General Distracted Terror on Target

Indian Express, Gulf News and The Nation(Pakistan), May 15, 2002

Last week?s terrorist bombing in Karachi, which left 14 people including 11 French engineers dead, demonstrates Pakistan?s continued vulnerability. General Pervez Musharraf has called the bombing an attempt to destabilise Pakistan and ??weaken its resolve?? in the fight against terrorism.

But his decision to create a new anti-terrorism task force and the arrest of over 400 Islamists is unlikely to deter future terrorist attacks.

General Musharraf needs international help in dealing with the terrorist threat.

In addition to money and material, the international community must explain to Musharraf the links between terrorism and his mistaken domestic and regional policies. Pakistan has, over the years, become a soft state with ineffective law enforcement. Resources of the police and intelligence-gathering agencies have been over-stretched as governments use them to stay in power and not just to keep crime and terrorism in check.

Only recently, almost the entire machinery of state was deployed to help General Musharraf win his uncontested referendum. Police in many cities were busy commandeering private vehicles to transport the audience for General Musharraf?s political rallies.

Intelligence agencies probably kept tabs on the country?s political opposition while the terrorists who struck in Karachi were busy preparing for their latest strike. Political distractions leave little time, or resources, for actual police work. The terrorists know that and take advantage of the state?s weakness.

It is incorrect on the government?s part to claim that the recent terrorist attacks are exclusively linked to Pakistan?s support for the United States in the war against terrorism.

Al Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups have operated in Pakistan for years and the country has been a target of their attacks before September 11. Karachi witnessed the gunning down of US consulate officials as well as employees of the American oil company Union Texas a few years ago.

Sectarian and ethnic murders as well as unexplained bombings have been a common occurrence even when Pakistan was not a US ally.

Before September 11, terrorists took advantage of poor law enforcement and the government?s support for the Taliban to operate inside Pakistan. Islamabad?s acceptance of militants operating in Kashmir as freedom fighters helped in the forging of underground extremist networks throughout the country. One can understand the Musharraf government?s need to put a brave face on its virtual impotence against terrorism but its spokesmen should not try to insult the intelligence of informed commentators by making inaccurate statements.

Take the example of government claims after the latest bombing. Information Minister Nisar Memon reportedly said, ??We will (catch) those who were responsible for this act. We arrested the killers of Daniel Pearl and we will act similarly in this case.?? The fact, however, remains that seven of Pearl?s killers have not been arrested despite their identities being known to the authorities. Similarly, the arrest of over 400 alleged members of banned militant groups contributes little to public confidence. Most of those arrested in the latest ??crackdown?? were probably amongst the 1,800 militants released after the last crackdown that followed General Musharraf?s January 12 speech promising an end to militancy.

It seems that the government lacks a coherent strategy against terrorism. It is not even sure whether it should blame India or al Qaeda for the latest attack in Karachi.

Some officials have privately blamed the ethnic political party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which has been accused in the past of links with Indian intelligence services. But the MQM blames Pakistan?s security services for waging a dirty war in Karachi. In any case, General Musharraf cannot start pointing fingers at MQM so soon after having sought the party?s support during his referendum campaign.

With over one million troops from both countries facing each other on the border, Pakistan has reasons to be concerned about India?s intentions. New Delhi feels that the Musharraf regime wants to use its new leverage with the US to keep up pressure on India in Kashmir.

The US, too, seems to be worried about the prospect of India-Pakistan confrontation and has sent Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca to calm the situation. The US seems inclined towards accepting India?s view that Pakistan has not ended what New Delhi terms ??cross-border terrorism??.

Indian allegations of cross-border terrorism, countered by Pakistani allegations of an Indian hand in the Karachi terrorist bombings, are hardly conducive to an atmosphere of dialogue between the two traditional adversaries. Pakistan will either have to convince the United States (and the rest of the world) of the validity of its accusation against India or withdraw the charge.

Another front that saps the government?s energies and renders its campaign against terrorism ineffective is General Musharraf?s persistent crusade against Pakistan?s politicians. Massive resources have been spent on the so-called accountability of civilian politicians, civil servants and businessmen.

The accountability exercise has provided jobs to several serving and retired military officers but has failed to clean up corruption as extensively as intended. It now serves as a reminder of how trying to set everything right leaves a lot more undone. The Musharraf regime?s political opponents are continually detained on corruption charges for long periods. But the government says it is unable to arrest terrorism suspects indefinitely without due process.

During a recent visit to Washington, Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider demonstrated Islamabad?s muddled thinking by simultaneously seeking aid against terrorism and extradition of politicians and bureaucrats on corruption. The message the Musharraf government seems to be sending is that it is fighting America?s war against terrorism and should be repaid with help against its domestic and regional opponents. General Musharraf needs to realise that the war against terrorism is a battle for Pakistan?s survival. Battles for survival cannot be won if smaller prizes along the way serve as distractions.