A few days after the May 2nd Abbottabad raid by the U.S. Navy SEALs, in which al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed, a member of the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulemai Islam stunned other members of the Pakistani parliament by asking them to offer condolences for "the departed soul of bin Laden." In a house of 342 members, only two others joined Maulana Asmatullah Khan in the prayer. Maulana Attaurrehman, a former minister for tourism, was also among the three bin Laden sympathisers. (Attaurrheman's party, the JUI-F, was until recently part of the coalition government led by President Asif Ali Zardari, and has been a vocal supporter of the Afghan Taliban in the past.)
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The diplomatic and political saga surrounding the arrest of American intelligence contractor Raymond Davis last month demonstrates clearly the polarization within the Pakistani society. This divide became apparent following an extremely damaging press conference by former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on Feb.16, when Qureshi declared in unequivocal terms that Davis had no diplomatic accreditation with the ministry of foreign affairs -- a primary requisite for entitlement to immunity.
The night before the press conference, Qureshi had a terse meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and other cabinet colleagues. Almost all wanted him to recognize Davis as a diplomat, and thus avoid a more serious crisis with the United States. Even Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani pleaded with Qureshi to acquiesce.
ISLAMABAD — The assassination of the governor of Punjab, Pakistan's most politically powerful province, Salman Taseer earlier this morning provides the latest example of how religious intolerance, coupled with contentious laws, can wreak havoc on human lives. If the confession of the killer -- Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri -- is any indication, then Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws have claimed another life, in addition to the more than 30 people accused of blasphemy and later killed by angry mobs or individuals over the last quarter-century.
Qadri, 26, according to Interior Minister Rehman Malik, told police he killed Taseer "because he had called the blasphemy law a black law." Reportedly a member of an elite police force, Qadri was part of the security detail deployed to protect Taseer in Islamabad. The governor was on his way to an upscale market for a cup of coffee near his Islamabad residence when he was killed.
Taseer's assassination stunned Pakistanis but surprised none; by openly criticizing the country's controversial blasphemy laws, Taseer also had upset religious groups, including even mainstream religiopolitical parties. "I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing," was one of Taseer's recent tweets on the laws, imposed in the late 1970s by former dictator General Zia ul-Haq, whose Islamist legacy continues to haunt Pakistan today.
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Islamabad-Last Wednesday, the Pentagon announced it would soon built a new facility in southwestern Pakistan to house U.S. military officials. It was meant to be a bilateral "confidence-building measure" in the ongoing war on terror, according to U.S. officials -- but it has instead produced a furious backlash in Pakistan.
The title headlining the Pentagon's announcement was sober -- "Pakistan Army General Headquarters recently approved a U.S. Office of Defense Representative (ODR) and Coalition presence at the Pakistan military's 12 Corps HQ in Quetta" -- but it's clear that the new building was designed to symbolize the recent progress in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. The city of Quetta, the capital of the province of Balochistan, has long been a bone of contention between Washington and Islamabad, and the Western intelligence community community believes that the top Taliban commanders known as the Quetta Shura have been living there with the tacit permission of the Pakistani state.
Just days before the Pentagon's announcement, Islamabad had
spurned a U.S. request to extend the drone campaign to Balochistan. "There is
no question that Pakistan will allow drone attacks in Balochistan or any other
part of the country," Foreign Office spokesperson Abdul Basit told
a weekly media briefing in Islamabad on Nov. 26. "We are asking the Obama
administration to revisit its drone policy as it is counterproductive."
The U.S. drones currently are restricted to the Waziristan region, where the Predator and Reaper pilotless vehicles have made 97 strikes this year so far, hunting for al Qaeda and its close Afghan ally, the Haqqani network. Opposition parties and the public at large have been quite critical of such strikes, which have reportedly killed more than 600 people in Waziristan.
The planned U.S. building in Quetta only added fuel to the fire. The Pakistan
Muslim League (PML-N), the country's main opposition party, immediately
expressed its reservations. "We are extremely worried about what is happening
in and around Quetta and demand a clarification by all those who permitted the
establishment of the U.S. facility in Quetta," Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, a PML-N
leader, told reporters on Nov. 26.
On the other hand, a senior ODR official in Islamabad -- the
Pentagon's main Pakistan office is located within the U.S. embassy in
Islamabad, with further outposts in Karachi, Lahore, and Peshawar -- sounded
pretty upbeat about the new permission to operate out of Quetta.
"This is a big confidence-building measure and also
underscores the confidence of the Pakistani security establishment," the ODR
official told me, requesting anonymity. This will help both parties, the
Although it would be naïve to believe the United States has had no security presence in Quetta until now, the new facility would provide the U.S. military, and presumably, its intelligence community, formal access to areas where Taliban leaders are suspected of planning attacks on NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan. It would also take some of the heat off the Pakistani security establishment, which has been heavily criticized for allegedly allowing the Quetta Shura to operate unmolested.
