Even as Prevez Musharraf manages to have a tete-a-tete with U.S. President George W. Bush at Camp David, fundamentalists in Pakistan send a warning message to the General, from Quetta.in Islamabad
PAKISTAN President Pervez Musharraf was in the middle of a press conference in Paris at the fag end of his `historic' tour of Europe and the United States when the news reached him about the worst-ever sectarian violence back home. The Quetta massacre, which resulted in 110 casualties (including 50 dead) of the Shia minority, spoiled the `party mood' in the Musharraf camp. For all the conspiracy theories peddled by the Pakistani establishment, Quetta is a grim reminder to the world in general and the neighbourhood of Pakistan in particular of the challenges posed by religious and fundamentalist forces in the country.
Musharraf might assert a thousand times that fundamentalist elements constitute a minuscule minority and it is only a matter of time before the state zeroes in on them. But there are no takers for the spin even within Pakistan, leave alone the outside world. The Al Qaeda factor is too serious to be ignored in the Quetta incident even if the organisation was not involved in it or has any interest in furthering sectarian strife in Pakistan.
Yes, Musharraf `achieved' the extraordinary, which no South Asian leader has managed until today. A tete-a-tete with U.S. President George W. Bush at Camp David and generous praise for the brave risks his regime has taken in the so-called fight against international terrorism. But the truth is that it is a certificate from the superpower to a client state for being a good cop. It is for good reason that senior functionaries in the Bush administration mention at the drop of every hat about Pakistan's grand operation to capture Al Qaeda operatives and the rich yield of 500 suspects.
The U.S. has a knack of embarrassing its `friends and allies'. Pakistan never wanted to advertise its successes in respect of the Al Qaeda and the Taliban. After all, Islamabad, which has a long list of enemies as it is, certainly does not want to lengthen it - and that too by taking on an outfit like Al Qaeda, which has enjoyed the best of relations with part of the establishment and good support among the religious fundamentalists. If the U.S. is to be believed, Al Qaeda, with its network spread over 70 countries, is a `superpower', albeit without a government and territorial boundaries. Pakistan had no choice but to acknowledge the important role it played in capturing Al Qaeda operatives after the Bush Administration began tom-toming it as an example for others to follow.
There is a method in what appears to be madness in the unabashed support extended to Musharraf. The CENTCOM report and portions on Pakistan, which were later mysteriously removed from the website, best illustrate the point. Wittingly or unwittingly, the report gave graphic details of the nature of the military assistance rendered by Islamabad in the fight against the Taliban regime, carried out by the U.S.-led coalition after October 7, 2001 (the day military operations were launched to oust the Taliban). Throughout 2001 and 2002 Pakistan had insisted that the help it extended to the U.S.-led coalition forces was confined to `logistical support'. Of course, the term was never elaborated.
To persistent queries from the international and Pakistani media, the military establishment swore time and again that neither was there the presence of any military personnel from the U.S. coalition nor were any military operations launched from its soil into Afghanistan. The CENTCOM report bust that lie. It said that the coalition forces flew over 55,000 sorties from various bases in Pakistan between October 2001 and December 2002. Worse, the report said that the Pakistani economy suffered a loss of $10 billion as a result of its cooperation in the Afghan war.
Islamabad was not stupid in keeping a lid on these `facts and figures'. Wiser from its earlier experience, of collaboration with the U.S. in the latter's proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, the military establishment deemed it prudent to keep silent on the sensitive operations.
This is not to suggest that the suspected Al Qaeda or other extremist elements would not have known about the Pakistani complicity in the U.S.-led operations if the CENTCOM had not gone public with the `facts and figures'. However, there could be little argument on the assessment that repeated public pronouncements by Washington on the `capture' of 500 Al Qaeda suspects had put enormous pressure on the military establishment.
A small part of the present tension between the religious groups and the Pakistan Army, which otherwise have been the best of allies for decades, can be attributed to the loudmouths of White House and the Pentagon. Only the policy-makers in the Bush Administration can best answer questions arising out of its public endorsement of Musharraf as the new champion of the war on terrorism. The consequences of the decision of Pakistan to join the queue of partners in the war against terrorism within the country are too well-known and well-documented.
THE years 2002 and 2003 have been marked by a series of terror strikes, including the gruesome murder of The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and attacks on churches, Western targets and mosques. While the truth about the Quetta tragedy might never be known, its timing suggests that it was the handiwork of elements opposed to the U.S.' policies in the region. The bloodbath inside the mosque was perhaps meant to register the unhappiness over Musharraf cosying up to Washington and vice versa. It is a message of hate and could have been directed at more than one target.
If one were to proceed on the assumption that the Quetta incident was the handiwork of sectarian fanatics, it was a missive directed not just at the Shias, considering the fact that it was the main Shia mosque in the capital city of Baluchistan, but also at Musharraf and the U.S. With the borders of Afghanistan and Iran just a few hours drive away, Quetta could have emerged as the new centre of resistance by the extremists who face the heat from the operations of the U.S.-led coalition on the Afghan side and the Pakistani forces on their soil.
Sectarian terrorism in the country has a long history. Thanks to the policies of former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, there has been a proliferation of religious and sectarian extremist outfits in the country. The impact of sectarian violence in Pakistan has been so devastating that, according to one estimate, over 2,000 people have been killed in the past 15 years. These include some of the best-known professionals, including doctors, engineers and lawyers.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), in its recent insightful report `Pakistan: The Mullahs and the Military', notes that "the jihadi culture of the Jamaate Ulema Islami has also radicalised the sectarian divide and promoted sectarian conflict within Pakistan. The hardliners among them - the vast majority - consider the Shias `kafir' or non-Muslim infidels." It says, "Since the 1980s, Pakistan has been a surrogate battleground for the Arab states and Iran through its radical Sunni and Shia groups. Some Punjabi veterans of the Afghan jehad formed the Sunni militant organisation, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. After Shia militants killed Sipahe leader Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, his disciples launched an even more violent group, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which is linked to Al Qaeda. The founders of Sipahe Mohammad, a Shia militant group banned by Musharraf, were also Afghan veterans."
Successive governments in Pakistan, including that of Musharraf, have done precious little to contain and combat the menace of sectarian and religious extremism. In fact, Zia-ul-Haq embraced them as part of his policy of Islamisation and they proved to be useful in the Afghan war against the Soviets, fought on behalf of the U.S.
The attack on the World Trade Centre forced Musharraf to rethink the policy of tolerance and patronage of sectarian and religious extremists. However, his words have not been matched by deeds on the ground. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), in its latest report, succulently puts it thus: "Government actions, including the banning of militant groups engaged in promoting sectarian hatred and the arrest of many of their leaders and activists, appeared somewhat paradoxically but not entirely surprisingly, to unleash a climate of still greater hate and intolerance within the country." It said that the dichotomy on official policy regarding militancy, with leaders of banned sectarian parties permitted to contest polls along with some other groups, which despite their sectarian nature continued to operate freely in the country, created its own problems. The Sunni Tehreek, a group involved in various incidents of sectarian violence in the past, for instance, remained on the list of parties permitted to contest polls. Maulana Azam Tariq, leader of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba, won the seat from Jhang while leaders of the banned Tehrik-e-Jafriya Pakistan were also able to contest polls.