Intrigue in Islamabad: NI Online's Continuing Pakistan Coverage

On Friday, Pakistani interior minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao spoke with National Interest online and shed some light on the struggle against Al-Qaeda.

On the eve of Pakistan declaring a state of emergency, the country's interior minister, Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, spoke at length to National Interest online about the serial suicide bombings of recent days; Al-Qaeda's current operational prowess; the general security situation; and how the preponderant geopolitical factors, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, reverberate within Pakistan's borders. And interestingly, in the telephone interview on Friday, Sherpao's comments regarding the upcoming elections in Pakistan differed from a statement the prime minister made on Sunday.

According to press reports, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz yesterday said parliamentary elections scheduled for January 15 may be delayed, since Musharraf's emergency powers allowed him to extend legislators' current term by a year. But Sherpao said in the Friday interview that general elections were a "few months away" in response to a question about the potential for the recent violence to project an image abroad that Pakistan is not ready for democracy. Aziz, though, has apparently contradicted his own comments, suggesting some confusion or discord within the government. Today he said the general elections, which are scheduled by Jan. 15, would "be held according to the schedule", according to the official Associated Press of Pakistan.

Sherpao also reiterated the comments of other Pakistani officials in maintaining that security agencies had warned former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to desist from launching campaign processions. He said such processions could provoke additional deadly attacks in the future, adding, "we have asked the political parties to cooperate with us." On October 19, bomb attacks on Bhutto's convey in Karachi killed at least 136 people and injured more than 500, making it the worst terrorist attack in Pakistan's sixty-year history.

Sherpao also pointed to another catalyst of recent violence in Pakistan: the military campaigns in the border tribal areas. To root out militants, Pakistan has deployed 80,000 soldiers in the northwestern tribal area and established 1,000 military posts on the frontier. "The more we pressurize them", said the minister, the more the militants will respond. The minister said he believes that the terrorists that struck Bhutto's procession are affiliated with the suicide bombers that struck on Tuesday and Thursday in Pakistan, based on the methods and materials used.

He acknowledged that he could not estimate when Pakistan would be militarily successful in degrading the militants' operational ability to launch such attacks in the future, but added, "Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization is now fragmented. It is not capable of conducting any great terrorist act anywhere." The recent violence now being perpetrated in Pakistan is waged by "various groups spread in tribal areas", he said.

The militants, though, make up "a very small percentage of the population", said the minister, adding that he estimated there were 200 to 300 foreign militants in Waziristan. "Most of the people are fed up with the militants." Also, "local tribesmen" have told the militants "to leave their area or be prepared to face the consequences." Sherpao said that while the militants have found some people to harbor them, the Pakistani government also has networks of local people who are aiding the government's fight against the militants. Officials in Islamabad are also in touch with the political administrators of the area, who convey the "mood of the people", which officials take into account when fashioning military strategy, he said. "We do not want to have all the locals against us."

The interior minister also maintained, however, that Pakistan remains committed to countering the militants through the use of force and that such action is being taken to serve the country's national interests, rather than to placate the Bush Administration. "These are terrorists and we will continue to fight terrorism", he stated. Such action will allow political forces to improve conditions in the area, he said, but added that military force alone will not pacify the tribal regions. And when asked what the single greatest contribution the United States could make to Pakistani security was, Sherpao pointed to development aid to tribal areas.

Although the Pakistani and Afghan leadership are so often at odds with each other, Sherpao echoed President Hamid Karzai's recent criticisms of the kind of U.S. military force that leads to significant civilian casualties-using careful, calibrated language. Sherpao pointed to the January 13 U.S. air strike in Pakistan's Bajur tribal region, which killed at least 18 people. He said Pakistan's religious parties successfully take advantage of such strikes to whip up opposition to the government, which is widely seen as aligned with Washington.

The minister said that Pakistan broadly felt the reverberations of the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, urging a prompt resolution in both countries. The long border and the shared Pashtun blood-ties and traditions along it cause events in Afghanistan to be deeply felt in Pakistan, he said. "There is a saying in Pakistan that when Afghanistan sneezes, Pakistan gets a cold", said the minister.

 

Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.