Selective War Against Terror

Indian Express, June 20, 2005

The arrest in California of a Pakistani father and son allegedly linked to terrorism highlights, once again, the superficiality of the Pakistani regime’s rhetoric about changing the country’s direction.
So far, no evidence has been presented by US officials of the California detainees being linked to Al-Qaeda, except an affidavit by one of the accused admitting to attending a militant training camp near Rawalpindi. It is possible that the Pakistanis arrested in California turn out to be innocent of Al-Qaeda links, joining the ranks of hundreds of Muslims caught in America’s currently over-zealous law enforcement. It is equally possible, however, that they were associated with a Pakistani jehadi group, which in turn might be linked to the global network loosely described as Al-Qaeda.

The Pakistani foreign office was, as usual, quick in denying that any Al-Qaeda facility exists in Pakistan. Of course, it is the same foreign office that, through its permanent representative to the United Nations, has been periodically debating the definition of terrorism at the UN, even though Pakistan has ostensibly been a crucial ally in the US-led global war against terrorism.

One could ask Pakistani officials how they can be America’s partners in fighting terrorism if they do not agree with the US definition of terrorism but that argument is not the subject of our immediate concern. The same week that the California arrests served as a reminder of the jehadi presence in Pakistan, the famed victim of a gangrape, whose rapists had earlier been set free, was detained and forbidden from traveling abroad. The ‘‘enlightened moderate’’ State in Pakistan chose to extend its protection to the perpetrators of the gangrape rather than Mukhtar Mai, the victim.

With the passage of time, differences between the ‘‘Islamist’’ dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq and the ‘‘modernising’’ regime of General Pervez Musharraf are clearly a lot less pronounced than Musharraf’s supporters make them out to be. The military regime’s priority appears to be to suppress or deny bad news rather than to change the circumstances that give rise to it.

In case of the California arrests, the Pakistani authorities should have obtained full information and checked the facts on the ground before setting their spin machine in motion. One of the California accused reportedly told his interrogators that he attended a jehadi facility run by Maulana Fazlur Rehman at ‘‘Tamal in Rawalpindi’’. Given that the FBI officer writing the Pakistani detainee’s statement was unfamiliar with both Rawalpindi’s geography and the who’s who of Pakistani jehadism, it is perfectly possible that he simply failed to figure out the information he was given.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, originally of Harkat-ul-Ansar, has maintained a jehadi facility at Dhamial in Rawalpindi for many years. Had the Pakistan government been serious in its claims of uprooting militancy and terrorism, it would have paid some attention to this possible link between last week’s arrests in California and a shadowy group that participated in the officially sanctioned Afghan and Kashmir jehads.

Maulana Khalil was one of the signatories of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa against the United States and was reportedly in the camp struck by US cruise missiles in Afghanistan in 1998. In January 2004, the Los Angeles Times reported that Maulana Khalil remained openly active despite government-imposed bans on him and his organisations. Khalil had survived the ban in 1995 on Harkat-ul-Ansar and re-named it Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. When Harkat-ul-Mujahideen was banned after September 11, 2001, he emerged as the leader of Jamiat-ul-Ansar.

Instead of doing anything about Maulana Khalil or his followers after the publication of the LA Times report, Pakistani security services threatened the newspaper’s Pakistani reporter. The reporter’s reporting, rather than Maulana Khalil’s activities, appeared to irk Pakistani officials more.

Maulana Khalil was finally arrested with considerable publicity in March 2004, only to be released quietly seven months later. He has reportedly gone underground after the recent arrests of his followers in California. Unlike Mukhtar Mai, the rape victim, Pakistani authorities are unable to find and detain him. Ironically, the same Pakistani officials who had no qualms about keeping Asif Ali Zardari (husband of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto) in prison without a conviction for almost eight years have never found sufficient reason to detain Maulana Khalil — or several other militant jehadi leaders for that matter.

It should be obvious to all but the most naive that Musharraf’s U-turn in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 has been selective and aimed more at pleasing the US than at ridding Pakistan of domestic militant groups. Musharraf made his views clear in an interview with The Washington Post in 2002, in which he made a distinction between various elements of Pakistan’s militant problem and stressed that the militants fighting in Kashmir were freedom fighters.

‘‘There are three elements of terrorism that the world is concerned about,’’ Musharraf said in that interview and went on to list these three elements. ‘‘Number one, the Al-Qaeda factor. Number two is what (the Indians) are calling cross-border terrorism and we are calling the freedom struggle in Kashmir. Number three is the sectarian (Sunni vs. Shia) extremism and sectarian terrorism in Pakistan… The third one is more our concern, and unfortunately, the world is not bothered about that. We are very much bothered about that because that is destabilising us internally,’’ he said.

Thus, in the General’s worldview, sectarian terrorists were the real source of trouble while Al-Qaeda’s Arab members had to be apprehended to ensure the flow of US support. Homegrown militants trained for operating in the region were the least of Musharraf’s concern at the time of that interview. But Pakistani authorities cannot eliminate the international terrorist network or the sectarian militias without decapitating the domestic jehadi networks. All Islamist militant groups sympathise with one another and in some cases, such as Kashmiri jehadi groups and sectarian militias, have overlapping memberships.

From the point of view of Pakistan’s Islamist militants and their backers in the establishment, jehad is only on hold but not yet over. The major Kashmiri jehadi groups retain their infrastructure that could be pressed into service at a future date. Afghanistan’s Taliban also continue to find safe haven in parts of Pakistan as recently as the Spring of 2005. Afghan and American officials complain periodically of the Taliban still training and organising in Pakistan’s border areas, but their protests are rejected summarily with rhetoric similar to the one about domestic militant groups.

The Musharraf regime has been careful to take all steps necessary to retain the goodwill of the US and its rhetoric of ‘‘enlightened moderation’’ has won it America’s support. President Bush described Musharraf as ‘‘a courageous leader’’ who had risked his life to crack down on the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared during a March 2005 visit to Pakistan that Pakistan ‘‘has come an enormously long way… This is not the Pakistan of September 11. It is not even the Pakistan of 2002.’’

American officials regularly express the belief that Pakistan had turned the corner and could now be trusted as an American ally. The US sees Pakistan’s glass as half full rather than half empty. For Pakistanis faced with on-ground realities, such as militants living in their midst and the treatment of gangrape victims like Mukhtar Mai, there is little in the glass that gives them satisfaction.