Pakistan’s President-General, Pervez Musharraf, is facing his worst crisis since he took power in a coup in October 1999. The last three weeks of March have seen violent protests in Islamabad, Lahore and other cities led by black-suited lawyers but followed, increasingly, by once-docile political parties, including the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. All scent that more than seven years of military rule may be coming to a close.

The crisis began on March 9, when Musharraf suspended Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, allegedly for abuse of office. Most of Pakistan’s legal fraternity–and many, many others–saw this as a ruse to remove an unusually truculent judge. Musharraf wants to be re-elected for another five-year presidential term by an existing Parliament rigged in his favor. He also wants to remain army chief. In February Chaudhry told military cadets that in his opinion, Musharraf could not remain as both president and army chief beyond the expiry of his current presidential term in October. “That’s why he was sacked,” says a government insider.

Unaccountable military rule is one constant of Pakistani politics. American power is another. Two weeks before the lawyers took to the barricades, US Vice President Dick Cheney flew into Islamabad in a Black Hawk helicopter. He was in town to deliver a “tough message” to the Pakistani leader. Since September Washington has become exercised by peace agreements Musharraf signed with pro-Taliban tribesmen in Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan.

These pacts have not only failed to reduce the flow of Taliban and Al Qaeda guerrillas into Afghanistan; they have created ungoverned spaces in which Taliban and foreign fighters have regrouped for a spring offensive against NATO in Afghanistan and, in the case of Al Qaeda, perhaps “faraway enemies” like Europe and America. Bloodied by Iraq, the Bush Administration has realized that Afghanistan could tip the same way. Cheney was the latest American heavy hitter dispatched to make sure Musharraf stays onside.

Cheney warned him that a Democratic-run Congress might cut aid to the Pakistani army unless it took action against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The strategy of striking deals with tribesmen had failed, Cheney said, and Pakistan would have to become more aggressive in pursuit of Al Qaeda. “The Yanks want a civil war,” snapped a Pakistani minister. Musharraf said nothing, though a spokesperson hissed, “Pakistan does not accept dictation from any side or any source.”

It does, of course, and it will. The day of Cheney’s visit a top Taliban leader, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, was picked up by Pakistani forces in Quetta on the basis of intelligence sent by US forces in Kandahar. And the last few weeks have seen fierce battles between tribesmen and foreign fighters in the South Waziristan tribal agency bordering Afghanistan. The government claims the fighting is a victory for its policy of “turning” locals against foreigners in the tribal areas. Local sources say the skirmishes are a more mundane turf war between tribesmen and Uzbek militants allied to Al Qaeda, with the Taliban trying to mediate a truce. All three forces are active in the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Since 9/11–when Musharraf changed sides in the “war on terror”–Pakistan has received $10 billion in direct US aid and as much again in covert aid, most of it military. The army is aware of its paymaster, to whom it owes its pre-eminent place in Pakistani politics and to whom it is ultimately accountable. And Musharraf knows he is answerable to his generals far more than he is to his people. While the Pakistani military has a history of biting the hand that feeds it–sometimes drawing blood–it would never bite it off. This is why successive US governments have preferred military dictatorships in Pakistan to any other regime.

Because of the imbroglio over the Chief Justice, Musharraf’s dictatorship is on the ropes like never before. But it is tottering rather than toppling because Musharraf still commands the support of most of the army. Nothing risks that essential pillar more than a US-driven offensive to “go after” the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal areas. Musharraf knows this for sure. He has been there before.

The Tribal Areas

Pakistan’s tribal areas are seven “agencies” piled up against its mountainous border with Afghanistan. Rugged and raw, they are home to 3 million Pashtun tribesmen. For a millennium, they have lived by the Pashtunwali ethic of honor, loyalty and revenge. Some–like North West Frontier Province (NWFP) Governor Ali Mohammed Jan Orakzai, who rules the tribal areas as Musharraf’s viceroy–see in such codes a “historical romance of freedom and independence.” Others see them as blights of backwardness, poverty and powerlessness. For the past twenty-five years the areas’ small but vocal middle class has been demanding their integration into the NWFP and democracy rather than direct rule from Islamabad. Neither has been given.

