Afghanistan

The terror trajectory

Print edition : October 13, 2001

Taliban fighters sit on their military vehicle in Kabul on their way to Baglan province, 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Kabul. Photo: AP PHOTO / AMIR SHAR

The U.S., India and the global linkages of Islamic terrorist groups.

"The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be pipelines, an Emir, no Parliament, and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that".

- U.S. diplomat quoted in Ahmad Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.

AMERICA'S war on terrorism, President George Bush proclaimed before Congress last month, would not end until "every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated". Less than a month after that dramatic pronouncement, it has become clear that Washington's sponsorship of and support to fascist organisations of the Islamic Right is set to continue unchanged.

Few people in India are aware of this country's three-year-old role in the war on Afghanistan-based terrorism that the U.S. now claims it will initiate. Shortly after the Taliban came to power in 1996, Indian intelligence, along with its Russian counterparts, threw its weight behind Ahmad Shah Masood's Northern Alli-ance. Technicians were flown in to service the Northern Alliance's fleet of Russian-built helicopters, and advisers were made available to train troops in anti-armour techniques. Intelligence sources say that spares and high-altitude warfare equipment worth upwards of $10 million were supplied to the Northern Alliance through the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Masood himself is believed to have died last month in an Indian-run hospital facility at Farkhor, close to the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border.

While now U.S. and British troops are believed to be liaising with the Northern Alliance, there is no sign that the West wishes to join the covert front that Russia, the secular Central Asian States and India had formed in the face of the Taliban offensive. The reasons are simple. Central Asia has one of the world's largest oil reserves. Historically, the U.S. has sought to prevent Russia and Iran from controlling these resources. As early as October 1996, Chris Taggart, boss of the U.S.-based oil giant Unocal, let it be known that "if the Taliban leads to stability and international recognition, then it is positive". What he meant became clear soon. A year after the Taliban took Kabul, a 1997 World Bank study on oil in Turkmenistan concluded that new routes through Afghanistan to Karachi in Pakistan would be more profitable than the existing Russian pipeline networks.

Until the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam led America to oppose Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies, Western oil corporations were competing hard to win the support of the new fascist regime in Kabul. Oil corporations are believed to have paid for the setting up of a mobile telephone network in southern Afgha-nistan to compensate for the country's war-ravaged communications infrastructure. Although India repeatedly made the U.S. aware of the role the Taliban and its sponsors in Pakistan played in aiding terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, Washington simply chose to ignore the evidence. Even the Taliban's appalling human rights record did little to move the U.S. In 1998, during a visit to Srinagar, noted lawyer Niloufer Bhagwat engaged a group of U.S. diplomats led by then-Ambassador Richard Cele-ste. "I told them no civilised government could ever recognise the Taliban," she recalls. "A member of Celeste's delegation replied that in many parts of the world, women didn't want to be emancipated!"

More bitter lessons were to follow. After the December 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC 814, U.S. intervention was sought to secure the extradition by Pakistan of Maulana Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar, the two terrorists freed by India in return for the release of the hostages on board the flight. In the event, both were allowed to stay on in Pakistan. Azhar went on to form the Jaish-e-Mohammad-e-Mohammadi (Army of the Prophet), taking on board the bulk of the Harkat-ul-Ansar's cadre, while Zargar reactivated his moribund al-Umar organisation, which is believed to have played a key role in recent acid attacks on women in Srinagar. Even when all the five hijackers of IC 814 - Ibrahim Akhtar Alvi, Shaqir Ahmad, Sunny Ahmed Qazi, Shahid Akhtar Sayeed and Mistri Zahoor Ibrahim - surfaced in Pakistan, the U.S. showed no inclination to censure Pakistan.

The current U.S. policy needs to be read in this context. For all its stated determination to eradicate terrorism, the U.S. appears to have no intention to sever its links with forces of the Islamic Right which have served its interests. Pakistan, recruited as a key ally in the hunt for bin Laden, is a case in point. Intelligence officials believe that bin Laden, who suffers from renal problems, has been undergoing dialysis in a Peshawar military hospital. His movement in and out of Pakistan would have required authorisation from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), if not of President Pervez Musharraf himself. Key bin Laden aides, including Aiman al-Zawahiri, were instrumental in setting up support organisations for the Afghan Mujahideen from 1984 onwards, and they have been able to operate from Peshawar in a more or less unrestricted fashion. It is also known that for several years now Pakistan's conventional troops have been deployed in Afghanistan in aid of the Taliban.

Nonetheless, the U.S. believes that it needs Pakistan for its larger strategic objectives. The deal appears to involve allowing groups of the Islamic Right to operate unchecked, so long as they do not target U.S. interests. After Lieutenant-General Javed Nasir was sacked as Director-General of the ISI in 1994, allegedly for his Islamist sympathies, he went on to form the Tabligh-i-Jamaat (TiJ). The TiJ emerged as a key sponsor of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). While much of the HuM's cadre has now been amalgamated into the Jaish-e-Mohammad-e-Mohammadi, hundreds are known to have fought in Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan and the Philippines. Other groups, such as Maulana Sami-ul-Haqq's Jamait Ullema-i-Islami and the Lashkar-e-Toiba, are also known to have deployed thousands of cadre for similar causes. These groups share a wide network of training facilities and training camps active in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of these camps are impromptu facilities run for short periods of time, with minimal infrastructure. Therefore, military attacks against them may be difficult, and have little effect.

