A country at war

In the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto we revisit our October special on Pakistan in whi

Pakistan is about to descend even deeper into violence and chaos, as the front-line state in the war on terror prepares for an all-out offensive on the jihadi militants entrenched in Waziristan, the country's lawless northern province. In what amounts to total war on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, President Musharraf is planning to bring the whole region under military control. This is a high-risk strategy, as the consequences of failure could be devastating for Pakistan. They could even lead to the break-up of the country.

Behind the headlines, the state's contradictions and tensions are being tested to the limit. The arrival of Benazir Bhutto, supposed to help marshal the forces of moderation and reform, has increased political instability. Supporters of the other former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who plans a second attempt to return from exile to Pakistan in the first week of November, are preparing a mass campaign against Musharraf that could lead to political gridlock. And the president himself has given a general amnesty to corrupt politicians - an act seen as handing a tabula rasa to plunderers and murderers.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan on the basis of a "power-sharing deal" brokered by Washington and vaunted in the international media as a po sitive move towards democracy. But it is little more than a conjunction of self-interests. Mush arraf describes the proposed arrangement as a "troika", involving the president, the prime min ister and the army chief of staff. The powers of the president, including being able to sack the prime minister at will, are to remain untouched for the next five-year term. Any premier would thus have little real power and would be forced to do the bidding of the other two members of the troika. A pliant prime minister with selected political parties on board means Musharraf remains in charge. The status quo is preserved.

In return for joining the arrangement, Bhutto's two main demands are met: her Swiss bank accounts have been unfrozen and she gets to keep her skyscraper in Dubai and properties in England and the US; and the rule against her serving a third term as prime minister is waived.

Musharraf's plans for the immediate future have two components. First, now that Bhutto has returned, he is determined to hold elections before mid-January. They will be "managed", just as he managed the 2002 elections, by "seat adjustment" - this time to the advantage of her party. He expects Bhutto to deliver her "blind" followers from Sind and Punjab, largely poor peasants at the mercy of feudal landlords. The intelligence agencies and the army will do the rest and ensure the desired results.

However, after the bloodbath in Karachi at Bhutto's return on 19 October, it is difficult to see how in the current atmosphere elections can be held. "Political rallies will be open to both militant attacks and sabotage by rogue intelligence elements," says Rashed Rahman, managing editor of the Post, the Lahore daily. "With intel ligence apparatus as prime candidate for the attack, all previous assumptions of Bhutto riding back to power are scuppered."

Fear of suicide bombings will be a potent inhibition to voters from venturing into the polling booths. And given that large parts of the northern provinces are virtually no-go areas, it will be next to impossible to hold elections in that region. "A limited voter turnout at around 20 per cent will hardly constitute a credible election," says Rahman - no matter how the elections are "managed".

Second, a fully fledged assault on Waziristan is due within days. "This has now become inevi table," a high-ranking military officer told the NS. "We are taking daily casualties. If we don't take the militants on with our full might, the morale of the army will sink even further." Unlike previous operations, which target ed specific militant bases or tried to block guer rilla movement between Pakistan and Afghan is tan, "the aim now is to pacify the entire province".

Forces would be deployed in all major cities, such as Mir Ali, Angor Ada and Magaroti, with the aim of establishing permanent army bases manned by thousands of military and paramilitary troops. The entire region will come under Pakistani military control, administered under the direct command of the newly appointed vice-chief of the army staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani. (When and if Musharraf removes his uniform, General Kiani will take over as chief of the army staff.) "We estimate the all-out assault will destroy the centralised command structure of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, making their operations sporadic and largely ineffective," says the military officer.

Language of liberation

However, given the Pakistani army's poor record in Waziristan, this seems rather optimistic. The militants will almost certainly stand and fight to the bloody end. Pakistan has already lost more than a thousand soldiers; 300 more are being held hostage. The Pashtun fighters, including the Pakistani Taliban, know the region well. They are used to guerrilla warfare and see death in battle as a great honour and a direct route to paradise. Most of the local population supports them. The chances of the Pakistani army "pacifying" the region are therefore slim.

At issue is more than terrorism. The fiercely proud and independent Pashtun people see the American and British forces in neighbouring Afghanistan as invaders. Pakistani troops marching into Waziristan will also be seen as a foreign invasion. A civil war will turn into a war of "national liberation". Many tribal leaders are already speaking the language of liberating themselves from the "Pakistani administration". The end result could be a new wave of suicide attacks and acts of sabotage throughout Pakistan.

Musharraf began putting his strategy in place two weeks ago. He secured the passage of the national reconciliation ordinance (NRO), as it is called, on 5 October. This dropped all corruption charges against politicians from "all parties". "We decided to wind up those cases that were pending for the past 15 years," Musharraf said, claiming that it would bring to an end the politics of vendetta and victimisation in the country. The NRO cleared the way for Bhutto's return and wiped out the last remaining charges against her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was released on bail in 2004 after spending eight years in prison. The next day, Musharraf had himself re-elected as president for another term by the current hand-selected parliament.

But the amnesty granted in the NRO does not include Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Muslim League, Pakistan's second-largest party. A conservative, staunchly anti-American politician, Sharif believes democracy and military dictators do not go together. He commands huge support among both the middle classes and religious groups and is more likely to win a fair election than Bhutto. Sharif, deposed in a bloodless coup in 1999, is determined to engineer Musharraf's downfall. On his first attempt to return to Pakistan on 10 September, he was arrested at Kar achi Airport and given two choices: prison, or return to exile in Saudi Arabia. The cases against Sharif are still pending before the Supreme Court. Yet, despite Musharraf's efforts, the courts have refused to issue new arrest warrants against him. If Sharif succeeds in returning, the Bhutto/Mush arraf deal will be in serious trouble.

"The chances of that alliance holding are also slim," says Rahman. To begin with, the two despise each other. The Pakistan People's Party is not so much a party as a feudal institution that Bhutto runs as her fiefdom. But even she may find it difficult to suppress dissent in the senior ranks. Many PPP stalwarts believe that the power-sharing pact with Musharraf is damaging the party's reputation and electoral chances. A number of Bhutto family members have openly stated their criticisms. The poet and newspaper columnist Fatima Bhutto, Benazir's niece, holds her aunt responsible for the deaths in Karachi because of her insistence on "political theatre".

Her ratings in opinion polls conducted after the NRO have fallen sharply. Some senior PPP members hoped she would give a new lease of life to the party by behaving like a senior states woman and allowing younger politicians to lead. But not many are willing to defend an indefensible deal. There is thus a real chance that the PPP may split, as it did at the previous elections. And if Bhutto fails to deliver at these elections, even after seat manipulations, Musharraf will drop her as easily as he has abandoned other parties.

So far, Musharraf has had it all his way. His only remaining obstacle is a case currently at the Supreme Court over whether he can continue as president in uniform. It is not much of an obstacle, however, as everything is now in place for him to retain his power even if he has to dispense with his military position.

The power-sharing arrangement was conceived as a ploy to paper over the gaping cracks in the country. After Karachi, it looks more like another contributory factor in a more turbulent and dangerous era for Pakistan. The intelligence services, elements of which may be responsible for the attack on Bhutto's motorcade, are out of control. Suicide bombings have become an integral part of the militants' strategy in Waziristan, both to undermine the political process and to demoralise the army. Whether one player, or even power-sharing players, ultimately subservient to Washington can retain control of this explosive situation is a moot point.