Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan may finally get serious in his fight against Al Qaeda and other religious extremists in his country -- the key word here being "may."
The last couple of days have provided an interesting juxtaposition of a key U.S. intelligence report and what may be a turning point in the Pakistani government's relationship with Islamic extremism.
A just-released National Intelligence Estimate report, a consensus of sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies, states with much more certainty than before that Osama and his buddy Ayman al-Zawahri are hiding out in the tribal frontier region of Pakistan.
"We actually see the Al Qaida central being resurgent in their role in planning operations," says John Kringen, the CIA's director for intelligence. "They seem to be fairly well-settled into the safe haven and the ungoverned spaces of Pakistan there."
And it's from here that they've been able to direct their global operations surprisingly unhindered.
"They continue to maintain active connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders hiding in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North and East Africa, and Europe," states Thomas Fingar, deputy director for analysis at National Intelligence.
Of course, the United States needs Pakistan's help to go after bin Laden and friends, since Pakistan is a sovereign country, notwithstanding the $20 billion that it has received from the Bush Administration since the September 11 attacks. There's one problem, though: The Pakistan government has offered just limited cooperation in the past.
In fact, the Musharraf regime signed an accord with tribal leaders, under which it withdrew its troops from the tribal areas in exchange for the chiefs' promise to stop providing safe haven to militants. The agreement was an attempt to save face by Pakistan's security forces after they suffered severe losses in their combing operations in the region. But the truce was also a result of the deep ambivalence toward religious extremism that the Pakistani establishment has always exhibited. It has supported and sheltered the Taliban as a way to counter the what it sees as the increasingly pro-Indian Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan. (See Carlotta Gall's gutsy reporting in The New York Timesuncovering these linkages.) And Musharraf has used religious parties at home as a bulwark against the mainstream, more secular political formations.
This is where the storming the past week of the Red Mosque in the heart of Pakistan's capital (with terrible loss of life) may attain greater significance. After months of his usual procrastination while the mosque residents engaged in vigilante activities, Musharraf finally ordered military action, propelled perhaps by the kidnapping of Chinese citizens by members of the mosque.
The large number of casualties (almost a hundred dead) has already raised the ire of Muslim fundamentalists all across Pakistan. Protesters have sworn to take revenge. Al-Zawahri has issued a videotape asking Pakistanis to take up arms. There have been suicide bombings in the North-West Frontier Province (and an assassination attempt on Musharraf) possibly linked to the mosque standoff and storming.
Is Musharraf finally burning his bridges with the militants? The initial signals are mixed. On the one hand, Musharraf has promised in a television address to the country that seminaries will not be allowed to be used as havens for terrorism. On the other, his ministers are busy reassuring the fundamentalist-inclined that they still have a soft spot for them. Pakistan's Religious Affairs Minister Ijaz ul-Haq (the son of the late dictator and nurturer of religious extremism Muhammad Zia ul-Haq), tearfully asserted that "God willing, we will continue to protect the madrasas the way we protect our homes."
But such bathos could perhaps mask a change in policy. After all, what does Musharraf have to lose now that he has incurred the wrath of most every fundamentalist? As a signal of a modification in policy, Musharraf is resending nearly 12,000 troops to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, causing consternation among local extremists.
But in order for this to be a sustained shift, Musharraf will have to order a radical reorientation of his foreign and domestic policies, a still unlikely notion. And until that happens, alas, Osama and his bunch are still safely ensconced in their lair in Northern Pakistan.