ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – It has been an extraordinarily bloody start to 2007 in Pakistan, and analysts, intelligence officials and ordinary Pakistanis fear it is likely to get worse.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney this week asked President Pervez Musharraf to stop al Qaeda rebuilding in Pakistani tribal lands and stem the flow of Taliban fighters going to Afghanistan for a spring offensive against NATO and Afghan troops.
“The Americans will have said: ‘If we find a camp, either you go in and destroy it, or we do it ourselves’,” said Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times.
President George W. Bush is being asked to push Pakistan harder, not just by the American media, the think-tanks, but also by unhappy NATO allies, his own generals, and most recently Democrat lawmakers who want to make aid to Pakistan contingent on counter-terrorism results.
“There’s growing uneasiness, not only among Democrats and not only on Capitol Hill, that things are going in a wrong direction in Pakistan,” Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, said.
Success against al Qaeda and in Afghanistan depends on Pakistani support.
“Increasingly, people of both parties, as well as apolitical people, understand that there’s a possibility that we might lose this war in Afghanistan and until very recently that was a shocking idea for people who weren’t playing close attention,” Hathaway said.
The United States became intensively engaged with Pakistan and Afghanistan after al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.
The possibility of al Qaeda planners based in the North Waziristan region mounting another successful terror strike on the West should haunt Pakistan, analysts say.
There are also the allegations, denied by Musharraf, that Taliban leaders actually run the Afghan insurgency from Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province.
“Pakistan could really show it was confronting the Taliban by arresting and putting on trial some of these so-called clerics recruiting and training suicide bombers,” said a diplomat whose country has troops in Afghanistan.
It could also take out of commission any rogue intelligence officers supporting Taliban networks, U.S.-based analysts said.
Having lost over 700 of its troops during three years of fighting, Pakistan signed an accord in September with militants in exchange for guarantees that they would cease attacks on the army, and stop crossing from North Waziristan into Afghanistan.
After the failure of military intervention, Musharraf has said he intends to strike similar agreements in other militancy-prone tribal areas where the state has little writ.
The United States, however, is unhappy with the results of the Waziristan accord, and its generals want strikes conducted against al Qaeda and Taliban using the area as a safe haven.
A Pakistani army air strike on compounds used by militants in the mountains of Waziristan in mid-January was followed by a wave of suicide attacks killing close to 45 people.
A suicide bomber killed 42 army recruits in November in revenge for another air strike on a militant madrasa in Bajaur tribal region.
“I expect more agreements, more military strikes, and then more blowback,” Sethi said.
A day after visiting Islamabad, a suicide bomb attack outside Bagram airbase in Afghanistan on Tuesday gave Cheney a taste of the threat Musharraf now faces whenever a major operation is launched against a militant target.
“There’s so much anxiety. Everyone is talking about how many suicide bombers there are. How many might be for Afghanistan, and how many for here,” said a resident of Peshawar, the northwestern city suffering a backlash from the conflict in the tribal lands.
The scary trend prompted one Pakistani intelligence official to remark: “We’ve got to stop this place becoming like Iraq.”
For all the U.S. media reports of Washington getting “tough” with Pakistan prior to Cheney’s visit, the U.S. strategy of applying private pressure while maintaining public support for General Musharraf is unchanged, analysts say. Musharraf is regarded as a crucial U.S. asset in a country where there is an enduring global threat from Islamist militants and anti-American sentiment is rife.
Should a confrontation with Iran blow-up, Washington will be glad to have a friend in Islamabad.
With elections due this year or early in 2008, critics say democracy-minded civilian politicians should be promoted as an alternative to the president in uniform, but most analysts agree U.S. policy strategists won’t risk undermining Musharraf.
“They don’t want to precipitate a crisis. They don’t have a Plan B for Pakistan, or a Plan B for Musharraf should he react negatively,” remarked Ahmed Rashid, a respected Pakistani journalist and author.