By Pamela Constable and Kamran Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 11, 2006
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Two months ago, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, triumphantly announced a peace pact with Islamic extremists in the North Waziristan tribal district near the Afghan border, saying he hoped it would become a model for curbing domestic Islamic militancy and cross-border insurgent attacks in Afghanistan.
Today that model lies in shreds. Northwestern Pakistan's fragile political peace has been shattered by two devastating attacks: a government missile strike that killed 82 people at an Islamic school in the Bajaur tribal district on Oct. 30, and a retaliatory suicide bombing Wednesday that killed 42 army recruits at a training camp in the Malakand tribal district.
The missile strike was based on U.S. intelligence reports that the school was being used as a training site for Islamic insurgents, who have found sanctuary across the semi-autonomous tribal areas where Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures may also be hiding. Now, officials are predicting a new wave of violence, as anti-government anger spreads and religious extremists call for holy war against the Pakistani military and Western forces fighting in Afghanistan.
"This is a disaster. We all recognize the gravity of the situation," said a senior military official in this northwestern provincial capital, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's a nightmare to have an army being attacked on its own soil and by its own people." After the two incidents, he added, "the doors to peaceful negotiated settlements are closed. I am afraid we are on a war course in the tribal areas."
Public condemnation of the missile attack has been almost universal in Pakistan. Many people say they believe it was actually carried out by a U.S. Predator drone, which witnesses described as circling overhead before Pakistani helicopter gunships arrived. U.S. and Pakistani officials have denied that.
Local leaders have also vehemently asserted that the school, run by a cleric from a banned extremist group, was used only for religious studies and that many young students were killed in the strike. No physical evidence of a training camp has been publicly produced, journalists have been barred from the site, and most of the victims' bodies were too disfigured to identify.
"This was a crime against humanity. Everyone hates America now, and they hate Musharraf for giving in to American pressure," said Bashir Ahmed, 25, a produce trader in a Peshawar market crowded with crates of bananas and pomegranates. "America is the enemy of all Muslims, but they will never defeat us, because we are all becoming al-Qaeda now, even me."
Pakistani military and intelligence officials said they had little choice but to bomb the site after they received overwhelming proof from U.S. intelligence sources that it was being used as a training center for insurgents. A refusal to act, the Pakistanis said, would have badly damaged their relations with the United States, which counts Pakistan as a key ally in the war against al-Qaeda and fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.
"They loaded us with evidence. The strike was absolutely inevitable," said a senior intelligence official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. Another official called the attack a "major test" of military and intelligence cooperation between the United States and Pakistan. "We thought about other options, but the Americans weren't ready to take any chances," he said. "We were caught between the devil and the deep sea."
Public outrage has also flared over Wednesday's suicide bombing, in which a man wrapped in a cloak strolled among army recruits exercising on a field and detonated powerful explosives, killing more Pakistani troops than any previous terrorist attack. But many Pakistanis view that bombing as a predictable response to an ill-conceived military action taken under U.S. pressure.
Ansar Abbasi, Islamabad bureau chief for the News International newspaper, called the Bajaur attack "outrageous" and argued in a column that while it might have raised Musharraf's tough-guy image in the West, it served no national interest and could only exacerbate conflict between the army and the civilian populace. "Have we not fallen into a U.S. trap?" he asked.
One political leader in Peshawar said the Bajaur site was definitely a terrorist base but that it was not "politically correct to say so" in the region. Bajaur elders had reached a peace accord similar to the Waziristan pact, he said, but the missile strike came just hours before they were to sign it. "People find this mind-boggling and impossible to understand," he said.
The Musharraf government has long been caught between conflicting domestic and international pressures. Western powers have demanded that it crack down on religious extremists and hunt down al-Qaeda fugitives, widely reported to be hiding in the semi-autonomous tribal belt. But Islamic groups are politically dominant in Pakistan's northwest, and many tribal fighters have fiercely resisted military efforts to dislodge Islamic militants from their midst.
Musharraf's recent attempt at compromise, a series of negotiated settlements with armed Islamic groups and tribal leaders, has been controversial. Critics charge that pacts in North and South Waziristan left both areas under the control of extremists who continue to export violence to Afghanistan. They say the deals were aimed only at extricating army troops from the tribal areas, where they had suffered heavy casualties and public hostility during months of fighting.
At the same time, however, the growing violence has led to urgent calls for mass tribal conflict-resolution meetings, known as jirgas. Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently proposed a series of jirgas in both countries, and the Awami National Party, which represents the ethnic Pashtuns who predominate in Pakistan's northwest, has called for a separate tribal jirga. Party leaders say the only antidote to Islamic radicalization is the ancient tribal code known as Pashtunwali, which prescribes consensual pacts to halt feuds.
"Even though Talibanization is spreading, Pashtunwali is still in people's blood," said Afrasiab Khattak, an Awami party official and human rights activist in Peshawar. "We don't want to settle scores or embarrass the government. Our only agenda is to stop this conflict from getting worse."
The dominant political group in the northwest, a religious party called Jamaat-e-Islami, responded to the Bajaur attack by staging nationwide protests. While Jamaat officially opposes terrorism and has played a responsible leadership role in provincial government for the past several years, it issued calls for jihad after the missile strike, and several key leaders resigned from their government posts or seats in parliament.
In interviews here, several Jamaat leaders echoed the current ambivalence, saying they were horrified by suicide bombings but furious at Western military interference in the region and opposed to the moderate version of Islam promoted by Musharraf.
Abdul Akbar Chitrali, a cleric and Jamaat politician who directs an Islamic academy for boys in Peshawar called the Garden of Knowledge, said he believes in spreading Islam by peaceful means. "But when someone invades you, you have no choice but to resist," he said. "The Americans and NATO have no right to occupy Afghanistan. They are the hooligans causing our problems, not the Taliban or al-Qaeda."
It may never be known whether the tiny Islamic school in Bajaur's Chingai village was a garden of knowledge or a staging ground for terrorists. A group of lawyers from Peshawar who visited the site last week said they saw no evidence of training or weapons.
What they did see was disturbing enough: a tense, angry crowd that surrounded their vehicles, shouting for holy war against the Pakistani and U.S. governments, less than a week after local leaders had been ready to sign a peace pact with the government.
"If it was a military camp, I found no sign of it. But the people were very inflamed," said Barrister Baachaa, one of the lawyers. "Bajauris are known to be quiet and not carrying guns, but the mood is becoming very militant. If Bajaur can fall into Talibanization, so can the other tribal areas, and then I fear it can spread to the settled areas, too," he said. "This has to be contained, but the way they did it in Bajaur has only made it worse."
Khan reported from Karachi.