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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 February 2007, 18:01 GMT
Militants put squeeze on Musharraf
M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Man injured in Peshawar blast on 27 January
The deadliest recent blast killed at least 14 people in Peshawar
Islamic militants have struck in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, for the second time in a fortnight, bringing a feeling of déjà vu.

In December 2003, two attacks in as many weeks on the country's president and army chief, Gen Pervez Musharraf, shook Islamabad and the world.

But analysts believe recent attacks foreshadow worse times ahead than did the previous ones.

Three years ago, the militants were still struggling to consolidate their position and needed a high-profile target to establish their credentials.

Those attacks propelled Gen Musharraf into a position of strength, with Western powers lining up behind him to prevent the anarchic Islamist forces from capturing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

This goodwill enabled Gen Musharraf to authorise a series of peace deals with the militants in 2004-05, thereby creating room for Islamabad to win back its estranged former allies in Afghanistan and the border region.

'New breed' of militant

The present attacks come at a time when Gen Musharraf is under increasing Western pressure to eliminate militant sanctuaries that have come to exist as a result of those deals.

Heavily armed militants roam freely in Waziristan.

A frequently-asked question in Pakistan is; is the peace deal with the militants still on?

While both Pakistani officials and the militant leaders insist that they want the deal to work, the situation on the ground tells a different story.

Since 22 January, militants have hit eight targets in northern Pakistan, killing at least 24 people.

Among the attackers are five suicide bombers, and their victims include five military personnel and nine personnel from other security units including the police.

Police investigators say the attacks were launched by a "new breed" of militant linked to Baitullah Mehsud, a Taleban commander from South Waziristan and a signatory of one of the peace deals.

Mr Mehsud vowed revenge following a Pakistani air strike that killed eight people in South Waziristan's Zamzola area on 16 January.

He called it a breach of the peace deal and said its future now depended on the actions of the Pakistan army.

'Safe havens'

Analysts believe the attacks are a warning that if Pakistan scuttles the peace deal, it will have to suffer the consequences.

Pakistan is likely to try harder to meet the demands of Nato troops

But can Pakistan withstand Western pressure and hold peace in the tribal region?

Although President Musharraf has been defending the peace deals as a means of isolating al-Qaeda and Taleban militants, he has also shown occasional signs of cracking under Western pressure.

During his visit to the US late last year, he said that while the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI was not helping Taleban, some former ISI officials may have done so.

More recently, he has further conceded that he knew of some incidents at some Pakistani border posts where a "blind eye was being turned" to Taleban movements.

Apparently, Gen Musharraf is trying to come clean with the Western powers on the issue at a time when the US administration is upping the ante.

Pakistani officials were ruffled when John Negroponte, the director of US national intelligence, told a Senate intelligence committee on 12 January that al-Qaeda was re-establishing its global network from safe havens in Pakistan.

Further pressure came in the shape of a new US Congress bill linking military assistance for Pakistan to its commitment to fighting terrorism.

There may be some bargaining positions involved, but the bottom line seems to be a hammer-and-anvil operation involving Nato and Pakistani troops to crush tribal militants.

Pressure

This will entail grave political risks for Gen Musharraf and his regime. A similar operation in June 2004 led to upwards of 300 military casualties and made the army permanently unpopular in the region.

Musharraf, Bush and Karzai
President Musharraf had a difficult trip to the US last year

But skirting commitments on the "war on terror" may create its own set of problems.

Western officials believe that in economic terms, various aid and arms agreements between the US and Pakistan are crucial for the survival of the regime.

A harsh Congress law requiring annual waivers by the US president would therefore put a squeeze on the Pakistan military's supply line.

This could lead to political problems for Gen Musharraf, who observers say is surrounded by a group of political turncoats that are likely to melt away at the first sign of trouble.

And as the spring approaches, there is a sense of urgency in the air.

The Americans have already shown their resolve to carry the war into Pakistani territory by bombing suspected militant hideouts in the border regions.

To prevent that, Pakistan is likely to try harder to meet the demands of Nato troops.

Pakistan's willingness to accept responsibility for the strikes in Bajaur last November and in South Waziristan's Zamzola area on 16 January may be an indicator of which way the air is going to blow in the coming weeks and months.




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