Monday, November 05, 2007

WAKE UP! The Crisis in Pakistan Is Much More Dangerous Than You Think

Musharraf's Emergency Crackdown Is Anathema to Everyone Who Cherishes Human Rights and Democracy. But His Grip on Power Is Slipping Just as Islamic Extremists Are Escalating Their Bloody Insurgency. If They Succeed in Overthrowing Musharraf and Seizing Power, al-Qaida Will Gain Access to Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons.


President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan announces in a televised speech to his nation Saturday night that he had declared a state of emergency and was suspending the country's 1973 constitution to crack down on Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida, whose insurgency was spreading from the northwestern regions bordering Afghanistan to the country's major cities, including the capital, Islamabad. While roundly denounced by pro-democracy activists as a desperate act to stay in power, Musharraf's move also exposes his increasing vulnerability to being overthrown by the insurgents -- which, should it occur, would pose an extreme danger to the world with al-Qaida gaining control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons arsenal. (Photo: Pakistan Press Information Department via Reuters)

(Updated 12:30 p.m. EST Tuesday, November 6, 2007)

By Skeeter Sanders

The Bush-Cheney regime in Washington has been saber-rattling for months against Iran's nuclear program, insisting that the world cannot afford a nuclear-armed Islamic republic, which the U.S. says is a state sponsor of terrorists -- despite a lack of concrete evidence that Iran is actually seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Yet Washington has paid little attention -- that is, until this past weekend -- to a crisis that threatens to endanger the planet with nuclear blackmail much more immediately than Iran. While the world has been focusing on Iran's nuclear program, it has been overlooking a mounting nuclear danger in Pakistan.

With al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists gaining control of vast swaths of northwestern Pakistan and waging a bloody series of suicide bombing attacks on the Pakistani army and police, President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday declared a state of emergency and ordered a nationwide crackdown.

Within hours after Musharraf's emergency declaration, Pakistani police wielding assault rifles began rounding up opposition leaders and human-rights activists. Musharraf also ousted the chief justice of the country's Supreme Court and deployed troops to fight what he called rising Islamic extremism.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry called on lawyers Tuesday to defy the police and step up their protests until Musharraf ends his state of emergency. The government, meanwhile, debated whether to delay parliamentary elections by up to three months.

"This is the time to sacrifice," Chaudhry said via mobile telephone to lawyers gathered at Islamabad's Bar Association headquarters. He acknowledged that he was under house arrest and that his home was surrounded by army troops, but remained defiant.

"Don't be afraid," Chaudhry exhorted the lawyers. "God will help us and the day will come when you'll see the constitution supreme and no dictatorship for a long time."

At least two rallies Tuesday by protesting attorneys turned violent -- one in the central city of Multan and the other in the eastern city of Gujranwala. The clashes marked the second day of unrest since Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, declared the emergency on Saturday.

The embattled general ousted a host of judges, cut off public access to all but state-run media and granted sweeping powers to authorities to crush dissent. Thousands of people have been rounded up and thrown in jail since then.

President Bush and other Western allies have pressured Musharraf to resign as army chief and hold crucial parliamentary elections in January as originally planned, but so far no new date has been set and a government spokesman bluntly told the international community to "butt out" of Pakistan's internal affairs.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan last month following eight years in exile, claimed the government had already decided to delay the elections by one to two years. "They have not announced it as such, [but] I know this from the inside," Bhutto told AP Television News, providing no details of the source of her information.

Political Crisis Must Not Overshadow Nuclear Danger in Pakistan

This blogger rarely comments on purely foreign political affairs. But events in Pakistan are impossible for me to ignore. There is no doubt that by launching his crackdown now -- and initially focusing on his domestic political and judicial opponents, Musharraf's actions are anathema to everyone who cherishes democracy and human rights.

After General Musharraf was re-elected president by Parliament -- dominated by Musharraf allies -- the Supreme Court announced that it would rule on whether he was eligible to run in the first place while serving as chief of the army. The court then announced that it would delay until November 12 its decision on the case -- only to reverse itself last Friday and announce that it would reach a decision by today (Monday).

The court's sudden about-face was in part due to criticism that the court's delay was adding to Pakistan's general instability. Convening on November 12 would have left just three days before the end of Musharraf's currrent presidential term. The court's reversal, Musharraf's critics said, prompted the general to make his move, fearing a decision against him.

It's easy to denounce Musharraf as just another Third World tinpot dictator. But Pakistan is not your run-of-the-mill Third World country. It's a member of the "nuclear club." And because of that, what's happening in Pakistan potentially poses a very real danger to the entire planet. Therefore, no one can ignore it.

Pakistan has been a member of the "nuclear club" since it began a series of underground tests in 1998. Likewise is its longtime rival, India, which has possessed its own nuclear weapons stockpile since 1974 -- and which immediately engaged in an almost daily tit-for-tat exchange of underground nuclear tests with Pakistan, raising global fears of a new nuclear arms race on the Indian subcontinent.

Neither country is a signatory to the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970.

Now, the world faces the very real potential of a new nuclear crisis -- one that will surely ensue if al-Qaida-linked Muslim extremists succeed in overthrowing the Musharraf regime and imposing an Islamic theocracy.

Militants Emboldened by Storming of Red Mosque

Islamic militants already have seized control of vast swaths of Pakistan's northwestern regions that border Afghanistan -- regions suspected to being the hiding place of al-Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri (Although this blogger still strongly suspects that bin Laden was killed in the 2005 earthquake that struck the region and wiped out nearly 75,000 people).

