The Pakistan connection

Published : Aug 12, 2005 00:00 IST

General Musharraf's half-hearted attempt at fighting extremism and fundamentalism in the country has reached nowhere, if the Pakistan links of the London suicide bombers are any indication.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in IslamabadMadrassa

"THE day of reckoning has come. Do we want Pakistan to become a theocratic state? Do we believe that religious education alone is enough for governance or do we want Pakistan to emerge as a progressive and dynamic Islamic welfare state?" President Pervez Musharraf said on January 12, 2002, in his much-publicised address to the people of his country. It was presumed to be a considered and well-thought-out speech signalling an end to the decades-old strategy of Pakistan's various military governments to use jehad as an instrument of foreign and defence policy. The speech was supposed to be a response to the September 11, 2001, attack in the United States and the December 13, 2001 attack on the Parliament building in India, and spelt out the short- and long-term measures envisaged by the Pakistan government to tackle the menace of extremism and fundamentalism afflicting Pakistani society.

Sadly, three and a half years later, there is little evidence of any significant changes on the ground. General Musharraf might be committed to taking on the fundamentalists but the message has certainly not travelled down to other layers of the state. The gap between declarations and actions is too huge. As a result, most of the announcements have remained on paper.

Evidence of the state of affairs in the country was available in the speech Musharraf made to an extraordinary gathering of top police officers from all over the country eight days after the July 7 attacks in London. In the aftermath of 7/7, the country has come under increased international focus as the Pakistani links of three of the four suicide bombers have been established beyond doubt. The meeting was called to take stock of the fallout of the London attacks and the measures needed to deal with the cancer of extremism.

"We have to transform society and bring about harmony for our long-term progress, we owe it to our future generations to rid the country of the malaise of extremism and allowing the vast moderate majority to progress and prosper in accordance with our immense potential," he told the officers at the July 15 conference. The proposal to reform the madrassa education system best illustrates the gap between percept and practice. In his speech of 2002, Musharraf had identified madrassa reforms as the key to tackling extremism. Yet, except for a few "reformed" madrassas that are being showcased, no sign of change is visible. Because of the mullahs' political utility and opposition from the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) and its madrassa subsidiaries, the military-led government's proposed measures, from curriculum changes to a new registration law, have been dropped The International Crisis Group (ICG), a cross-country non-governmental organisation (NGO) reporting from conflict zones, said in April 2005 that the political use of Islam by the state promoted an aggressive competition for official patronage between and within the many variations of Sunni and Shia Islam, with the clerical elite of major sects and sub-sects striving to build up their political parties, raise jehadi militias, expand madrassa networks and become part of government. It said that administrative and legal action against militant organisations had failed to dismantle a well-entrenched and widely spread terror infrastructure. The ICG said: "All banned extremist groups persist with new labels, although old names are also still in use. The jihadi media is flourishing, and the leading figures of extremist Sunni organisations are free to preach their jihadi ideologies. Leaders of banned groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Sipahe Sahaba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed appear to enjoy virtual immunity from the law. They have gained new avenues to propagate their militant ideas since the chief patrons of jehad, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and the Jamaat-i-Islami, have acquired prominent and powerful roles in Musharraf's political structure."

The ICG report might be unusually harsh considering that Musharraf is confronted with an unenviable task of reversing a two-and-a-half-decade-old mindset at various levels of society. However, there can be no two opinions that the military and the state machinery are yet to demonstrate the determination and grit to deal with the issue of fundamentalism. Consider the way activists of banned militant outfits were dealt with post-9/11. After the Parliament House attack, the leaders and hundreds of followers of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad were arrested, their offices in different parts of Pakistan shut down, and their assets frozen. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was ordered to withdraw its support to Pakistan-based militant outfits operating in Kashmir. However, within months they had to be set free as the authorities did not file any substantial charges against them.

Although nothing has come to light about the links of the London suicide bombers with any of the Pakistani militant outfits, it should come as no surprise if any such connections are established. After all, Pakistan and subsequently Afghanistan have been the recruiting ground, until at least 9/11, for holy wars waged in so many parts of the globe since the late 1980s. Investigations till date have proved that three of the four British men identified as the London bombers were in Pakistan this year. Shahzad Tanweer, 22, and Mohamed Sidique Khan, 30, two of the bombers of Pakistani descent, flew to Karachi on November 19, 2004, on a Turkish Airlines flight and remained there until February, according to Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency. Tanweer, an avid sportsman, had apparently told his family he was going to Pakistan to study religion. Investigators are trying to determine whether he and Sidique Khan met in Pakistan with Hasib Hussain, 18, another of the bombers, who was already there. Hussain arrived in Karachi from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on July 15, 2004. It is not known exactly when he left Pakistan, but he appeared to have returned home to Britain about the same time as the other two. Pakistani authorities released photographs of the three that were taken when they arrived at the Karachi airport. The photographs were taken by a U.S.-developed security system installed after 9/11, which photographs all passengers as they present their passports when arriving at or departing from Pakistani airports.

Pakistani intelligence agents are reportedly investigating whether Tanweer visited the Manzoor-ul Islam madrassa in Lahore, with links to the banned militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad. The madrassa's leaders have denied that Tanweer attended the school. Adding to the woes of the military, Pakistan's prestigious English monthly Herald ran a cover story days before the London carnage on the revival of terrorist camps in the country. It quoted an unidentified top manager of the training camp in Mansehra, saying that all the major organisations, including the Hizbul Mujahideen, Al-Badr Mujahideen and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, had begun regrouping in April and renovating training facilities that were deserted in 2004. The magazine said that at least 13 major camps in the Mansehra region were revived during the first week of May. These are located in the areas of Pano Dheri, Jallo, Sufaida, Oghi, Khewari, Jabba, Batrasi, Naradoga, Akherilla, Hisari, Boi, Tanglaee and Achherian.

The magazine report has baffled political and diplomatic observers in Pakistan. The consensus among observers is that if the report is correct, there is no way the camps could restart operations without the knowledge, if not consent, of the military establishment. A magazine like Herald would not have run the risk of carrying such a sensitive report without checking and cross-checking facts. Did somebody in the establishment give the information to the magazine in the hope of sending a message to India on the urgent need for the resolution of the Kashmir issue? After all, no one had anticipated London and its fallout.

Whatever be the case, it again underlines the need for the Pakistani establishment to take some hard decisions on extremism per se. Compartmentalisation in whatever name and cause would not take the campaign anywhere. It would only compound the confusion. Plus, the campaign against fundamentalism cannot go beyond a point as long as it is seen as a Musharraf show. He would have to take every one, particularly the mainstream political parties, on board. Thanks to the antagonism of Musharraf towards political leaders like the two former Prime Ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, their respective parties are out of the government loop in the so-called fight against fundamentalism.

In his bid to keep the mainstream parties and leaders at bay, Musharraf and his managers have been forced to embrace religious parties that preached and practised a divisionist agenda.

As a result, an impression has gained ground that he is more comfortable doing business with the MMA rather than with the mainstream parties.

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