Pakistan: Islamic Backlash
The tensions of its sudden anti-Taliban stance begin to tell on the Pakistani establishment as Musharraf sacks some of the most powerful men in the land
by Shishir Gupta with Ishtiaq Ali Mehkri (Guest column by Mushahid Hussain)
October 15, 2001, October 22, 2001 issue
When Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf branded the recent bomb blast near the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly a "terrorist act", it was a defining moment for the man who till September 11 had righteously raved on about the "freedom struggle" in the Indian state. The metamorphosis began hours earlier on October 8 when the President removed Lt-General Mehmood Ahmed, the powerful director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and lt-general Muzaffar Hussain Usmani, the deputy chief of army staff, besides clamping down on radical Islamic leaders. The packaging was impeccable and the message to the international community clear: Musharraf is the new moderate face of Pakistan. In a sense that is what the West wanted to believe.
That the President was on an image overhaul was evident during his October 8 press conference where he spoke of "astute diplomacy" to pursue the Pakistani goal of installing a "friendly government" in post-Taliban Afghanistan. And Islamabad's convergence with Washington-despite the growing unrest in Sindh, Baluchistan and the tribal areas in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) against the US attacks on the Taliban-was justified on the grounds that the situation had changed. He would be able to extract the maximum economic and political benefits from the West, Musharraf assured the Pakistani people, if he went against the Taliban. The end would justify the means and serve the national interests of Pakistan. While the US and the UK seem impressed by this transformation, the Pakistani military ruler has ingeniously used the Afghan war to strengthen his position, within and outside the army. Ahmed and Usmani, whose sacking was portrayed as action against anti-US elements in the army, are the men who had hinted opposition to Musharraf's taking over as President before he embarked on his journey to Agra.
Two other generals-Lahore Corps Commander Mohammed Aziz Khan and Chief of General Staff Mohammed Yousuf-were sidelined. Khan was given the largely ceremonial designation of chairman, joint chiefs of staff, while Yousuf was made vice-chief of army staff. In one stroke, Musharraf neutralised his accomplices in the October 12, 1999, coup against Nawaz Sharif that had brought him to power. These were also the very generals who had engineered the Kargil war.
The fall of Ahmed was understandable and there is credible evidence linking him with the terrorists involved in the New York attacks. It is understood that Ahmed as ISI chief instructed Omar Sheikh, a Harkat-ul-Mujahideen terrorist freed during the Indian Airlines Kandahar hijacking, to send $1,00,000 to Mohammed Atta, who was involved in the kamikaze attack on the World Trade Center. Sheikh, who now lives near the Binori mosque in Karachi, was spotted in Islamabad at the time the money was transferred to Atta. Ahmed's close proximity to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was also reflected in the fact that Musharraf had sent him to Afghanistan for negotiations on the Osama bin Laden issue. Intelligence inputs indicate that Ahmed did not convey the message "forcefully". On the contrary he assured the Taliban that Pakistan would not cut diplomatic ties with them. The accompanying clerics also advised the Taliban leaders to not blink. The new DG(ISI) Lt-General Ehsan-ul-Haque, a former director-general of military intelligence, has the image of being a moderate opposed to the jehadi culture.
With Ahmed and Khan out of the way, there is no challenge to Musharraf from within the Pakistan Army. In fact, Musharraf has strengthened himself by appointing corps commanders of his choice in the border cities of Peshawar and Quetta-the hotspots of current unrest. Interestingly, Lt-General Abdul Qadir Baloch has been asked to oversee military operations in Baluchistan, while Lt-General Ali Mohammed Jan Aurakzai, an ethnic Pashtoon, has been asked to head the Peshawar Corps. The commander of the key Rawalpindi Corps, responsible for Jammu and Kashmir, has also been changed, and the navy chief, Admiral Abdul Aziz Mirza, has been asked to toe the general's line. Admiral Mirza reportedly chose to differ with Musharraf on supporting US strikes against the Taliban.
