definitely playing catch-up ball here.
A leading think tank warned this week about the Taliban’s use of a media strategy to exaggerate their strength and undermine confidence in the Afghanistan Government.
The International Crisis Group says the administration and its backers must counter this propaganda if they are to defeat an insurgency “that is driving a dangerous wedge between them and the Afghan people”, in a report entitled Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?
Yes, the Taliban is winning the war of words. Because they’re willing to use words, real ones, like jihad, or Muhammad, or khalifa. Or, most importantly, Islam.
We, on the other hand, are unwilling to use such words. As a matter of fact, members of the US military and the bureaucracy are officially forbidden to refer to “Islam” or “jihad” when describing the war we’re fighting. All we have for an enemy is a big punching bag labeled “TERROR”.
No wonder they’re winning the war.
The Taliban now publicise their messages, warnings and claims of battle successes through a website, magazines, DVDs, cassettes, pamphlets, nationalist songs, poems and mobile telephones.
Audacious tactics such as the Kandahar jailbreak last month and the April assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai show that the intent is to grab attention.
“The result is weakening public support for nation building, even though few actively support the Taliban,” the report says.
After Musharraf… what? The deluge?
Before you jump on my case: yes, I know about the International Crisis Group. Follow the link and take a look at their board and funding sources. I notice George Soros and Chris Patten figure prominently among the names there. The ICG notoriously recommended the integration of the Muslim Brotherhood into Egypt’s political process.
They may be pulling a similar stunt here — painting an alarming picture of the situation in Pakistan, with the aim of inducing “both sides” to begin a “peace process”, with the end result being the installation of the radicals in power in Islamabad, à la Gaza.
But I don’t think the ICG has to exaggerate the crisis in Pakistan. No matter who’s doing the spinning, the situation looks dire indeed.
Hat tip: VH.