x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Can Zardari turn down the heat on Pakistan?

I was the last television reporter inside the madrassa at the Red Mosque in Islamabad before the Pakistani army surrounded the compound in July 2007.

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

I was the last television reporter inside the madrassa at the Red Mosque in Islamabad before the Pakistani army surrounded the compound in July 2007. The 10-day standoff marked a turning point in Pakistan's struggle with militants - the moment when the Taliban-backed insurgency moved from the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan into the capital city and the heart of government. The confrontation ended with the death of the religious leader Abdul Ghazi and many others - the exact death toll was never divulged - and the destruction of the madrassa.

People in Pakistan, as well as the international community, were shocked by the violence of the assault. The incident sparked a fresh wave of disruption inside Pakistan and witnessed the beginning of President Pervez Musharraf's demise. Until then, he had appeared unassailable to his western allies. He was the man who, in the wake of the attacks of September 11, had overnight turned Pakistan into Washington's indispensable ally in the overthrow of the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan and in the wider war on terror.

Within weeks of the assault on the Red Mosque, Mr Musharraf was a leader haemorrhaging authority and credibility. He sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry for misconduct. Nationwide protests saw hundreds of lawyers take to the streets where they were soon joined by others, calling for the people of Pakistan to turn away from the army and strengthen civil society. Within months, Musharaff was a political liability for Pakistan and its western allies. The Taliban and the foreign fighters he had sworn to drive out of his country had grown in influence and reach. Within a year, Pakistan rivalled Iraq for the number and frequency of suicide bomb attacks in towns and cities.

In the autumn of 2008, 18 months after the destruction of the Red Mosque, I returned to Pakistan's capital to film a two-part programme for Al Jazeera English about Pakistan's ongoing struggle to defeat the insurgency. There for five weeks, I saw for myself the human cost to Pakistan's army. I watched video footage of a young boy learning to cut the throat of a captured, prostrate Pakistani soldier. I saw film of a nine-year-old boy shooting a blindfolded captive in front of a crowd of onlookers. A major general in the district of Sawat, in North-West Frontier, told me: "We are suffering the maximum, we are contributing the maximum, we are killing the maximum ? and we are sacrificing for the sake of the world."

Along the mountain frontier with Afghanistan, I embedded with the Pakistani army. I had expected to witness small skirmishes but was taken aback by the scale of the fighting. I followed tanks and infantry, supported by helicopters and artillery, as they mounted a full-scale offensive against the Taliban stronghold of Loe Sam. It was classic guerrilla warfare. The army moved from house to house, and across open ground, securing just a few yards of territory with each sortie. Progress was painstaking and erratic. We were forced to retreat when the battalion we were filming was ambushed.

We drove through abandoned villages. Fighting in the tribal areas has displaced around 300,000 people. They have become refugees who have no idea when they will be able to return home. Throughout Pakistan, resentment is building towards American interference in the region. Suicide bombings have become a daily phenomenon. Islamabad is choked with concrete barricades and police checkpoints. A siege mentality prevails inside the National Assembly. Army generals and rank-and-file soldiers are strategic targets for "human atom bombs" - a description of suicide bombers favoured by one of the Pakistan's Taliban commanders, Baitullah Mehsud. Civilians are often caught in the attacks and Pakistanis increasingly fear their country is turning into a war zone.

President Asif Ali Zardari finds himself engaged in a precarious juggling act: he has to carry the army and public opinion with him, while accommodating the demands of the White House. His reassertion of democracy in Pakistan will have support as long as his government is seen to deliver progress. At the same time, he must avoid the corruption scandals that have marred his reputation in the past.

So profound have been Pakistan's multiple upheavals that the United States has openly questioned the country's ability, even its willingness, to destroy the numerous insurgent networks across the country. The British prime minister Gordon Brown's revelation that three-quarters of terror plots investigated in the UK are linked to Pakistan has turned the focus on Islamabad's capacity to control militants inside its own borders.

Mr Zardari denies he is fighting a proxy war for the West. He claims he has opened up a "new dialogue" with America, and says he is fighting a battle for democracy. "I will take the writ of law to the ends of the last border post of Pakistan," he told me. "That means there will be police stations, there will be judges, there will be civil society and civil law. We have to make people understand that they cannot challenge the writ of the state and they cannot blackmail the world into listening to their point."

But what about Pakistan itself? Mr Zardari's ambitious state-building agenda could take decades. His mission is also at odds with the insurgents' vision of a Pakistan ruled entirely by a strict interpretation of Islamic law. His efforts to strengthen central institutions and prosecute the war on his own terms are compromised by US cross-border drone strikes. In the three months before we started filming, 20 US drone strikes had killed more than 100 people.

One corps commander said: "The majority of people in this area perceive the US presence in Afghanistan as occupation forces. So when the US starts acting inside Pakistan and any innocent civilian is killed by any of these attacks, it reduces the credibility of the Pakistan army to be doing something good." America accuses the Pakistani military of not doing enough to eliminate insurgents - a catch-all term that covers members of al Qa'eda, stateless actors and local militants. Many foreign fighters have married into the local tribes, which affords them a degree of protection in a strategic belt along the porous border with Afghanistan. One Taliban spokesman in the tribal areas, Muslim Khan, is confident the insurgents will win. "I ? believe America will become zero power, not superpower. Only God is superpower," he said.

Reporting from Pakistan changed my understanding of what is going on inside the country. Treating the nation as a whipping boy in order to satisfy western fears will not improve the relationship Pakistan has with its international allies. Similarly, a lack of diplomacy in expressing frustration about the failure of Pakistani authorities to suppress the terrorist threat will do little to strengthen the partnership.

Pressure from America for Pakistan to do more within its own borders is straining the already tense relationship between these two nuclear powers. Drone attacks inflame the situation. Co-operation may look good on the international front, far away in western meeting rooms, but it is threatened by Pakistani resentment of what many see as American arrogance. Fighting alone cannot resolve the global war on terror. While the leadership of al Qa'eda survives and has Taliban support, this destructive conflict looks set to continue. The people of Pakistan are paying a high price for the geopolitical struggle that is going on around them. The only real hope will be a common desire to move beyond differences to build peace in a democratic Pakistan, which in turns should inspire the development the country so desperately needs.

Pakistan's War: On The Frontline, presented by Rageh Omaar, will be shown tomorrow on Al Jazeera English