Defanging the jihadis
12 August 2001
Islamabad: Every time a crude bomb goes off outside an unswept government office in India, cardboard donation boxes appear on the streets of Lahore and Karachi. Terrorist groups, claiming to have triggered it off, ask passersby to donate for the cause.
Jihad has become the biggest money-spinning industry in strife-torn Pakistan. A few thousand youth are on the rolls of various militant groups; many thousands more, like the boxwallahs, have formed ancillary industries.
The boxwallahs' biggest box-office hit was the Red Fort attack last Christmas. Lashkar-e-Toiba activists showed the video footage in a Lahore stadium. At the end, collection boxes overflowed with devalued Pakistani rupees. Posters around the boxes say, 'Your ten rupees can buy us a bullet to kill an Indian soldier; your five hundred rupees can get us a pistol.'
President Pervez Musharraf, given his India hatred, should not have any problem with it, but he thinks this industry is more polluting than the leather tanneries which cure the sheepskins collected by Lashkar activists on holy days and auction them for Rs 20 crore. "Part of the money goes to fund the militant groups, but the larger part goes into the pockets of the jobless youth who have set up the collection boxes," says a senior government officer.
Pakistan's leaders-now, mostly in uniform-are also worried about mind pollution. There was no problem as long as the youth shot Russians in Afghanistan and Indians in Srinagar. But those who went as boys to Afghanistan and Kashmir are now middle-aged men, with battle-scarred bodies, brutalised minds, no jobs and plenty of unspent bullets. They shoot Shias and other fellow-Pakistanis.
There are also lakhs of refugees, many of them armed. Some 70,000 have crossed the Durand Line from Afghanistan in recent months, swelling Pakistan's refugee population to 2.2 million. A fed-up federal government has banned any further influx. "Pakistan has been a host to the Afghan refugees for over 20 years and we have paid a huge price for it," says Refugee Affairs Minister Abbas Sarfaraz Khan.
Recently, the Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi killed hundreds of Shias. "Pakistan has become a target of Islamic extremism, which threatens to tear it apart as a political entity," observes Maj.-Gen. (retd.) Afsir Karim of the Indian Army. "Terrorism, Talibanisation and religious fanaticism have led to intensification of violence." Agrees Sartaj Aziz, foreign minister in Nawaz Sharif's cabinet: "It is creating problems. But the electoral strength of the hardline parties is small, so, religious militancy can be curbed."
All the same, returning jihadis spin yarns of daredevilry which fire the imagination of the youth, who creep into Kashmir for gun, gore, glory and God. If they come home one day, they will also shoot fellow Pakistanis.
No one knows this better than Musharraf. Religionism-which Zia-ul Haq thought would give Pakistan a new power identity-has turned rabid and is eating into the vitals of society. Worse, it is permeating into the sole institution that can hold Pakistan together- its army, which is still rated as good as India's.
Musharraf's biggest concern is to hold the army together and reinvent the withering state. His image in India-of a daredevil commando general who stays in power by patronising rabid religionists-is in sharp contrast to how he is seen in Pakistan and how he sees himself: as Pakistan's Attaturk. That is why the liberal intelligentsia has fallen in line with the general's parade, rather than light candles for the dead and discredited democracy. Post-Agra, he has positioned himself firmly on the nationalistic right which hates India. The challenge now is to rein in the religious right that hates the blabbering Hindu.
"The Pakistan army leans heavily to the nationalistic right in the matter of Kashmir, as distinct from the religious right, as the Indians would have a gullible world-fed up by the Taliban-naively believe," says Ikram Sehgal, editor-in-chief of Pakistan Defence Journal.
Musharraf's heavy shelling at Agra with Kashmir cannons has again brought into Pakistan's national focus a large question of a territorial state in place of religious bigotry. "As long as he doesn't lose sight of the Kashmir issue, all, including the jihadis will give support to him," says Sartaj Aziz.
Diplomats believe that Musharraf has managed to hijack the anti-India agenda from the hands of the jihadis. Even Lashkar-e-Toiba, which believes in blasting India's unprotected symbols of power rather than face bullets in the valley, has reluctantly fallen in line. Its Lahore-based chief, Prof. Hafiz Mohammed Sayeed, who had opposed the presidential couple's Taj honeymoon prior to the summit, has changed his stance after Agra.