The large-scale reshuffle in the Pakistan military establishment was accompanied by a clampdown on radical leaders such as Fazlur Rehman of the Jamait-e-Ulema Islam (JUI), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen chief Fazlur Rehman Khalil, founder and inspirator of Taliban Sami-ul-Haq and Azam Tariq, leader of the virulently anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba group. These leaders were instrumental in the violent anti-US demonstrations in Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar. They burned effigies of US President George W. Bush and called for the downfall of the Musharraf Government. By detaining these jehadi leaders, Musharraf signalled his resolve to tackle radical extremism in Pakistan and distance Islamabad from the anti-US venom spewed by these hardcore Islamists. In fact, anticipating the domestic unrest, Islamabad moved two reserve brigades from the Indo-Pakistan borders to quell disturbances in Karachi and Quetta.
While the civil unrest was being checked, Islamabad took action in support of the US-led military operations by capturing two Taliban Mi-17 military helicopters that landed in the remote Paktia area of the NWFP. However, they were inexplicably handed back to the Taliban a day later. The Pakistani Rangers also fought a gun-battle with Taliban soldiers who were trying to sneak in at Tali Nawan Pass, 55 km from Peshawar, and pushed the militiamen back into Afghanistan. Islamabad even granted US forces access to air bases in Pasni and Jacobabad in order to conduct operations against the Taliban. While Pasni, a port in Baluchistan near the Afghan border, is remotely located, Jacobabad airfield is located near an urban area in the Sindh province.
These action have perhaps paid dividends as the US is seen to be protecting Pakistani interests by not facilitating the advance of Northern Alliance troops at least for the time being. Musharraf had urged President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair not to allow the Northern Alliance to gain any mileage out of the strikes against the Taliban. That the US is sensitive to the Pakistani concerns was evident in the operations conducted in the first week. US bombers have not targeted Taliban frontline forces ranged against the Northern Alliance but only reserve columns of the radical militia. This has allowed the Taliban to check the advance of Northern Alliance forces towards the key towns of Mazar-e-Sharif and Charikar near Kabul.
While Pakistan is facing grave domestic turmoil, the fact is that there were hardly any violent demonstrations in Punjab. Leaders like Qazi Hussain Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and Hafeez Sayeed of Markaz-ud-Daawa-wal-Irshad (MDI) roundly criticised Musharraf for supporting the US against the Taliban, but the demonstrations have been largely peaceful, something that the JeI, which is backed by Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists, and the MDI, which is the source of the dreaded Lashkar-e-Toiba, are not known for.
The JeI's refusal to launch a campaign for a violent movement was a departure from its recognised stand. Jamaat, the most organised religious force in Pakistan, restricted itself to a demonstration or two though it condemned the Musharraf Government's policy of supporting the US.
With Jamaat not participating whole-heartedly, there was hardly any opportunity for the fundamentalists in Punjab to give the Government a rough time. Qazi Ahmed apparently even went to the extent of declaring that the September 11 suicide attacks were "no jehad" and distanced his party from any such ventures on behalf of the Islamic parties. Though his stance has come as a surprise to many, former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan G. Parthasarthy says that Qazi acted on predictable lines as "he is quite close to the US administration".
The few demonstrations following the US air raids on Afghanistan have not been able to rock Islamabad. Only those pockets of the country that had a concentration of Afghan refugees as well as religious and Pashtoon ethnic forces were major theatres of violence and uprisings. Peshawar and Quetta saw violent demonstrations. Three people were killed and two cinema houses set ablaze in Peshawar. A couple of vehicles, a bank, a cinema hall screening American films and a UN office in Quetta were set on fire by a protesting mob. But these were sporadic and jingoistic in nature, displaying no plan of action that might bring the Government to its knees.
Observers in Pakistan are quick to point out that the recent demonstrations were much smaller and more disorganised than what former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had to face following his decision to send Pakistani forces to fight alongside the Americans in the Gulf War. They feel that though Afghanistan has been a far more emotive issue than Iraq for the religious forces at large, it has simply failed to click with the "silent majority" which is exasperated with the Kalashnikov culture that has followed the war in Afghanistan since 1979. Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad and Islamabad saw rallies but there was nothing that could have threatened the men in the corridors of power to reconsider their new Afghan policy.