While U.S. officials like to see bin Laden as a single-point sponsor of this training of terrorists, the truth is more complex. Afghanistan is estimated to produce three times more opium than the rest of the world put together. Some 90 per cent of this heroin is grown in Taliban-controlled areas. Notwithstanding periodic crackdowns on the narcotics trade, the Taliban is believed to impose a 20 per cent tax on the heroin produced within Afghanistan. Part of these funds are used to support the organisation's own campaign against the Northern Alliance, but a good deal makes its way to allies around the world. Saudi Arabia is another key source of funds. In a bid to buy the regime legitimacy in the face of competition from figures like bin Laden or Omar Bakri Mohammad and his al-Mouhajiroun terrorist organisation, quasi-official organisations in Saudi Arabia pump funds to the Islamic Right, for example to groups such as the Jamaat Ullema-i-Islam and Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis. Within Pakistan, running the jehad is hugely profitable.

Put simply, then, the U.S. wants Pakistan to eliminate bin Laden and, if necessary, replace the Taliban. Pakistan will also be called on to contain other groups of the Islamic Right that are hostile to the U.S. It, however, has no desire to confront Talibanism per se. The ideological premises of this policy were laid bare at a meeting on February 9, 2000, held by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with Senators on relations with Pakistan. If, Senator Sam Brownback argued, "we further move Pakistan away from us, our ability to be able to deal with them, and [sic.] we actually strenghen the very hand we seek to weaken, that of the really militant fundamentalists in Pakistan". The underlying argument is only too evident. Militant fundamentalists in Pakistan who target countries other than the U.S. are acceptable. Really militant fundamentalists, those that threaten the U.S. itself, are not. Little, it would appear, has changed.

WHAT might the U.S.' need for allies on the Islamic Right be? Russia's engagement with the Islamic Right in Chechnya and Dagestan offers some insight into U.S. thinking. Military action against Chechen terrorists has been used by the West as a stick to beat Russia with, notwithstanding the organic links of these groups with those the U.S. now claims to oppose. Chechen terrorist leaders like Shamil Basayev or Ameer Khattab are able to operate by pilfering from the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline and through narcotics trafficking. The bulk of their funding, however, comes from groups of the Islamic Right in in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Riyadh-based al-Haramein Islamic Foundation, Russian intelligence believes, has funnelled funds to Chechen terrorist groups, and helped gather both recruits and weapons through Pakistan. Hundreds of cadre from Pakistan, Afghanistan and West Asia are known to have fought the Russian forces in Chechnya and Dagestan.

Elsewhere too the Islamic Right has served U.S. strategic interests. There have been regular attacks against Western targets in Yemen since December 1998, when 16 tourists were kidnapped in the wake of U.S.-British attacks on Iraq. What few people know is that prior to 1998, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, which carried out the attacks, operated with tacit U.S. patronage. Then known as the Islamic Jihad, the organisation was set up by Tariq-al-Fadhli, one of bin Laden's close associates in the Afghanistan war. The organisation was set up to oppose the pre-unification secular politics of the communist regime in power in the Socialist Republic of Yemen. In Indonesia, the Islamic Right is represented by the Lashkar-e-Jihad, which again is led by an Afghan war veteran, Ustad Jaffar Umar Thalib. Again, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines is believed to be financed in part by Pakistan-based organisations.

India is not the only country in the neighbourhood to have felt the consequences of U.S. sponsorship of the Islamic Right. Hezbollah terrorists active in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China, for one, are believed to tap funds from the Taliban's narcotics network. Pakistan-backed organisations of the Islamic Right such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Tabligh-i-Jamaat and the Jamaat-ul-Muderessin have also had considerable success in Bangladesh, and terrorist groups like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami are known to have operated from that country, recruiting cadre for campaigns in Jammu and Kashmir as well as India's northeastern region. Massive funding of reactionary Islamist groups in Nepal by organisations of the Right based in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have enabled these groups to acquire considerable influence. The districts of Rupandehi, Banke, Kapilvastu and Bardiya, all bordering India, have seen over 275 mosques and madrassas being built over the last two decades, primarily with Saudi funds.

On October 1, at the end of a 40-minute meeting with President George W. Bush and U.S. National Security Adviser Condo-leezza Rice, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh emerged to state that fighting terrorism directed at India "was India's responsibility". The language suggests that reality is at last tempering the breathtaking foolishness that passed for Indian foreign policy in the wake of the incidents on September 11. While Jaswant Singh's ego might have received some massaging given Bush's unscheduled appearance at the meeting, the fact remains that he came away with no meaningful assurance of U.S. support. The record suggests that none will be forthcoming. Even the October 1 attack on the State Assembly building in Srinagar has not led the U.S. to any frontal condemnation of the role of Pakistan in supporting and sponsoring terrorism in India, or for that matter elsewhere in the world. Now, the Union government needs to consider where India's interests lie; and pursue them irrespective of what the U.S. might desire.

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