The militants gained new power and influence after the deadly storming last July by the army and police of the now-infamous Lal Masjid, the Red Mosque, in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. The number of people killed in the storming of the mosque remains a subject of dispute to this day, with estimates ranging from 200 to 1,000.

But there is no doubt about the aftermath of the Red Mosque debacle: Muslim extremists vowed revenge against the Musharraf regime. And in recent audiotapes purported to be of bin Laden, al-Qaida declared a jihad against Musharraf and his government -- vowing its overthrow.

There has been a rash of deadly suicide bombings against the Pakistani army since then.

For the last four years, Pakistan has faced instability in the federally administered tribal areas in the Northwest Frontier Province region of Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan and where some tribal leaders support Afghanistan's ousted Taliban. Musharraf responded to the insurgency by deploying the army to Waziristan to suppress the local unrest.

The insurgency in the Waziristan region was supposed to have been ended with a peace deal reached earlier this year between the central government and the Waziri tribal leaders that was supposed to bring back stability to the region. But instead, the deal emboldened the militants to step up their insurgency in other parts of the country.

For Musharraf, a 'Perfect Storm' of Forces Lined Up Against Him

In his televised address to Pakistanis on Saturday night, Musharraf, looking somber and composed, said Pakistan was at a "dangerous" juncture, and that its government was threatened by Islamic extremists who were "imposing their obsolete ideas on moderates."

Musharraf also blamed the Supreme Court for tying the hands of the government by postponing the validation of his recent election. That the general is in the thick of his worst political crisis is beyond doubt.

But behind Musharraf's remarks was a deeper, unspoken fear: Fear that the militants -- with al-Qaida egging them on -- were on the verge of launching a final, all-out assault to overthrow his government, which if successful, would win the militants a prize that the world cannot afford to see them obtain: Control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

The emergency comes as Musharraf's security forces are struggling to contain the growing insurgency, with pro-Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants -- fiercely emboldened by the Red Mosque debacle -- launching deadly suicide bombing attacks in Islamabad and in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi.

For Musharraf, the militants' insurgency comes at a particularly bad time -- simultaneous with a mounting civilian movement to restore democracy in a country that has seen the military intervene in Pakistani government and politics numerous times in the country's 60-year history.

The pro-democracy movement in Pakistan had been energized by the return from self-imposed exile of Musharraf's chief political rival and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto -- despite an assassination attempt against her by suicide bombers in Karachi on October 18 that killed 136 people -- and by an increasingly defiant Supreme Court, which was expected to rule soon on the validity of his recent presidential election win. Hearings that were scheduled for next week have been postponed in the face of the new emergency, with no new date set.

Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum denied claims by Bhutto and others that Musharraf had imposed martial law under the guise of a state of emergency. He noted that Prime Minister Aziz was still in his post and that Parliament would stay in session until the end of its current term on November 15.

Musharraf vowed to go ahead with parliamentary elections -- originally scheduled for January -- but did not say exactly when they would take place. Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azeem told The AP on Sunday he hoped the polls would go ahead soon, "But, unfortunately, everything has been put on the back burner. I can't give you the exact date."

For his part, Prime Minister Aziz said the extraordinary measures would remain in place "as long as it is necessary" and added that the elections could be postponed up to a year, but no such decision had been made.

Crisis Has Washington -- and the World -- Walking a Tightrope

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told reporters Sunday that she had several conversations with Musharraf — most recently on Friday — in which she pleaded that he not invoke his emergency powers. Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, made similar appeals -- to no avail, Rice acknowledged.

“We were clear that we did not support it,” Rice said while flying from Turkey to Israel to jump-start Middle East peace talks between Israel and the Palestininian Authority. But while Rice said the U.S. will review its aid to Pakistan, she stopped short of condeming the general outright.

Musharraf's crackdown leaves the White House's strategy of promoting democracy in the volatile country in ruins. White House officials have long believed that for all his faults, having Musharraf stay in power is preferable than a complete unknown in charge of a nuclear-armed country on the front lines in the "war on terror" -- or even worse, Islamic militants overthrowing Musharraf and seizing control of the country's nuclear weapons.

That Musharraf is becoming as unpopular with Pakistanis as President Bush is with Americans is making his ability to fight the insurgents increasingly tenuous. A new poll by shows that just 44 percent of Pakistanis support sending troops in to the tribal areas to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban.

"The Pakistani people are not enthusiastic about Musharraf," Steven Kull, director of the polling organization, told Time magazine. "[They] do not support his recent crackdown on fundamentalists, and are lukewarm at best about going after al-Qaida or the Taliban in western Pakistan."

If Kull is right -- and the militants succeed in overthrowing Musharraf -- then the world is in danger of facing its worst nuclear crisis since the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1962 over the placement of nuclear-armed Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles in Cuba.

As a survivor of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- which, as a nine-year-old boy, almost literally frightened me to death and has made me staunchly anti-nuclear ever since -- this blogger cannot bear the thought of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida is the ultimate apocalyptic death cult, that has proven itself willing to kill anyone who stands in its way -- including fellow Muslims.

Does anyone have any idea what India would do if the Musharraf regime fell to the militants? For that matter, what would Russia do? What would China do?

God save our planet if al-Qaida manages to acquire Pakistan's nukes.

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Volume II, Number 55
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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