The perception is that till such time that Punjab comes to a boil, Musharraf will rule in Islamabad. This is based on the fact that Punjabis comprise 64 per cent of the Pakistan Army and as much as 90 per cent of the officer cadre. But the litmus test for the Pakistan President lies in the days ahead. When the US conducts strikes on Afghanistan from Pakistani soil and the number of civilian casualties mounts, he could well be stretched to convince his countrymen that the benefits of western money outweigh their religious duty to stand by brethren in distress.
That is why the Kashmir card remains so important for Pakistan's rulers. If Musharraf can demonstrate that the setback in Kabul can be offset by gains in Srinagar, he will be able to retain his hold on Pakistan.
GUEST COLUMN: MUSHAHID HUSSAIN
The Need For Change
Having joined the coalition against terrorism, President Pervez Musharraf has realised that he has to change the country's course, not just the Afghan policy that, in any case, is buried deep in the debris of the World Trade Center. Musharraf has undertaken a wide-ranging reshuffle in his military team while altering the balance of power between the religious parties who oppose his policy and the moderate political mainstream which supports him. This change of course has to be examined in three contexts:
The unravelling of the cosy clerical-establishment alliance which had thrived since 1977.
In 1977, general Zia-ul-Haq's military coup against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was part of a right-wing backlash against the secular, autocratic policies of the Pakistan People's Party, which had alienated the urban middle class, big business houses, regional "nationalists" and the clergy.
This constituency was tailor-made to support general Zia's Islamisation and became his political mainstay during the Afghan jehad which began with the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979.
During the jehad more than $5 billion flowed in from the CIA, Saudi Arabia and China and a two-lakh strong army of motivated mujahideen came into being. The Pashtoon factor came into play around the same time. The majority of the three million Afghan refugees were Pashtoons, settled in the North West Frontier Province or Baluchistan, both Pashtoon-majority provinces. So the ideological affinity of the jehad was reinforced by an ethnic camaraderie. It was the 1991 Gulf War which laid the basis for the Taliban phenomenon. Mujahideen commanders like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Burhannudin Rabbani and the Jamaat-e-Islami all backed Saddam Hussain against Saudi Arabia which was part of the US-led coalition. In 1993 Benazir Bhutto took over as prime minister in alliance with Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), a predominantly Pashtoon party which controls a large network of madarsas where most of the Taliban leadership studied.
It is in this broader context that the American bombing of Afghanistan coincided with the radical reshuffle in the military high command on October 7. Two four-star generals were promoted, a new head of the ISI appointed and a number of the corps commanders changed. Musharraf's closest confidantes, former ISI chief lt-general Mahmood Ahmed and deputy chief of army staff lt-general Muzaffar Hussain Usmani, have retired. Mahmood, corps commander at Rawalpindi, took over Islamabad and arrested Nawaz Sharif during the October 12 1999 coup, while Usmani, corps commander at Karachi, took over the Karachi airport to ensure Musharraf's safe landing from Colombo. In Pakistan's time-honoured tradition of power politics, king-makers seldom outlast the king. In 1971, lt-general Gul Hassan, chief of general staff, broke away from the Yahya Khan coterie and was instrumental in installing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Within 90 days of appointing Hassan as army chief, Bhutto had him removed.
The reshuffles by themselves may not suffice. To deal with the protests against his policy, Musharraf has to muster all his political skills to ensure that Pakistanis do not perceive the war on terrorism as an endorsement of attacks on a fellow-Muslim nation. But in the longer term, he is relying not only on extensive western support to stabilise Pakistan's economy, but also on the moderate mainstream or the "silent majority", as he prefers to call them, to defuse the activism and ire of the religious right.
(The author was the information minister of Pakistan under prime minister Nawaz Sharif)
CHAIN OF TERROR
COORDINATOR: ISI DG Lt-General Mahmood Ahmed
CONDUIT: Omar Sheikh of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen
BOMBER: Mohammed Atta, who got funds from Sheikh
Copyright 2001 Living Media India Ltd.
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