January issue 2012

By | News & Politics | Published 12 years ago

Around a month ago, in Lahore’s Minto Park, a highly charged crowd of baton-wielding, US-bashing ultra right-wingers turned up to protest the deadly NATO strikes that killed Pakistani soldiers, and the May 2 incident, that ended the reign of Osama bin Laden.

This ‘Coalition of the Willing’ was comprised of more than 40 religious organisations, all of which decided to close their ranks and hit the road to put up a show of strength under the banner of the Defense of Pakistan Council (DPC).

The usual suspects appeared on the occasion, with Pakistan’s iconic national monument visible in the backdrop. Among the notables were Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the Ameer of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), Maulana Samiul Haq, a prominent Deobandi scholar and the head of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-Sami group), Liaquat Baloch of theJamaat-e-Islami (JI), and Mohammed Ahmed Ludhianvi of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, now rebranded as the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat.

Not surprisingly, the former DG of the ISI, Hamid Gul, was also seen flaunting a peculiar grin. The JUI-F chief Fazlur Rehman was suspiciously missing from the gathering — lately he has also been under threat from the Taliban.

The rally, which packed tens of thousands of faithful, young and elderly alike, came at a time when Pakistan’s relations with the US have dipped to a record low, with little hope of an early revival. The protesting crowds cautioned the political leadership against doing business with the US and asked the government to cut off its relations with the ‘enemy of Islam’ and Pakistan. Swept along by high emotions and fiery speeches, the crowds denounced the US-India nexus, hummed jihadi pronouncements, supported pulling the plug on the so-called war on terror and hitting the reset switch in ties with the US.

Their charter of demands also counseled an anti-India posturing on the heels of Kashmir and the water disputes, and rejected the grant of MFN status to India. For the first time, Hafiz Saeed spoke to an audience drawn from a variety of religious sects, as the devotees cheered and waived JuD flags with unending enthusiasm. Yes, this doesn’t quite seem like déjà vu just yet (pun intended).

In retrospect, experts contend that the Difaa-i-Pakistan Council rally was primarily pomp and show by the JuD — the organisation believed to be the front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and accused of master-minding the fateful Mumbai attacks. Reports from the venue suggest that most of the protesters were ardent followers of the JuD, whose banners and flags littered the venue.

The rally was widely covered, locally and internationally, and a host of conclusions were drawn. But for the old hacks back home, it seems like the rebirth of the tragedy which haunted the country during the decades of the ’80s and ’90s, all the way through to the turn of the 21st century.

Popular criticism blames the Afghan jihad and CIA-ISI handholding for creating conditions for militant hatcheries to blossom unhindered. Let’s also skim through the pages of history to locate the significant manifestations of political Islam in the country’s body politic, which seem embedded in the beginning of the ’70s.

Rewind to 1972, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, JUI linchpin Mufti Mahmud, and NAP’s Wali Khan formed a joint JUI-NAP government in the then NWFP. Once in power, JUI’s Mufti Mahmud initiated a vigorous Islamisation programme, banned alcohol, introduced an Islamic reform to the inheritance law, and forced women to wear the veil in public. The police were ordered to ensure compliance and offenders were given harsh sentences. The final years of the Bhutto era saw anti-blasphemy amendments to the constitution and the labelling of Ahmadis as non-Muslims.

In came Zia ul-Haq in 1977, having overturned Bhutto’s government. Under his tyrannical rule, the JUI and Islamists instituted the Hudood Ordinance and revised the penal code to make blasphemy a capital crime. Similar measures sent a powerful message about the ideological character of the state. For the next 11 years or so, the Islamisation programme continued unhindered.

Jamaat-e-Islami also embraced the Zia-led policies and its rhetoric won over many within official circles. All this when the political front was swamped with right-wing sentiments under Zia’s patronage, and the CIA and ISI were putting together a coalition of foreign fighters with a strong Wahhabi allegiance, funded heavily by financial assistance from Saudi and UAE backers.

By that time, Afghanistan had turned into a full-blown conflict with regional and international dimensions and the US backed the pro-Islamic front in Pakistan to lead the war against the god-less Communists. By the end of the ’80s, the Russian forces receded back to their bunkers, their heads hanging low in defeat.

