The Harbingers of Doom

THERE’S plenty of irony, intended or otherwise, in the fact that the terrorist attack that claimed at least a dozen lives in Islamabad last Sunday targeted policemen who had been deployed to guard a conference marking the first anniversary of the Lal Masjid siege. If anything, the bomb blast served as a reminder that however unfortunate the military operation to flush out the mosque and its seminaries may have been, it was also necessary. And probably inadequate.


It would obviously have been much better for all concerned had the mosque not been permitted, in the first place, to become a sanctuary for violence-prone obscurantists, who also used it as a repository for weaponry in the heart of Pakistan‘s capital. It wasn’t merely a case of folks in high places turning a blind eye to insidious goings-on right under their noses: there was also active collaboration. And suspicions abound, both within the country and among its allies, that instances of this nature remain commonplace.


Take the case of Mangal Bagh, whose comfort zone on the outskirts of Peshawar was the focus of police action in the wake of growing concern that the North-Western Frontier Province (NWFP) capital was being hemmed in by militant Islamists and in due course might be overrun. A former bus driver who at some point discovered a higher calling, Bagh heads an outfit called Lashkar-i-Islam with the declared aim of establishing his writ throughout the Khyber tribal agency.


His goons were reportedly responsible for the recent kidnapping of 16 Christians from Peshawar (who were freed soon afterwards), and his forces are engaged in a deadly territorial dispute with an outfit called Ansarul Islam. There is a distinct possibility that what the rival gangs share in terms of nomenclature is little more than a cover for activities of a criminal nature.


That’s not an uncommon feature among groups of this ilk: it serves as a recruitment tool and provides the convenience of a confessional justification for rough justice. It’s equally possible, of course, that the piety may be more than a pose. Either way, (war)lording it over Bara – with its legendary marketplace, where goods from all over the world, not least all manner of weapons, are available duty-free – and its environs is probably a highly lucrative proposition. And once you’ve tasted the fruits of Bara, nothing short of Peshawar is likely to take your fancy if you’re inclined to expand operations.


After the incursion by the paramilitary Frontier Corps into Mangal Bagh’s zone of influence, the federal government’s security factotum Rehman Malik advised the residents of Peshawar to “sleep easy tonight” because “we are awake”. They are unlikely to heed that advice if they share the apprehension of the Awami National Party’s Afrasiab Khattak, who believes that Bagh and his not particularly merry men are creatures of the Pakistan army’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. “In the past such operations have been inconclusive,” The New York Times quoted him as saying, and the low-key negotiated aftermath is likely to have strengthened his suspicions.


The Washington Post’s correspondent, meanwhile, quoted “a senior Pakistani government official in Peshawar” as saying that “high-ranking military intelligence officials in Islamabad … had ordered authorities in Peshawar to allow Bagh to continue operating his shadow government”. Such reports do not necessarily lend credence to longstanding concerns that elements in the military intelligence have continued consorting with elements of the jihadi variety in violation of their superiors’ orders. They provide considerably greater cause for alarm, given that rogue junior officers would hardly have the gumption to issue instructions to senior government officials.


Back in the early 1990s, the ISI helped create the Taliban and eventually captured Kabul by proxy. One of the moving forces behind the enterprise was Benazir Bhutto’s interior minister General Naseerullah Babar, who apparently considered it a good opportunity to export the produce of the madrassas that had sprouted across the north-west. Perhaps the possibility of blowback never crossed his mind. The ISI ought to have known better. Perhaps it didn’t care. Maybe it remains unconcerned by the consequences as it continues to engage in the old game of playing favourites – which brings to mind the old witticism that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.


It is all very well to accuse the new government of being out of its depth in the context of the so-called war on terror, but the old one – which lives on despite Asif Ali Zardari’s sporadic exclamations to the effect that a Sindhi devotee of the Bhutto family will shortly be ensconced in the presidency – can hardly claim much credit.


It is annoying, of course, to hear the powerless and inconsequential Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani repeat ad nauseam that his government will negotiate only with militants who lay down their arms, when he must be aware that all manner of contacts exist without this condition being met. (Nor would such a strategy necessarily make much sense.) But Gilani can plausibly plead ignorance in some cases, given that the army doesn’t keep the civilian authorities informed of all its activities. This luxury isn’t available to Pervez Musharraf – or at least it wasn’t for as long as he was army chief.


Now that full authority in matters related to military operations has been handed to Musharraf’s successor as army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, it remains to be seen whether he is inclined to dismantle the khaki-jihadi nexus, and whether under his command the combination of negotiations and military force can be implemented intelligently, in a manner that establishes the government’s writ in frontier regions without further alienating those sections of the local population that desire little more than a peaceful existence and means of sustenance.


It is a huge, but not insurmountable, challenge. The alternatives are exceedingly unpleasant to contemplate, even if one is disinclined to swallow wholesale Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s warning about the complete loss of government control in the NWFP, let alone permanently exiled Muttahida Qaumi Movement chief Altaf Hussain’s visions of doom about a Taliban takeover of Karachi, Pakistan‘s main port and industrial hub.


At the same time, the temptation to follow the preferred US prescription of massive attack must be resisted. Nato’s concerns about the cross-border movement of militants are understandable, but this is hardly the sole factor behind the western failure to sow stability in Afghanistan.


It is inevitable that, in the wake of Monday’s dastardly attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, fingers will once more be pointed in Pakistan’s direction, and it may well be the case that the accusation is not entirely without substance. It is vital, however, not to lose sight of the bigger truth that, ultimately, stability in the region is contingent on Afghanistan regaining its sovereignty (provided, of course, that Pakistan does not foolishly relinquish its own). That’s still a remote prospect and Pakistan must, in the meanwhile, soldier on – but not in the direction dictated by the likes of Mangal Bagh or Baitullah Mehsud.


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