On Saturday, fierce Pakistani fighter-jet bombardments of suspected militant positions in Khyber left dozens of persons dead and local tribal leaders livid at what they characterized as the killing and wounding of innocents. The Pakistani military maintained that the militants had fled ongoing military operations in Orakzai and South Waziristan (i.e. they are suspected of being members of the Movement of Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan or TTP). In addition to the bombardment in Khyber, Pakistani troops fought a pitched battle on the ground at a checkpoint in Orakzai, leaving an alleged 54 militants dead.
The renewed fighting in the northwest and the announcement of such large enemy casualties may have been in part intended by Islamabad to do political work. On the one hand, the bombing raids were a form of reassurance that the central government is still strong, even though the president may have been weakened. On Friday, the lower house of the Pakistani parliament passed the 18th amendment to the constitution, significantly diluting the president’s powers. A vote could not be taken in the senate the same day for lack of a quorum, but the bill is expected to pass there on Monday. After that vote, the president can no longer dismiss the prime minister at will or prorogue parliament, and no can he control appointments to the supreme court. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani praised President Asaf Ali Zardari and the Pakistani military for not interfering in the passage of the amendment or lobbying against it taking immediate effect (which it has). The amendments that had given the president those powers to begin with were martial law amendments implemented by generals during periods of military rule. In fact, Zardari likely acquiesced in the amendment because he is hoping to deflect any further legal action against him on corruption charges. Despite pleading from the Pakistani judiciary, Switzerland has decided not to proceed with a prosecution of Zardari for corruption, saying his position as president makes him immune.
On the other hand, Gilani will attend President Obama’s nuclear summit this week in Washington, and the massive bombardments serve as a reminder to Washington of Pakistan’s value in combating the Taliban and what is left of al-Qaeda in its northwest tribal areas. Given Pakistan’s past as an active proliferator of nuclear technology, the country is otherwise likely to come in for harsh criticism from India and perhaps others. Moreover, many in Washington worry about whether Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure, in the face of the Taliban insurgency. Gilani will argue that Pakistan is a prime security asset to Washington, and that its powerful 550,000-man army is fully in control of assets such as the smalll nuclear stockpile.
President Zardari clearly has a bill he wants to submit to Washington, since he claims that the ‘War on Terror’ cost his country $35 billion and caused a good deal of inflation and poverty.
Although it is true that US military leaders are pleased with Pakistan’s confrontation of militants in Bajaur, Swat and South Waziristan over the past year, suspicions linger that the country’s military continues to play a double game, using some of the Taliban while attacking others. The alleged release by the Inter-Services Intelligence of two prominent Afghan Taliban leaders, including recently, will reinforce suspicions of this double-faced policy. For all its remarkable progress the country has made, both in reversing the terrible legacy of military dictatorship and in finally owning its Taliban problem, Pakistan is still likely to receive some stern lectures in Washington this week.