For the US and Pakistan though, the honeymoon ended on a sour note when Washington slapped Islamabad with sanctions for covert nuclear ambitions in the 1990s. This abrupt brake on friendly relations obviously impacted the next stage of the evolution of militancy that Pakistan endures to this day.

Fearsome and hardened militant groups sprung up, like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, that were more inclined towards the Sunni Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith (AeH) interpretation of Islam, the South Asian version of the Salafist-Wahhabist trend in the Arab world.

This turn of events afflicted the state and society at large, causing sectarian rifts with regional implications, especially since a pro-Shi’ite Iran borders Pakistan. And, with the insurgency in Occupied Kashmi being waged simultaneously, the developing anti-India sentiment tied well into political as well as policy streams. In Afghanistan, the Taliban captured vast areas and stifled the Northern Alliance, giving rise to the much-trumpeted ‘strategic depth’ theory.

Post-9/11 events brought a new level of complexity to this militant landscape. Al Qaeda entered the equation with its infrastructure of transnational terror and ideology. With Islamabad cosying up to Washington and winning over George W. Bush’s administration, the tables reversed.

The US-led fight for Afghanistan turned Pakistan into the frontline state against terrorism and the American dollars rolled in — only this time to smoke out the Taliban and curtail militant hideouts inside Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas.

A new battle ensued inside Pakistan between the security forces and these same old militants, rebranded as the Punjabi Taliban, with affiliations to the fearsome Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Battle-hardened Kashmiri militants — such as Ilyas Kashmiri — ascended to unprecedented heights within Al Qaeda and formed his separate brand — Brigade 313 — cobbling together a deadly militant alliance.

The Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus fought the US ‘invaders’ inside Afghanistan, denting Washington’s ambitions to cobble together a Northern Alliance-dominated administration in Kabul. Inside Pakistan, the TTP and Punjabi Taliban orchestrated deadly attacks against security forces as well as civilians.

No doubt, the last decade has been the deadliest of all destroying countless lives in settled and remote dwellings alike. Despite the human and financial costs that this unfortunate country has had to bear, Washington accused General Pervez Musharraf of double-dealing and aiding the enemy, which the US wanted silenced. Consequently, the pressure mounted on Islamabad to rein in jihadi networks inside Pakistan, the very factor that caused the many spikes and dips in bilateral relations.

Fast forward to end 2011, and the holy warriors are back again chanting down Babylon (read the US). And let us recount the actors fronting the DPC. These are JuD, JUI factions, JI, and the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (formerly the Sipah-e-Sahaba). No surprises there. And who can forget to factor in the former top spymaster Hamid Gul brandishing his cheerful grin.

On the external front, relations with Washington could not be worse and sustained Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has softened the American rhetoric into a talk-talk strategy — instead of a just-fight strategy. The spectre of the Mumbai attacks still haunts the recent thaw in relations with India.

It is obvious that with every twist and turn in the strategic game played out in Afghanistan, extremism and militancy have clutched far deeper into the law, politics and society of Pakistan and influenced its foreign policy choices. The political system, sidestepped in the wake of the great game, was further compromised and remains so even to this day and age.

“This is the cumulative effect of the policies we have pursued in the past vis-à-vis Afghanistan and India. There is now a cocktail of these militant groups with different associations that have a nexus among them,” says security analyst General Talat Masood. He laments that the military and the intelligence establishment is still not speaking clearly to convey a change of course in policy approaches.

“This confusion or complicity, whichever way you look at it, has made these non-state actors so powerful that it has become difficult to rein them in. This menace will only hurt us more if the military and the civilian set up doesn’t find ways to bring these militants into the political mainstream.”

Asked if the recent Defence of Pakistan rally can be construed as one such measure, the retired general responds thoughtfully, “Now the problem is that the militant networks are seen as voter constituencies by the PML-N, the PTI, and even the PPP. This makes it even more complicated because the politicians are out to get them on their bandwagon.


This article was originally published in the 2012 Annual issue of Newsline.