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Showdown or Showtime In Pakistan?

Why neither Musharraf nor the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance want this fight...yet.

By Steve Schippert

Since Musharraf's fateful siege on the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), the stars of conflict have aligned between the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance and Musharraf's ever-weakening government. Pakistani troop movements are met with corresponding al-Qaeda suicide bomber attacks. An unbridled confrontation between the two is possible given the current tensions. Yet both enter into the posture of war with clearly observable reservations that are crucial to acknowledge.

Even with the suicide bomber attacks, reportedly killing sixty Sunday alone, the forces of the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance in the tribal areas of Pakistan – numbering over 200,000 armed fighters - have largely held themselves in check. Why?

And Musharraf has ordered mass troop deployments into the tribal areas along what can only be called the Pakistan-al-Qaeda border. Yet they have yet to fire a reported shot in anger, despite the suicide bombings as well as mortar and rocket attacks all along the deployment lines. Why?

The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance effectively declared Taliban-style Shari'a law in Bajour, where Fridays were announced forbidden for conducting business. In North Waziristan, the 'peace accord' signed less than one year ago was declared null and void by terrorist leaders. Yet, while his deploying troops are attacked with mortars, rockets and suicide bombers, Musharraf desperately sues for peace. Again, why?

The answers to each are as intertwined as the classic cause and effect. And each is critical for policy makers and military leaders to understand. For no country, region or theater has the power to so alter the stakes in Usama bin Laden's deathmatch with America and the non-Muslim West as does the fate of Pakistan. Nuclear weapons hang in the balance.

Neither Musharraf nor the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance want this fight.

Unlike Islamists in the tribal areas, Musharraf is quite unlikely to enjoy the benefit of any 'rally around the flag' sentiment with an offensive within the tribal areas which would be, by necessity, violent and bloody. Musharraf, already facing massive protest and objection domestically throughout the rest of Pakistan, can ill-afford the propaganda specter of orders to combat and kill Pakistanis, particularly on the heels of the Lal Masjid showdown in which 75 were killed inside along with 10 Pakistani soldiers. While the Lal Masjid leaders brought women and children into their Waco-style final showdown death wish, the Islamists are successfully portraying them as victims of Musharraf's actions.

For the Islamists, 13,000 of Pakistan's 15,000 madrassas are said to be calling for the removal of Musharraf after Lal Masjid. For Musharraf, street protests continue inside Pakistan. Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whose removal by Musharraf sparked massive protests against Musharraf and his dual role as president and Army Chief of Staff, has once again reemerged to claim his share of center stage. Addressing the Lahore Bar Association, Chaudry took aim at Musharraf in saying that “only the enforcement of the Constitution could restore democracy “ in Pakistan. The Pakistani Constitution delineates the roles of President and Army Chief of Staff.

Musharraf is very reluctant to strike the match to the Pakistani tinderbox by launching a full offensive into the tribal areas against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, even though his successful siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad was seen by many as a hopeful sign that he may have turned a corner. It was hoped that he had finally decided to confront the alliance that has been attempting to assassinate him for years and seeks to undermine and overthrow his government. With his suing for the restoration of the Miranshah Agreement in North Waziristan has dashed any hopes of that.

But the real reason the fight is not and likely will not be on (yet) is because al-Qaeda does not will it yet. Al-Qaeda is clearly capable of, and to a large extent willing and ready, to fight Musharraf's potential offensive. But they have been patiently executing a Death By A Thousand Cuts campaign against Musharraf and, if the history of patience is a guide, they will continue this, though accelerated, and avoid direct mass confrontation with Pakistani troops if possible.

The following is absolutely important to digest and understand:

In the immediate, if al-Qaeda has actionable attack plans for the continental United States as many analysts fear, so long as a weak Musharraf is in place in Pakistan, his presence acts as an insurance policy of sorts against a heavy US response to a new attack. The current status-quo for al-Qaeda in Pakistan is favorable to them in this regard. They are served well by a weakened President Bush with an opposition-controlled Congress in the United States and an ever weakening Musharraf facing widespread protest in Pakistan.

Rest assuerd, al-Qaeda wants Pakistan. However, al-Qaeda wants Pakistan with its military largely in tact for two reasons. They do not want to expend its own resources (chiefly human and time) in a war with Pakistan's military if it can be avoided. But most importantly, the crown jewels of effectively seizing Pakistan is its nuclear weapons. And control of such will be difficult at very best if al-Qaeda is engaged in a hot war with a post-Musharraf Pakistani military.

Al-Qaeda needs the military on its side, or more realistically, not largely in opposition. It is for this reason that one of al-Qaeda's chief persistent propaganda messages is to that military, stressing that its fight is with Musharraf, not the men of the Pakistani military. It is also a chief reason that its numerous forces have not been sent forth beyond the tribal areas seeking attacks on the military, and why it will likely maintain those forces largely held back.

It is not that al-Qaeda's forces would be decimated by the Pakistani military. Recall that it was this force that fought that military to a stand still in South Waziristan and North Waziristan, forcing Musharraf to sue for peace there. It's forces are certainly not all simple conscripts as those sent en-masse across the Afghanistan border to harass NATO forces and briefly take Afghani real estate.

Here is why this matters and is important to understand:

When al-Qaeda finally takes control of Pakistan, it will almost certainly not give the appearance of a military conquest with bin Laden hoisting the Keys to the Kingdom above his head. There will be, by necessity, a different figure taking the reigns and riding to Pakistan's rescue, complete with pragmatic statements intended for international digestion in order to cause pause in reaction. Were al-Qaeda to overtly and directly seize Pakistan, wrest her military and control her nuclear weapons, the United States would most assuredly destroy them in place.

So al-Qaeda's takeover of Pakistan and her nuclear arsenal will be initiated with the successful removal or assassination of Musharraf. But al-Qaeda's power (and Islamist control) will be realized in the guise of a figure such as former Pakistani military intelligence (ISI) chief Hamid Gul or former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It must be in order to preserve the arsenal.

It is widely believed that Hamid Gul works directly for bin Laden behind a thin veil of deniability. Always keep in mind that Gul said shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks that he envisions a nuclear Islamist Pakistan allied with Iran and, after the long-awaited fall of the monarchy, a fundamentalist Islamist Saudi Arabia.

And, as former top CIA al-Qaeda analyst Michael Scheuer noted in his book Through Our Enemies' Eyes (pg. 176), it was reported in the Pakistani media that bin Laden gave Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif 1 billon rupees ahead of the 1990 elections. And as talk circulates about a potential Benazir Bhutto – Musharraf alliance, it should be noted that bin Laden most assuredly has no stomach for a female leadership in Pakistan.

Such has been al-Qaeda's ever-patient strategy to remove Musharraf in a Death By A Thousand Cuts, co-opt the Pakistani military and seize control of both Pakistan and the nuclear arsenal it holds. Our public must be aware of what it will look like and, equally importantly, our political leadership as well. Whether leaders in the West will fall for the ruse remains to be seen.

Internationally, there is a track record of many leaders seeming to seek such cause for delay and inaction. This, like other fights procrastinated and avoided, will be costly and difficult. Unfortunately, this enemy persists with it's declared war with determined abandon, action or inaction on the part of its enemies' leaders. And defeating and destroying al-Qaeda in Pakistan is an abject requirement in the conflict at hand.

All would do well to know what to look for in recognizing al-Qaeda control of Pakistan that would be present in a less-than-overt manner. Failure to do so could be incredibly costly.

[This article originally appeared in and was written for FrontPage Magazine.]