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Three Steps Back

More trouble in Pakistan.

11:00 PM, Feb 11, 2008 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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LAST WEEK BROUGHT another set of crises in Pakistan. Consider what happened in just the last three days:

* On Friday morning, a three-man team of investigators from Scotland Yard declared that the force of a suicide bomb blast--not an assassin's bullet--was the cause of death for Benazir Bhutto. The British came to this conclusion based on interviews with the doctors at the hospital where the former Pakstani prime minister was taken and a review of scans of her head, but the lack of an autopsy and the rush by the Pakistani government to clean up the crime scene raised questions that the British report could not address. Not surprisingly, Bhutto supporters were not satisfied by the Scotland Yard investigation. "We find it difficult to agree with the report about the cause of death, that she was not killed by the assassin's bullet," Sherry Rehman, a spokeswoman for Bhutto's Pakistani People's Party, told the Reuters news agency. Said a Pakistani lawyer, the Musharraf government intentionally created confusion about how Bhutto was killed "to keep people thinking about something else rather than who did it."

* On Thursday, Pakistani authorities announced the arrest of two additional suspects in the Bhutto case, in addition to those arrested last month that included a 15-year-old boy alleged to have been part of the suicide squad that carried out the December 27 killing. The government has yet to release any detailed information on these latest arrests, but the regime has a habit of rounding up the usual inconsequential suspects when American are watching--Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the region. Also on Thursday, thousands of mourners gathered to mark the end of the formal 40-day mourning period for Bhutto; the rally also served as the final launching point for the PPP as it prepares for Pakistan's Feb. 18 elections.

* On Wednesday, a spokesman for Pakistani warlord Baitullah Mehsud--the al Qeada-linked leader of the umbrella insurgent group Tehrik-e-Taliban, Mehsud is the man U.S. intelligence believes is responsible for the Bhutto attacks--announced a "cease-fire" in its ongoing campaign against the Pakistani army. The Musharraf government did not confirm the deal, but Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz confirmed that "the national leadership was ready for a dialogue with the Taliban." Parsing terms with a scholasticism of Clinton-era subtlety, Nawaz continued: "There is no announced ceasefire, there is a de facto ceasefire between militants and government troops. Both sides are currently holding fire." PPP spokeswoman Sherry Rehman was more blunt: "The government is holding talks with the man blamed by it for the killing of Benazir Bhutto. We condemn it."

It's this last development, the deal with Mehsud, that is the most noteworthy and that underscores the problematic nature of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance in the war on terror. In the short run, Musharraf badly needs a truce with the Taliban in order to safely conduct the upcoming elections; while no one expects the balloting to be "free and fair," it is important that they be free of violence and regarded as legitimate by Pakistani standards. Mauluvi Mohammed Umar, a spokesman for Pakistani militants, told the Associated Press that the truce covers the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders, including Mehsud's redoubt in South Waziristan, but did not say whether the deal extended to central Pakistan. While the mountainous border areas are of most immediate concern to the welfare of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, it is the lowlands of the Indus River that are uppermost in Musharraf's mind. In the long run, the Pakistanis need to find a way to begin to govern their ungoverned areas, lest they remain a sanctuary for al Qeada and other extremist fighters.

And therein lies a crucial strategic difference with the man whom President Bush describes as our "indispensable ally" in the war on Islamic extremists. Musharraf and his fellow generals care most about preserving their position of power within Pakistan, and the time-honored means for doing so have included treating the border regions with a very light hand and working through the traditional tribal elders; indeed, the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas have never been formally incorporated into Pakistan and remain governed under separate laws dating back to the British colonial era.