Change has come in other ways. Following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the tribal areas became the last front line of the cold war. Powered by US and Saudi money, but orchestrated by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), they became the matrix for national, regional and global Islamist movements, of which Al Qaeda was only the most notorious. Where there had been illiteracy, hundreds of madrassas schooled thousands in the litanies of jihad. Where there had been penury, war economies boomed, driven by currencies of gold, guns and opium. According to historian Fazal-ur-Rahim Marwat, 500,000 young men were socialized in such ways of man, God and dope. Most were Pashtun tribesmen, who eventually morphed into the Taliban. Some were Arabs, including Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan’s purpose in planting this “volcano on both sides of the border” was geopolitical, says Marwat. Islamization of the tribal areas was to be the vector through which pro-Pakistan Afghan movements like the Taliban could be supplied, enabling if not a client regime in Kabul then at least an anti-Indian one. Domestically, the production of so many versed in political Islam would serve as a counter to secular parties demanding elections and nationalist Pashtun parties demanding rights. The Pakistani military has long seen India, democracy and regional autonomy as existential threats.

What the army did not foresee was the way Islamization would rupture the tribal order on which its rule rested. As a result of the anti-Soviet insurgency and then the Taliban government in Afghanistan, power in tribal areas slipped away from “political agents” and tribal elders appointed by Islamabad. It fell instead to young clerics or mullahs and their followers, who, like them, were poor, disenfranchised and radical. These are the “Pakistan Taliban.” Their ideology is an incendiary mix of Pashtun nationalism, anti-Americanism and a prohibitive, Al Qaeda-influenced Islamism. It is not necessarily anti-Pakistan, but it is beyond the writ of the Pakistani regime, says military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.

“In the old days–the days of the ISI, the CIA and the mujahedeen–there was command and control, including of warlords who went on to join the Taliban,” she says. “But [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar was always autonomous, and so are his followers in the tribal areas. What you call the Pakistan Taliban are young men opposed to Musharraf’s policies. They will use arms to bring down the policy. They are out of command and control.”

The Tribal Campaigns

The 9/11 attacks made these dynamics visible. Following the Taliban’s ouster from Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistani and Pashtun tribesmen gave sanctuary to 2,000-3,000 Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in South Waziristan.

For the tribesmen, it was a matter of honor: supporting kinsmen against an invader no less alien than the Soviets. For Pakistan it was a matter of insurance, writes journalist and historian Ahmed Rashid. Musharraf “avoided [confronting] the Taliban because he was convinced that the U.S.-led coalition forces would not stay long in Afghanistan. He wanted to maintain the Taliban as a strategic option in case Afghanistan dissolved into civil war and chaos again.”

The initial US response to the Taliban’s and Al Qaeda’s recovery in the tribal areas was disinterest. “We thought, ‘If the region’s not on fire, there is no need to bring hoses,'” recalls one Western diplomat. “But it became a fire.” By 2003 it was clear the Taliban were resurgent in Afghanistan, aided by its bases in South Waziristan, and that senior Al Qaeda leaders, including perhaps bin Laden, were at large in the tribal areas. American commanders told Musharraf that if his army did not go after them, their army would have to. The Pakistani leader submitted. In fifty-six years of independence Pakistani soldiers had never set foot in the Waziristans, part of the trade-off for keeping the tribes loyal. Musharraf told the elders that with conquest would come largesse. He told the army the operation would be a cakewalk.

The army’s tribal campaigns lasted nearly three years. With every incursion, civilian death and displacement, the Pakistan Taliban grew stronger. They defended villages, ambushed army patrols, killed pro-government elders and imposed their own brand of “Islamic” law and order. When the army sued for peace with pro-Taliban tribesmen in the Waziristans in 2005 and 2006, it was not because of a new “holistic” strategy for the tribal areas, as sold by Musharraf to Washington. It was because of the army’s military and political defeat. Seven hundred soldiers had been killed, many had deserted and a handful of commissioned officers were court-martialed for refusing to serve. The numbers of civilians killed and displaced were in the thousands. “Everyone supported the Taliban when the army came in. It was a people’s revolt. Pakistan had broken its promise, and that’s a big thing in the tribal areas. You don’t break your promise,” says Malik Qadir Khan, a tribal leader in North Waziristan.

