Let's pray that the perpetrators don't turn out to be of Pakistani origin." These were the first words an influential Pakistani businessman said after watching the coverage of the London bombings on television. "Otherwise, we're done for!" His statement echoed the fears of most Pakistanis who saw the debilitating after-effects of the 9/11 terrorist strikes on their compatriots abroad and on businesses within Pakistan. In the wake of the British police's identification of the attackers as suicide bombers of Pakistani origin and at least one fatal racist attack on a Pakistani man in the UK, the businessman's words are proving to be prophetic.
Indeed, the Pakistan establishment itself had much the same fears. President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz have put much at stake to turn around the image of Pakistan as a haven for terror groups in order to contain some of the economic fallout of 9/11. Against fierce domestic opposition from hardline Islamic political parties, the Government has cracked down on militant groups, extradited over 600 suspected Al-Qaida activists to the US and other countries and visibly rolled back its support to groups operating in Kashmir. For their efforts, both have earned sobriquets within Pakistan of being Washington's men. The last thing they needed is more pressure from Western governments and further bad publicity.
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|IN A CLEFT STICK: Musharraf has antagonised militants; (right) a madarsa in Pakistan |
Islamabad was swift to condemn the London attacks, as it did the attack on Ayodhya two days earlier, which also had the potential of derailing the Indo-Pak peace initiatives. But the pressure is surely coming.
The British Government has requested the immediate deportation from Pakistan of Zeeshan Siddique, who was arrested from Peshawar in May and is suspected to be holding some leads to the London attacks. Siddique is a British national and initially tried to mislead interrogators by claiming to be from Hyderabad in Pakistan. He has links with two men of Pakistani origin who have strong Al-Qaida connections-Junaid Babar and Omar Khayyam. All three allegedly attended an Al-Qaida camp in the tribal area of South Waziristan before the Pakistani Army dismantled it.
The Pakistan Government has also been at loggerheads with the Afghanistan Government and US Ambassador in Kabul Zalmay Khalilzad over their allegations that Taliban insurgents are using bases in Pakistan's tribal areas to carry out incursions into Afghanistan. In June, the Afghan Government announced the arrest of three Pakistanis planning to assassinate Khalilzad. Islamabad has repeatedly rubbished these claims and implied that the Afghan Government is trying to deflect attention from its own shortcomings in dealing with the Taliban insurgency by putting the blame elsewhere.
"Parliamentary elections are coming up in Afghanistan in September so a certain amount of political rhetoric is to be expected," says a senior Pakistani bureaucrat. "But what is really motivating these allegations and the constant statements about Osama bin Laden being in Pakistan and not in Afghanistan is the fact that the Afghan Government and US forces have failed miserably in controlling anything outside of Kabul and in containing the resentment of the Pakhtun belt. Why have they not produced these Pakistanis who were supposedly going to assassinate Khalilzad? And if they are so sure about the whereabouts of Osama, how come they don't catch him?" The Pakistani Army's top commander in the frontier region, Corps Commander Lt-General Safdar Hussain, added another twist to the situation by claiming recently that poor surveillance by Afghanistan was helping militants, drugs and weapons reach Pakistan from there.
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|INNER TURMOIL: The scene after an attack on Musharraf in 2003 |
Nevertheless, there has been pressure from the Americans on Pakistan to do more to contain Taliban attacks. According to official sources, the US forces and the Afghan Government have also provided the Pakistan Government with video footage of Taliban camps allegedly located on the Pakistani side of the border. As a result, the Pakistani Army recently announced that it would deploy 4,000 more troops on the Pak-Afghan border.
Unlike the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, the Indian Government has showed restraint in apportioning blame on Pakistan for the Ayodhya attack. And indeed, a number of question marks hang over who exactly was behind the attack on the site of the former Babri mosque. However, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's statement that attacks such as these "could disrupt Indo-Pak relations" as well as Foreign Minister Natwar Singh's reported offer in Kazakhstan to provide Aziz with "concrete evidence" of cross-border infiltration have also upped the pressure on the Pakistan Government.
At the root of all the pressure is the limited success achieved by Musharraf in uprooting terror groups from Pakistani soil. There is no doubt that there has been a significant crackdown on some militant groups and extremists. Scores of foreign fighters have been handed over to the US, activists of banned groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipahe Sahaba are largely on the run or have been arrested while even in Pakistan-Controlled Kashmir's capital, Muzaffarabad, the chalk writings on walls exhorting people to jehad against India have all but disappeared.
But government agencies have remained notably lenient with other militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba which was never linked with any extremism within Pakistan and which also runs many powerful religious schools. In effect, they have been told to cease operations and lie low, something bound to arouse suspicion among observers about the Government's intentions. The long leash given to the Harkat-ul Mujahideen (HUM) and its leader Maulana Fazlur Rahman Khalil is even more baffling. HUM was extremely active in Afghanistan and had links with Al-Qaida and bin Laden himself. While hum activists have been implicated in a number of sectarian attacks within Pakistan as well as attacks on Musharraf in 2003 and the corps commander of Karachi in 2004, Khalil was twice arrested and allowed to go.
The Government has also made little progress on the other elements of the anti-extremism drive, such as the reform of madarsa curricula, having encountered stiff opposition from the seminary boards. In fact, a frightening new aspect emerging for anti-terrorism investigators is that militant outfits are recruiting heavily indoctrinated boys as young as 13-15 years old as suicide bombers from madarsas.
Some of the suspicions regarding the intentions of the Pakistan establishment were rekindled a few days ago by a report in the respected English monthly, Herald. It claims that its reporter was taken to some militant training camps that have been revived in the frontier province.
What is one to make of all this? For one, it is highly unlikely that the US is unaware of Pakistan's leniency towards certain outfits, particularly Al-Qaida-linked ones such as hum. This has led some analysts to believe that the Americans may be allowing this to "ferret out" information on Al-Qaida's top hierarchy by using these militants' contacts.
Even the exclusive story by the Herald has aroused suspicions among journalists who have covered militant organisations in the past. "Why would militants take a reporter, particularly of the English language press, to observe and report on something they would ostensibly want to keep under wraps?" questions one Islamabad-based journalist. "This is obviously some sort of a 'plant', but to what end, I do not know."
The readiest explanation offered by pundits is that the Pakistan establishment wants to keep its "options" open in case India backs out of talks over Kashmir. However, this does not seem to square completely with geopolitical realities or with the unmistakable feeling in Islamabad's corridors of power that Pakistan has lost the game in Kashmir. From all evidence, there is a realisation in the upper echelons of the Pakistani establishment-however late-that militancy is no longer an option. At best, it is hoping for some sort of face-saving deal, not the least to ease the domestic pressure of charges that it has sold out the Kashmir cause.
Complicating matters even more is the fact that it is not clear whether orders from the top are being completely followed by intelligence sleuths who may have become sympathetic to militants through their long association with them. Although not publicised officially, it was generally rumoured that Al-Qaida's No. 3, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, was arrested from the house of a relative of a serving army officer, who is now facing a court martial. In another incident, a senior army officer was pulled up and transferred when it was discovered that he had continued operating a militant training camp despite orders to disband it. According to a source, when questioned, the officer resentfully remarked: "Are we supposed to give up everything now?" This resentment from within may, in fact, be Musharraf's biggest challenge.