Acting under pressure

Print edition : January 05, 2002

In the face of the Musharraf government's reluctance, and inability, to rein in Pakistan-based terrorist groups, international pressure seems to be the only way out of the impasse in the subcontinent.

IT was a chilly morning in the first week of October at the General Headquarters of the Pakistan military in Rawalpindi. A group of editors had gone to see a senior functionary of the Musharraf establishment who was in the limelight more often than President Pervez Musharraf himself. The editors had a serious complaint: they received threatening calls from the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the militant outfit headed by Maulana Masood Azhar, asking them to publish the dare-devil attack by its cadres on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly building on October 1. The senior journalists wanted to know what they should do, especially because the Musharraf government had accused "renegade elements" encouraged by the Indian intelligence agencies of having perpetrated the crime with a view to defaming the "freedom fighters and the freedom struggle" in Kashmir. They wanted to know why the government had not restrained the Jaish-e-Mohammad and its maverick chief.

Pakistani troopers positioning an anti-aircraft gun in Karachi on December 26.-ZIA MAZHAR/AP

The editors were assured that necessary action would be taken. But nothing of that sort happened. The Jaish-e-Mohammad continued its diatribe against not only India but also the Musharraf government for its "treacherous act" of extending support to the United States-led coalition in the Afghan war.

This episode, narrated by a senior editor to Frontline, illustrates the extent of clout enjoyed by organisations such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad in Pakistan. There is no doubt that the Musharraf government has done little to put its house in order despite the international attention focussed on the region after the events of September 11. Of course, there are some people who are prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to the government. After all, the growth of the jehadi culture and outfits in Pakistan is a two-decade-old phenomenon. Even if the government of the day is determined to rein in the organisations, for a variety of reasons, including international pressure, it is not possible to curb them overnight. So well-entrenched are they in Pakistani society, thanks to help from the establishment at various levels, that no government can take them on without risking its own stability.

A chilling reminder of the perils involved in putting down the extremist elements was the cold-blooded murder of the brother of the Interior Minister, Lt. Gen. (retd.) Moinuddin Haider, in the heart of Karachi in the last week of December. Gen. Haider has been engaged in a verbal war with religious extremists for several months now. He even made a fiery speech announcing the Musharraf government's determination to tackle religious extremism.

Such announcements have been made from time to time, but the government could do little in real terms to tame the extremists. De-weaponisation was the buzzword of the Musharraf regime immediately after it took over in October 1999. But the process never took off. Much before September 11, when the Interior Minister announced a decision to ban "forcible collection" of funds and public display of weapons, religious and extremist elements raised a hue and cry. He was dubbed 'un-Islamic'; some even moved the court challenging his statement.

The growth and clout of the jehadi outfits in Pakistan can be traced to the 1980s when a jehad was launched in Afghanistan with encouragement and funds from the U.S. and state patronage from the military dictator, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. With the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, the jehadi forces turned their attention to Kashmir. Hundreds of trained and armed mujahideen (holy warriors) headed for Kashmir, and it suited the Pakistani establishment very well. The Indian Army was tied down in a big way with little cost for the Pakistani establishment. Over a period of time the jehadis took over the "liberation struggle" in Kashmir and changed the complexion of the Kashmir issue. It was this aspect of the Kashmir problem that India had been trying to highlight for several years now but there was little appreciation of its viewpoint in the international arena. Things began to change after September 11, and the terrorist attack on Parliament House in New Delhi on December 13 became the turning point.

Security forces at Narai Tangi in Pakistan's northwestern Kurram tribal agency.-SYED HAISHAHDER/REUTERS

The picture today is more complicated than it would seem. Massive build-up of forces on the borders, withdrawal of diplomats, jamming of television channels, closure of all travel links - hostile rhetoric has peaked and even translated into action. India-Pakistan relations, which were promising to improve during the Agra Summit in July, reached an abysmal level after December 13. The two nuclear powers moved to the brink of a war.

India has held two leading Pakistan-based militant outfits - the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Toiba - responsible for the December 13 attack and vowed to take the war on cross-border terrorism to a decisive stage. It launched a diplomatic offensive, recalled the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, and reduced the staff strength of its mission in Islamabad by half. And Indian armed forces moved to forward positions. India also unilaterally announced the suspension of the services of the cross-border train, Samjhauta Express, and the Lahore-Delhi bus. Pakistan International Airlines was asked to stop flying through Indian air space. Added to these measures were the grim warnings from top Indian Ministers.

Pakistan appeared to have been taken by surprise at India's moves. Its initial reaction was marked by restraint and caution. It condemned the attack on Parliament House and promised action if India furnished proof against the accused. The restraint did not last long. Pakistan retaliated by reducing the size of its mission in New Delhi though it has so far refrained from recalling its High Commissioner. It moved its troops to forward positions.

Musharraf was quick to condemn the attack on Parliament House. When India wanted Pakistan to act against the two groups which it had accused of involvement in the attack, Musharraf initially sought evidence against them. But he could not walk away with it for two reasons. First, the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad were operating openly from Pakistani soil. While the Lashkar-e-Toiba operated from its headquarters a few kilometres off Lahore, the Jaish-e-Mohammad was based in Karachi. Secondly, the U.S., in keeping with its present aggressive stand against global terrorism, issued statements, though half-hearted, on the issue. Moreover, Musharraf, to be consistent with the anti-Taliban stance he took in the aftermath of September 11, had to act against terrorism.

Act he did. Islamabad announced that it would freeze the accounts of the two terrorist organisations, but not before the Lashkar-e-Toiba had changed its name and moved its headquarters to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir to justify the authorities' claim that it was a Kashmiri group. The leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Maulana Masood Azhar, was asked to tone down his rhetoric. He was later arrested. (In a case of mistaken identity, his brother was arrested initially.) The fact that the Lashkar-e-Toiba altered its strategy before the authorities acted against it proves that the group had official backing and that it could have been reined in any time. Now, there is a clear impasse. A way out of it, as in the case of Afghanistan, can perhaps be found by international pressure - U.S. pressure, to be precise. Can the U.S. take the war on terror to the finish? Can it convince Pakistan to stop supporting the groups that create havoc in India almost every day? Can the international community and the White House convince India to comply with their request for restraint? There are more questions than answers.

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