Brown backs Musharraf over terror fight… but Pakistan not convinced

PAKISTAN'S president, Pervez Musharraf, insisted in London that "we haven't failed" in the battle against terrorism, after meeting Gordon Brown.

The Prime Minister, in turn, hailed Pakistan yesterday as a "key ally in combating terrorism". As chanting demonstrators gathered outside Downing Street to protest against Mr Musharraf's visit, the Prime Minister said he had urged him "to work with all political parties in Pakistan for a peaceful, democratic future for the country".

But in Pakistan, many are convinced a double-game is being played by the authorities, both fighting and orchestrating violence, perhaps with the aim of cancelling the already-delayed elections, due on 18 February.

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A stark illustration of the disorder was provided by news yesterday that 250 children had been taken hostage by gunmen in north-west Pakistan. They were later freed.

The drama unfolded in the town of Bannu, which is close to the wild belt known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). The lawlessness of Fata is spilling over into Pakistan's north-west side and, people fear, the rest of the country.

"We are sandwiched between the militants and the army," said Professor Fazal Rahim Marwat, of the University of Peshawar, which lies in capital of the North West Frontier Province.

Analysts say that violent Islamic extremists, sectarian and regional jihadi groups, which grew up in the 1980s and 1990s under the tutelage of the Pakistani authorities, especially its notorious ISI military intelligence agency, have now turned their fire on the state. Many in Pakistan are convinced that agents from within the ISI, or other intelligence agencies, are supporting the violence, with dozens of suicide bombs attacks over the past year, many of which were sophisticated operations against well-protected targets.

Mr Musharraf is no longer in charge of the army, having relinquished that position under pressure in November, so his power is hugely diminished. Anyway, the ISI itself has always functioned as an independent machine, a state within a state.

Benazir Bhutto, before she was assassinated on 27 December, accused intelligence operatives of plotting against her – she pinpointed at least two by name in a letter to Mr Musharraf in October – and told her American lobbyist in writing that, if she was killed, Pakistan's president should be held responsible.

There seems to be evidence that parts of the Pakistan state are pursuing an unofficial agenda, starting with the killing of Ms Bhutto, where even basic security arrangements appeared not to have been made and the site of her death was immediately hosed down, destroying evidence.

The Pakistani authorities – later backed by the CIA – blamed the assassination on Baitullah Mehsud, a militant leader operating out of South Waziristan, a part of Fata, though the evidence seems flimsy.

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It is in the tribal badlands, in Fata, where the security of Pakistan is likely to be decided and the signs are not encouraging. Mehsud appears to rule much of South Waziristan, while attacks on security forces have spread to many other parts of Fata, with fighting this week in the previously peaceful Kohat region.

Sheikh Waqas Akram, an ally of Mr Musharraf and a member of parliament, said the president was sincere in fighting extremists, but progress was being stalled. "The only man who is fighting the war on terror is Musharraf, that is why he cannot win. There are people in the team of the president who do not believe in his agenda," he said.