A crackdown and some doubts

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

Pakistan has apparently stepped up the crackdown on Al Qaeda suspects, but the question whether the state has cut off all its links with indigenous and foreign terrorist organisations remains.

in Islamabad

FOR over four weeks now it has been a routine for the Pakistani media to publish claims by the authorities about the arrest of one key operative or the other of Al Qaeda. Strangely, they seem to emerge from virtually every part of the country. Yet few have any clue about how far the organisation has spread its tentacles or the extent to which the state has been able to neutralise it.

Since mid-July, Pakistan has made a series of arrests of important Al Qaeda suspects. More than 70 local and foreign Al Qaeda operatives have been detained in the stepped-up crackdown. Pakistan has handed over 600-odd Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives, picked up from different parts of the country, to the United States ever since the so-called global war on terrorism began in October 2001.

In the past three months, the authorities claim to have dismantled major hideouts of Al Qaeda militants in the tribal region of South Waziristan. The continuing operations are said to have killed nearly 150 foreign and local militants. In August, the government published photographs of six "most wanted terrorists" and offered rewards totalling $1.1 million for information leading to their capture. They include the Egyptian Abu Faraj Farj Al-Libbi, the alleged mastermind behind two attempts on President Pervez Musharraf last December in Rawalpindi. Within days, the authorities arrested a key Egyptian Al Qaeda operative who holds a senior position in the terrorist network. According to Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, he has been identified as Sharif Al-Misri and his capture carried a significant reward.

Some days prior to that, security agencies arrested Mullah Abdul Jalal, "Deputy Foreign Minister" under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which gave Al Qaeda sanctuary before the September 11 attacks. He was detained in the Central province of Punjab.

The most notable arrests in July were those of the Pakistani computer expert Naeem Noor Khan and the Tanzanian Ahmad Khalfan Ghailani who has been indicted by a U.S. court for his role in the twin bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania) in 1998.

Information gleaned from the pair led to the arrest of another senior Al Qaeda leader, Abu Eisa al-Hindi, in Britain as well as the uncovering of a plot to strike at the U.S., Britain and Pakistan.

Notwithstanding the profuse praise from the U.S. and the U.K. for the efforts of Pakistan in the fight against terrorism, there is deep scepticism within Pakistan on the version dished out by the establishment on the terror threat and the fight to contain terrorism. Part of the problem is related to the credibility of the regimes in Washington, London and Islamabad in the eyes of the people of Pakistan. After all, the militants being pursued by the state today were comrades-in-arms of all these regimes in the jehad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which was the theatre of a proxy war between the U.S. and the erstwhile Soviet Union. Post 9/11, mujahideen (freedom fighters) of yesteryear came to be called terrorists, and can the common man be faulted for the confusion?

What has complicated matters is the inability of the Musharraf regime to abandon jehad as an instrument of foreign policy. Under pressure from the Bush administration Islamabad did a U-turn on Afghanistan, but its Kashmir policy has remained the same. Little wonder it has led to serious contradictions within and outside the state apparatus.

IN candid observations on Pakistan-India relations, the U.S. Ambassador in Islamabad, Nancy Powell, recently told a gathering in Lahore that ending violence in Kashmir was key to furthering the peace process. "With regard to Pakistan and India, the United States welcomes the recent agreement between India and Pakistan to pursue a wide-ranging composite dialogue with the objective of reaching a peaceful settlement on all bilateral issues, including Kashmir... . Talks on Kashmir are very much a part of the composite dialogue. These talks will not be easy: they will no doubt entail going beyond the longstanding positions of both sides. But a succession of governments in India and Pakistan have acknowledged - at Shimla, at Lahore, and at Islamabad last January - that a resolution of this issue must come through peaceful negotiations. Ending violence in Kashmir remains a key part of furthering this process," she said.

The militant phase in Kashmir coincided with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Thousands of trained gun-totting youth rendered jobless overnight were readily available to rush to the aid of the "oppressed brethren" in Kashmir. Thus was born the Kashmir militancy.

Fighters in Afghanistan developed close affinity to the right-wing outfits and organisations. Until the World Trade Centre bombing, Pakistan espoused the cause of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and advocated at every world forum the need for engagement with them. As one of the three countries in the world that recognised the Taliban regime, Pakistan was the last to snap its ties with the Taliban regime in Kabul.

And herein lies the rub. The figures dished out about the number of Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives captured might be impressive but the vital question is whether the state has been able to cut off its links with local militant organisations. There is nothing on the ground to suggest such an effort.

For the first time in its offensive against Al Qaeda, Pakistan has accused functionaries of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a conglomerate of six religious parties, of sheltering wanted persons. But in time the authorities clarified that it need not necessarily be a reflection on the religious parties and that the involvement could be at the individual level.

In the last week of August, the authorities claimed to have picked up an important Al Qaeda functionary from one of the seminaries run by a senior MMA leader. The party represented by the top MMA leader is certainly not entitled to the benefit of the doubt, but the Musharraf regime is not ready to strike, fearing a backlash from fundamentalist elements.

The MMA, nick-named the Military Mullah Alliance, is essentially seen as a force propelled by the Army to sideline the mainstream political parties such as the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League. The Alliance is in power in the Frontier province bordering Afghanistan and shares power with the Musharraf-backed Muslim League in Baluchistan.

For all the noises made against the alleged pro-American policies of Musharraf, it was the MMA that helped him get parliamentary approval for the changes he made in the Constitution. It even helped ratify his election as President through the referendum. Religious parties have always been considered the natural allies of the military and nothing much has changed post-9/11.

The U.S. 9/11 Commission makes the point in a roundabout way. It says, "If Musharraf stands for enlightened moderation in a fight for his life and for the life of his country, the United States should be willing to make hard choices too, and make the difficult long-term commitment to the future of Pakistan... Sustaining the current scale of aid to Pakistan, the United States should support Pakistan's government in its struggle against extremists with a comprehensive effort that extends from military aid to support for better education, so long as Pakistan's leaders remain willing to make difficult choices of their own."

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