The jehadi backlash

Print edition : January 16, 2004

Soldiers stand guard near the damaged cars that were part of President Pervez Musharraf's motorcade, in Rawalpindi on December 25 after the second bomb attack. - MIAN KHURSHEED/REUTERS

The two assassination attempts on President Musharraf in the space of a fortnight suggest a possible involvement of `insiders' and emphasises the need to cleanse the system of the jehadi mindset.

TWO assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf in quick succession, the first on December 14 and the second on Christmas day, have shaken the Pakistani establishment. The fact that the suicide bombers managed to strike, for a second time, close to one of the most guarded persons in the country at almost the same spot reflects the gravity of the situation. That the two attempts took place in the cantonment area of Rawalpindi, which has the headquarters of the Pakistan Army and the provincial special branch of the police, at a spot that is less than two kilometres from the official residence of Musharraf as the Army chief, a stone's throw away from the headquarters of the prestigious 10 Corps Command of the Army and from the local police station attest to the determination, the power and the reach of the forces threatening the life of the President.

The second attempt came less than a day after Musharraf sealed a pact with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six religious parties nicknamed as the Mullah Military Alliance, agreeing to relinquish the post of Army chief by the end of 2004 and give up several of the powers he had bestowed on himself to keep the elected government and Parliament in check. So the attempts on Musharraf's life do not seem to be related to the power struggle between the military establishment and the political class or his unwillingness to embrace the Right-wing religious elements.

The forces that are targeting Musharraf appear to be striving for something more fundamental - total control over the military and the polity of Pakistan, which would be a nightmare scenario for the rest of the world, particularly since Pakistan is a nuclear power. The forces, a nebulous mix of Islamists, are angry with Musharraf and the military under his command for the proactive policy of denying shelter to the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who are fighting against the United States led-coalition, and a perceived shift in Pakistan's traditional `bleed India' policy on Kashmir.

The two attacks, the last being the fourth one aimed at Musharraf since 9/11, could have easily been dismissed as acts of religious mavericks but for the great degree of sophistication and planning involved. It has raised the disturbing question as to whether such operations targeting the most powerful personality would be possible without `inside' involvement.

Musharraf narrowly escaped the assassination attempt on December 14, when a bridge was almost levelled by multiple explosions that took place just seconds after his motorcade passed over it. Five separate bombs, containing hundreds of pounds of plastic explosives, were reportedly detonated using remote control. Musharraf was returning to his official residence from the military airport where he had arrived from Karachi. Pakistani officials concede that had his motorcade not been equipped with a device that blocks out all radio signals within a 200-metre radius, in all likelihood Musharraf would have been killed.

The second attempt took place about 200 metres from where the December 14 incident occurred. Two or three suicide bombers, it appears, were waiting in two separate cars that rammed into his motorcade as it passed the route. They came pretty close to their target - the suicide squads managed to hit three cars in the presidential convoy, including the car just behind Musharraf's vehicle. Although the windshield of his car was smashed, Musharraf escaped unhurt. Once again, the hit squads seemed to know the precise moment when Musharraf's car would approach the spot where the trap had been laid. And it was only the bravery of one policeperson, put on VVIP duty that perhaps saved Musharraf's life. The policeperson died while trying to stop the first car with the suicide bomber.

Musharraf blamed sectarian and fundamentalist groups for the assassination attempt. Addressing people on the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) hours after the December 14 attack, Musharraf said, "I have been saying that the greatest danger to our nation is not external; it is internal and comes from religious and sectarian extremists, and this is a typical example of that." Putting on a brave face following the second attack, he declared, "I would not be deterred by such attacks. My resolve to take on the fundamentalist elements is only strengthened". He debunked the theory of `inside involvement' and `security lapses' and said that it was possible nowhere in the world to prevent suicide attacks.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the MMA, an alliance of religious parties, addresses a rally in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, on April 23.-ROSHAN MUGHAL/AP

Musharraf's attempt to tackle the fundamentalist menace in Pakistan has raised doubts on whether the route he has taken is the right one. The extremist elements could attack only through a concerted approach involving the military, the paramilitary, the police and the intelligence agencies.

Pakistan's military-security establishment has had close ties with Islamic fundamentalists for long. During the Afghan civil war, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) served as the conduit for U.S. funds to the Islamic guerilla forces. Pakistan supported the efforts of Islamic fundamentalists to wrest the leadership of the insurgency in Kashmir from more secular nationalists, and in the late 1990s Islamabad was the principal foreign patron of Afghanistan's Taliban regime. So the roots of extremism in Pakistan run much deeper and extend to all segments of the establishment. Jehadi activists and sympathisers cannot be expected to have a change of heart overnight. It is not surprising, therefore, if some of these sections interpret the policy changes initiated after 9/11 as a betrayal of the cause of Islam and the religious brotherhood.

Under pressure from Washington, Musharraf recently ordered a crackdown against Al Qaeda elements said to be hiding in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Pakistan has physically handed over 500-odd members of the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who were caught in crackdowns across Pakistan. He has banned a number of sectarian and fundamentalist groups reputed to have links with terrorist groups and has agreed to a ceasefire with India. His announcement that Islamabad no longer insisted on a United Nations resolution on Kashmir heightened suspicions at home. These actions have not been welcomed as there is little progress on the issue of a dialogue with India. The situation has come to such a pass because of Musharraf's refusal to give former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif any political role. Between the two, they enjoy the support of over 60 per cent of the population.

The MMA is more than willing to help Musharraf gain constitutional legitimacy, although it has apparently resisted appeals to join the parliamentary government. As the ruling party of Pakistan's two smaller provinces, the MMA has benefited handsomely from the restrictions Musharraf has placed on the traditional political parties, Benazir's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League (N). But it owes its new-found prominence, above all, to its criticism of growing U.S. influence in Pakistan.

It would require some vision and determination on Musharraf's part to carry every one along and address the challenge of restructuring institutions and changing mindsets.

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