The Agra blitzkrieg has left not only the Indian foreign office but every rival power centre in Pakistan dumbstruck. "It was the weak-kneed approach of successive democratic governments that made Kashmir a jihadi issue," points out a retired Pakistani army officer. "Now, once again, it is an issue of the state and the army. Musharraf has made it, or is making it, less of a religious issue, and more of a territorial issue." According to him, India should be more comfortable in dealing with a state than with riotous gun-toting ultras. "Let him do the grandstanding now. India can talk it out or fight it out with him later."
Most observers agree that Musharraf is right now in full control of whatever is left of the state and its politics. "Some sort of sabre-rattling has to go on," says Dr Rifaat Hussain, chairman of the department of defence and strategic studies at Quaid-i-Azam University. "Till the next meeting or summit, the morale (of the jihadis) has to be kept up. He can't keep silent on Kashmir when India is shooting in the valley."
Hard posturing is also a survival tactic. "Musharraf cannot survive if he compromises on Kashmir," says Lt.-Gen. Hamid Gul, former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief, who masterminded Zia's Afghan war. The joke in Rawalpindi is that some hardliners were plotting another aircraft accident (like in the case of Zia) when Indian Minister Sushma Swaraj told newsmen in Agra that the talks were about non-Kashmir issues.
Positioning himself on the nationalistic right, Musharraf is also spanking the jihadis. His orders to seize unlicensed weapons and to make madrasas submit accounts are interpreted as signs of his desire to establish a civil society in Pakistan.
Another bold attempt has been to rein in the druglords. The assets of six of them in Faisalabad, worth Rs 548.4 million, were frozen recently. The number of drug users in Pakistan touched 4 million last year, up from 1.9 million in 1986. "Perhaps Musharraf is under US pressure to control the drug problem," says a diplomat. "At least, poppy harvest was much less this year."
But it's not that he is having his way in everything. Not even 1 per cent of 10 million illegal arms has been surrendered. Only 375 of 300,000 Kalashnikovs in Karachi have been surrendered. "It is the boldness of the gesture that counts," says Dr Hussain. "He has isolated the extremist forces and the opposition space has been given to the Pakistan People's Party and the Muslim League." In other words, by hard-talking on Kashmir, Musharraf has defanged the religious extremists and allowed democratic opposition.
His toughest test will be to cleanse the army. Right now, he has complete control of the only institution which, he believes, can rebuild Pakistan as a modern, progressive Islamic state. "The army has a strong tradition of discipline, much like the Indian army," points out Dr Hussain. "There cannot be any counter-coup. All the coups were after prolonged instability." In other words, the army kicks out only weak-kneed rulers, not tough generals.
Pakistani analysts pooh-pooh Indian speculations about a rift between Musharraf and some of his hawkish corps commanders. Much was read into the absence of Lt.-Gen. Mohammed Aziz, the Lahore corps commander, at the president's swearing-in. Aziz's support was deemed critical. As deputy director-general of ISI till 1998-end, he was in charge of operations in India and had a good liaison with the militants. Moreover, he belongs to the Sudan tribe of occupied Kashmir. As chief of general staff during the Kargil operation, he had assured Musharraf, in his taped and leaked phone-talk, that he had "the scruff of their neck ... in our hands."
Pakistani officials point out that Aziz softened the jihadis before Musharraf left for Agra. Aziz took his chief to the Lashkar lair in Lahore where they sought and got some fanatical quietude, till the summit was over. Post-Agra, the Lashkar has completely fallen in line.
If personal presence at ceremonies is an indication of loyalty, Aziz was there to receive him at the airport on his midnight return from Agra. So was the hardline ISI chief Lt.-Gen. Mahmood Ahmed.
A third hardline general is M.H. Usmani, Musharraf's second in command. Usmani's absence from many of the ceremonial functions is, however, attributed to his trips to London for the medical treatment of his son. Usmani is to retire in January and may get a diplomatic post.
Most of the remaining lieutenant generals, especially the chief of general staff Mohammed Yusuf Khan, are loyal to Musharraf. "But the danger is when someone defies the high command in the name of religion," says an Indian diplomat. "Say, an officer is given an assignment, but he shirks it by saying it is his namaz time." That is the fear pervading the army.