The agreements consecrated the Pakistan Taliban as a political power, says Afrasiab Khattak, a Pashtun politician. With the military campaigns, “a vacuum was created, and the Taliban filled it. They had money and guns, both of which are handy for achieving leadership in tribal societies. The only thing they lacked was recognition from the state, and this they got from the agreements.” And with the withdrawal of the army, the Taliban could territorialize power into rule. A trip to Miramshah, capital of North Waziristan, confirms that it is no longer the police or elders who assume the functions of governance. It is the mullahs and young men with black shaggy hair and rifles slung over their shoulders. “There’s no government in Miramshah. The political agent cannot leave his home. It’s the Taliban which runs the place,” says Bat Shajjar, a local.

Do More

It is a dtente the United States will not tolerate. Last October a madrassa was bombed in Bajaur tribal area, leaving eighty-two dead. In January eight were killed in a like attack in South Waziristan. Musharraf said the first hit was against a Taliban “training camp”; the second, against Al Qaeda. Locals said seminary students were slain in the first case and woodcutters in the second. They also insisted that the attacks were not executed by Pakistani army helicopters but by US Predator drones flown in from Afghanistan. The response has been ferocious.

In November a suicide bomber detonated on a military parade ground in the NWFP, killing forty-two recruits. The Pakistan Taliban said it was retaliation for Bajaur. Since the South Waziristan strike, there have been six suicide bombs, in Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta and other cities, which have so far cost thirty-five lives. No group has claimed them, but most leads point to the Taliban or their accomplices. They are significant in two ways. Their method–young tribesmen strapped with explosives–is identical to the suicide attacks now routinely carried out in Afghanistan. Second, their targets are not random but are luxury hotels, VIP lounges, police commanders, army bases, judges and courts–the emblems and sinews of Musharraf’s pro-Western military government. They are a warning, says retired army general Talat Masood. “The Taliban are saying, ‘If you come after us in the name of America’s war in the tribal areas, we will come after you all over Pakistan.'”

Cheney’s advice is “go after them.” But “every use of force is a victory for the militants,” says Rahimullah Yousafzai, a journalist and expert on the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the tribal areas. He agrees that Pakistan will have to do more on the Afghan border and stop the infiltration. But this cannot be done by military means alone. “It must involve a strategy that provides education and jobs for thousands of impoverished and unemployed youth, who are ready recruits for the Taliban.” It will also require democracy so Pakistanis in the tribal areas can finally determine which political coalition best represents them. Have elections, and you will get the Taliban, sneers the army. “In Pakistan you can only get elected on an anti-American ticket,” says a senator.

Is that so? In 2002–when anti-Americanism was at its zenith and elections were rigged in their favor–Islamist parties in Pakistan mustered only 11 percent of the vote. In January local elections in Bajaur a Pashtun nationalist party won the seat. A free suffrage in the tribal areas and NWFP would probably deliver victory to pro-Taliban Islamist parties. But free elections nationally would also return secular parties like the PPP as well as nationalist parties, and these, if the polls are right, represent the majority. “But only a civilian government can bring reform,” says Ahmed Rashid. “You cannot have free elections in the tribal areas when there are no free elections in Pakistan.”

Which brings us back to the Chief Justice and protesting lawyers in Islamabad. Their demands are no longer just for the defense of an independent judiciary. They want Musharraf to stand down, exiled civilian leaders like Benazir Bhutto to come home and free and fair elections to be held so that Pakistan can once again be a democracy. Then–and only then–can policies be determined for the tribal areas by the people who live there. At the very least, such a return would mean an end to policies based on military might, political abdication and panicked American dictates. But is Washington ready to tolerate change?

So far no US government official has called for a return to civilian rule in Pakistan.