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January 17, 2008
More Problems for Musharraf
The Pakistani army suffered a humiliating defeat yesterday when Taliban and al-Qaeda troops overran a fort on the Afghan frontier:
Pakistani troops abandoned an outpost near the border with Afghanistan after receiving threats from Islamic militants who a day earlier overran a nearby fort, an intelligence official and a resident said Thursday. Meanwhile, the Asia Times paints a much darker picture of the action:
However, the army immediately denied the report that the post at Saklatoi in South Waziristan had been evacuated by dozens of troops. On Wednesday, militants overran the nearby Sararogha Fort in a pitched nighttime battle that left seven of its garrison dead and a number of troops missing.
The British-era fort is one of a string of positions held by the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary along Pakistan's porous border with Afghanistan. The defeat was seen as a major embarrassment to the government of President Pervez Musharraf, a major U.S. ally in the war against Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan.
The capture by militants of a fort in Pakistan near the Afghan border is not just another isolated incident in the volatile region. It represents a concerted fightback by al-Qaeda to derail any peace initiatives unless the group itself is directly engaged, rather than local resistance leaders. It is hard to take the Asia Times story without a grain of salt given their blatant anti-American, anti-Musharraf bias. But they usually have reliable sources inside the Taliban and al-Qaeda so the way the terrorists are spinning the story cannot be dismissed out of hand.
On Wednesday, several hundred insurgents armed with assault rifles and rockets stormed the remote Sararogha Fort in the South Waziristan tribal area and routed its garrison from the Frontier Constabulary (FC), a paramilitary force formed of men from the area. Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said 40 militants had been killed in an exchange of fire when they managed to enter the fort after blowing up a wall.
A Taliban spokesman, Maulvi Omar, however, claimed that 16 FC personnel had been killed and 24 more captured. He said only two of his men had been killed, while a dozen had sustained injuries. "The fort is still in our control," the self-proclaimed Taliban spokesman added in a phone call to the offices of a Pakistani newspaper.
The action took place in an area dominated by one of the suspects in Benazir Bhutto's assassination, Baitullah Mehsud. Meshud also led the attack on the Red Mosque last year and is considered one of the major extremists in Pakistan. A defeat at the hands of this guy is not good for Musharraf. He may now seek an accommodation with Meshud. That has been his pattern in the past when the Pakistani army has suffered a setback.
Such an accomodation will only embolden Meshud to continue his pre-election campaign of bombings and attacks in hopes of destablizing the regime. In this, he has been less successful as it appears to have turned the Pakistani people against extremists of all stripes, making them more likely to elect a government that promises to deal harshly with the terrorists.
A month away from elections and President Musharraf may be inclined to pull back in his confrontation with the Taliban to avoid any more embarrassments. At this point, he has few options.