Reports of such defiance, however occasional, have leaked out. At a buffet dinner accompanied by a band during the tenure of Mirza Aslam Beg, the then ISI chief Lt.-Gen Javed Nasir walked in and told the band to stop playing and asked for a table and chair, saying it was un-Islamic to eat while standing. Beg simply stood there paralysed.
In September, Musharraf most likely will give himself an extension as army chief, rather than lose control over the army. Ayub Khan made the mistake in the 1960s-he elevated himself as field marshal and gave the army to Yahya Khan, who later threw him out.
If Musharraf extends the services of his trusted lieutenant-generals, he would effectively be denying promotion to a host of major-generals. Though counter-coup culture is unknown, "there can be a first time for anything," says a retired army officer.
Another area of worry is the troops. The officer corps is drawn from modern, educated families who keep their religion at home. But the troops, coming from lower middle class families, have become increasingly dogmatic about their faith in the post-Zia era. The prolonged association with lawless jihadis has corrupted at least a small percentage of the troops. "The recruiting grounds for troops and the jihadis are the same; the lance-naik's brother could be a jihadi," says the officer. This is especially so in the ISI.
Musharraf's attempt to free the army from the jihadi influence was observed in Kargil. Unlike Sharif, he never disowned his troops or shifted blame to the jihadis. He planned and executed Kargil as a military operation, not an insurgent war. That the raiders vacated the heights, as ordered, is proof of this.
The power equation in Pakistan has also changed. Earlier, especially during the tenure of gentleman-generals like Jahangir Karamat, the ISI controlled the government and the army remained subservient. The three-star generals heading the ISI considered themselves superior to the four-starred chief. Musharraf has reversed the situation by appointing his man, Lt.-Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, in the ISI. The political authority and the army authority (both Musharraf) are now placed above the ISI.
"Even the Indian authorities are playing the game with him on this," says a senior government official. "Indian police no longer puts the blame on ISI whenever bomb blasts take place. You blame Lashkar or some other mujahideen group."
Where Musharraf can fail is in building the economy. "While he is not lacking in sincerity, he may drift away from the people," says Gul. "He has not yet addressed the problems of poverty, price rise and law and order."
Two statements of Musharraf before and after Agra give a clue to his thinking. First, he told the jihadis that his priority was to rebuild the economy rather than hoisting the green flag on Delhi's Red Fort. Post-Agra, he said the world "will take notice of our concern, only if we are strong. So I say, we must make ourselves economically strong. We are strong militarily already."
These statements indicate that Musharraf cannot think of economic strength without military-strategic strength. His idea of a future Pakistan is of a security state with a stable economy. "There is a growing realisation in the military that in the post-nuclear era it would be futile to use military force to resolve the Kashmir problem," says Dr Hussain. An Indian diplomat points out that Pakistan is no longer supplying Stinger missiles to the militants.
Zia got Pakistan involved in the Afghan imbroglio in the hope that it would provide strategic depth to Pakistan. Now, with the Afghan conflict spilling over into Pakistan, there is also a fear that the Taliban would fall back into Pakistan, if pushed down by the northern alliance, which is getting arms from the west as well as Russia. The army believes that Pakistan started becoming Afghanistan's backyard during the era of strategically weak democratic governments. "There is a feeling especially in the northwestern provinces that Afghanistan and Pakistan are one nation with two countries," says Khalid Rehman, executive director of Islamabad's Institute of Policy Studies.
The re-engagement with neighbours has already begun. "He has initiated a look-east policy with his visits to Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. There is also a re-engagement with Iran, Saudi Arabia and India," says Rehman. As Hussain says, he is looking for an exit strategy from regional conflicts. At the same time the low-intensity conflict in Kashmir valley will go on.
To cap all this is Pakistan's quest for leadership of the Islamic world. By all accounts, its army is the best fighting machine in the Islamic world and now, with the bomb, it sees itself as the only Islamic superpower. But the factors tying it down are the basket-case economy and spreading religious fundamentalism.
In Musharraf's world view only the army can provide solutions to all these. It is the only institution holding Pakistan together. The army, so far, has defined the Pakistan state. Now Musharraf wants to use it to rebuild the state.
"What he needs is help from India on this," says an analyst. "At Agra, he was asking for help. I think some understanding has been reached by both sides and that they will continue to talk hawkish for domestic consumption. After all, a Talibanised Pakistan is neither in Musharraf's nor in Vajpayee's interest."