Officially, the Pakistani government denies the Taliban
Shura is even in Quetta, and locals laugh off such allegations: With so many
U.S. informants in the area, they say, it would be impossible for Taliban to
stay in Quetta for too long. What is undeniable, however, is the frequent
cross-border movement of Taliban leaders through different parts of
Balochistan, which shares a border of some 1,200 kilometers with Afghanistan.
Mullah Baradar, the Taliban's operations commander, for instance, was arrested in
a joint CIA-ISI operation on the outskirts of Karachi in February 2010, as
he was about to enter Balochistan from the south.
There still are occasional diplomatic skirmishes between the United States and Pakistan, especially between their respective militaries: One need only think back to the incursion of a U.S. gunship helicopter into Pakistani territory in late September, or the shelling on Nov. 26 by NATO gunships on targets in North Waziristan. The latest deluge of information through WikiLeaks such as frank dispatches by former ambassador to Islamabad Anne W. Patterson, who has been reporting on the nuclear issue, or comments attributed to Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani about President Asif Ali Zardari, have also vitiated the atmosphere. The leaks continue to dominate the public debate in Pakistan because they have exposed the hidden facet of U.S. diplomacy, which analysts and common people at large are condemning as "espionage."
One, however, would hope that the strategic dialogue
established by both countries this year will serve as a shock-absorber and help
them get over such hiccups. The third round of the bilateral talks, held in
Washington in late October, was attended by Kayani and Foreign Minister Shah
Mehmood Qureshi; it might have been then that they agreed to site a U.S.
military site in Quetta.
The Pakistani army knows it must make concessions as the NATO campaign in the border region steps up, and the U.S. intensifies its drone attacks in Waziristan. But in addition to tending to its relationship to the West, Pakistani leaders will need to placate their own population. We'll soon know how they plan on finessing that potential contradiction.
Imtiaz Gul is author of The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan's Lawless Frontier.
Gen. David Petraeus forged extremely good relations with Pakistan’s armed forces. Will his ambitious strategy in Afghanistan destroy that goodwill, and with that mess up the U.S. endgame?
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Late last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, General David Petraeus, and American AfPak special envoy Richard Holbrook descended on Islamabad to jointly think a way out of the Afghan imbroglio.
Officials touted their meetings with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, ISI officials and civilian Pakistani leaders as routine brainstorming sessions. Yet Afghanistan's surge in violence and its extremely low turnout in the Afghan parliamentary election two days later on Saturday, betray the bitter truth: the region is in crisis. Afghans are fear-stricken, the American top brass is frustrated by its failure in showcasing any tangible success back home, Karzai is resentful of Washington's high-handed approach and Pakistan itself is struggling with the consequences of an over-bearing counter-insurgency campaign, complicated by recent devastating floods. Not only do the stakeholders feel they're getting nowhere -- they feel like they're moving deeper into chaos.
While August in Pakistan was dominated by the incredible turmoil of flooding and related destruction, September began with its own nightmare; nearly 120 casualties from several acts of terrorism in the two largest cities Karachi and Lahore on the 1st, followed by deadly suicide bombings in Quetta and in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa.
In the first three cases terrorists targeted the minority shia community, leading several security experts to believe that rabidly anti-Shia and al-Qaeda linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) might be behind this new wave of terror. Not long ago, several people lost lives in three different terrorist incidents in northwestern towns of Peshawar, Wana (Waziristan) and Kurram, where pro-government peace committee members fell to suicide bombers. An attack in Mardan last Friday targeted a minority Ahmedi mosque, a sect proscribed under the Pakistani constitution. And the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan staged several attacks this week against Pakistani police targets, wounding and killing dozens of civilians in the process.
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Pakistan's super flood is unparalleled with any other the country has seen in the last 120 years, claiming the lives of nearly 1,500 Pakistanis and destroying over half of the country's cash crops, wiping out about half a million small farmers financially. The Indus river torrents continue to maroon hundreds of villages in the south of the country, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee from their homes, displacing several million within the last three weeks alone. It is a crisis far greater than the one Pakistan faced last year after its army moved against Taliban militants, which resulted in the displacement of over two million in the Swat region.
Ironically, people here in the north had been praying for extra rains until about three weeks ago. Today, most are praying for an end to rain in the north and a safe passage through the next deluge expected in the coming days.
Before the devastation in southern towns, flood waters were already wreaking havoc in the north along the Indus and Kabul River. The unusually heavy monsoon rains and the westerly winds submerged entire villages in water, affecting the major thorough fairs such as the M1, the expressway that connects the capital Islamabad with Peshawar. Today the median of the highway is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of impoverished families who have set up tents after fleeing from the floods.
The Kabul River delta, once famous for its fertility, is now beset by flooding. The vast swathes of villages in Peshawar's vicinity are at the mercy of the swollen Kabul River is overflowing with flood waters.
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