In a deadly suicide attack on May 8, bombers in Pakistan struck at foreign targets again. A naval bus was blown up killing fourteen people including eleven French engineers. The suicide bombers narrowly missed hitting the New Zealand cricket team staying at a hotel in an elite Karachi neighbourhood.
The cricket team left by the next available flight while French President Chirac’s celebrations over a grand electoral presidential win were cut short. France joined America as the latest foreign victim in the third suicide operation under Islamabad’s military dictator since this year began.
As blood, bodies and metal blew across the road, a clear pattern was emerging for the terrorist actions.
Following the rout of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the militants are re-grouping in Pakistan. This is hardly surprising. Many of them were initially recruited and brought to Pakistan when fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan was fashionable.
Once the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, so did the international support for the fight to win Kabul. The freedom fighters decided they had defeated one super power and could defeat another. So was born extremism and militancy.
Militancy found an expression in the post Soviet period in Kashmir. There Indian occupation was bitterly resented. The Kashmiris were ripe to rise and they did in 1989. Their movement was hijacked by the Afghan based elements in late 1996 even as Kashmiri leaders in the All Parties Hurriyat Conference were sidelined.
Now the extremists moved seamlessly through the three borders, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indian held Kashmir.
The death of Pakistani democracy in 1996 enabled the military hardliners supporting the Afghan elements to control Pakistan. They rigged the elections and dominated the administration. As Mr. Sharif grew increasingly unpopular, they backed the coup of General Musharraf to retain their grip on power.
Ironically, even as the international community views Musharraf as the Great White Hope in defeating extremism, many in Pakistan doubt that he can. Depending on a military regime backed by hardliners is like banking on an arsonist to put out the fire.
The terrorist actions occur in an interconnecting pattern between Pakistan’s Northern and Eastern hot borders. This inter-connection was made clear by Islamabad’s coup leader when he defended the decision to join the war against terror last September. Addressing the Pakistani people, he said he was “joining the lesser evil (America) to fight the greater evil (India)”.
The Northern Borders with neighbouring Afghanistan are hot due to escaping Al Qaeda and the international force that is after them. The Eastern Border with India is hot given the massive troop deployment that accompanied New Delhi’s demand that Islamabad hand over men it wanted in the Indian Parliament bombing.
When the Americans put the heat on Islamabad to chase Al Qaeda, the border with India heats up. Islamabad then says its military is pre-occupied with the Indian threat and unable to help effectively. This gives the dual advantage of highlighting the Kashmir Dispute.
Last winter, the Americans wanted Islamabad’s military to seal the border with Afghanistan and capture fleeing Al Qaeda. Militants successfully relieved the pressure by conducting the Indian Parliament attack. The threat of a possibly nuclear war became real. The international community was pre-occupied defusing it.
As summer approached, American pressure on Islamabad to control its wild Northern Frontier with mountains and fierce tribesmen sympathetic to Al Qaeda grew. Against the growing pressure, the Karachi terror attack near a five star hotel killing the Frenchmen and others took place shocking the city. Quickly an attack followed on May 14 killing women and children in disputed Kashmir sending the Indo-Pak war temperatures sky rocketing again.
Once again Islamabad’s military will find itself pre-occupied with India. And the international community will find itself pre-occupied with defusing the war threat.
The pattern is evident on the political field too. For example, when the Agra Summit heralding Indo-Pak talks took place, General Musharraf seized the hour to boot out President Tarrar and seize the Presidency for himself.
As Musharraf packed his bags for his Washington trip in February, the Danny Pearl kidnapping and murder took place. If any one doubted whether a military dictator was a proper alternative to a democratic dispensation, the kidnapping dealt with the doubts.
Then came the dictator’s Referendum. Supporting Opposition calls to register a negative vote through boycott, ninety five percent of the population refused to go to the polling booths. Even as the military leader smarted from the setback of the Referendum, popularly called the Joke-dum, the Karachi attack took place.
Recently General Musharraf released twelve hundred militants into the anarchic streets of the country. He said it was wrong to keep them behind bars without court convictions. Yet such compunctions disappear when it comes to keeping his political rivals behind bars without conviction. They suffer in the sixth year of imprisonment without relief in a country where colonels sit in court rooms to pressure the courts.
Released from prison on the eve of the Karachi terror attacks were one hundred and thirty convicted militants from the nineties. Experienced in rocket attacks, political assassinations, mass murders, sabotage and subterfuge, they know the streets of Karachi well. They have hideouts and finance their schemes through thefts. They have access to buried armed caches and gun smugglers. They have the experience and the capability to mount and spread terror. That they were released is mind boggling. The excuse offered was that their release could deliver Referendum votes that Musharraf needed.
Musharraf says he is unable to reach accommodation with the democratic parties because they are corrupt. Yet those charges are denied and those leaders unconvicted. The only logical explanation is that Musharraf is controlled by hardliners determined to crush the democratic forces through another rigged election. If this is the case, his continuation is a serious threat to the unity of Pakistan as well as regional peace and global security.
Pakistan invests billions in its intelligence workforce through salary, pensions and perks including lucrative land grants. Elected local leaders and junior police officers find it hard to operate without Big Brother from the powerful Inter Services Intelligence, Military Intelligence, Corps of Intelligence and a panoply of other intelligences breathing down their necks. In such a situation, there is little explanation as to why this huge internal army with eyes and ears everywhere is unable to monitor militants, extremists and terrorists.
Opposition groups believe hardliners control the intelligence as a state subsidized political party. The Major General controlling the intelligence political party is busy making and breaking political alliances at the behest of the Presidency. At the cost of poverty alleviation, officers travel frequently, taking extra daily allowance, contacting politicians. Their goal is to create a King’s Party and hold on to power by rigging the promised October elections to keep out those they threw out in 1996.
Islamabad’s descent into madness can stop when the military hardliners who seized power in 1996 are replaced through transparent elections that bring a political change. This is possible when the military and the judiciary join the people in supporting implementation of electoral reforms ensuring democracy. Otherwise the war that started in Kabul last September could end up in Delhi on the back of militants determined to play a high stakes game with human lives.