Toying with terrorism – Kamila Hyat reveals ISI’s close association with the Taliban

Thursday, December 25, 2008 (The News)

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

There is a distinct note of helpless frustration in the statement by the NWFP government calling for action against militants in Swat to be made more effective and warning that, at present, little is being achieved beyond the death of innocent people.

Hidden within the words is the suspicion that an all-out offensive against the militants is still not being waged; that the armed forces remain convinced that these people of violence, who have most recently exhumed and slung up in public the body of a local ‘pir’ in Swat who died in a gun-battle fought against them, are ‘allies’ who need to be retained. Similar apprehensions are voiced everywhere in Swat by local people who have for months borne the main brunt of the gunfire. Some report instances in which troops have calmly allowed militants to walk away, making no attempt to act against them; others speak of militants receiving prior warnings of action so that they can safely escape.

The deeply unhappy NWFP government, led by the ANP which of course won the poll on the basis of its open opposition to militancy, has called on the federal government to intervene; it is uncertain whether the government in Islamabad is in a position to do so or what precisely its aims are. It has become impossible to know what President Zardari is thinking behind the broad smile he dons each time he appears in public. The lack of credibility of almost everyone in the government adds to the distrust seen everywhere.

We all know of the nexus between Pakistan’s security forces and the militants set up in the 1980s. While US political leaders, such as Senator John Kerry who visited recently, are quick to point fingers and blame the ISI, the fact too is that groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) were established as highly organized fighting machines inspired by the notion of ‘jihad’ only with the support of the CIA.

In offices in Washington, documents describing how these forces were created, to serve US interests at the time, still lie within the covers of files that are now rarely referred to. As was perhaps inevitable, these organizations have used their training, their structures and their zeal to breakaway from their masters and forge out paths of their own. In doing so, they have retained the support of powerful elements within the country. This of course is why men who preach fanaticism, such as Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Muhammad or the more suave, but equally zealous leader of the Jamaat-ud-Daawa (JuD), Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, have been left untouched by repeated crackdowns against militancy.

The fact is that we have only toyed with terrorism and shied away from any real attempt to tackle it. That is why, even after the 2002 ban on groups such as the LeT, these forces, sometimes operating under the flimsy disguise of new names, have been able to operate through Punjab. Those who have attended JuD rallies speak pro-jihad messages slipped in between sugar-coated homilies calling for social uplift; of a fierce sentiment against India carried forward by citing terrible abuses in Kashmir. Of course these accounts of Indian atrocities are not inaccurate, and this makes them all the more powerful.

Truth always has greater force than lies. This is something our government needs to discover. Another truth too is that for our security forces, groups such as the LeT are an asset. They will not allow them to be easily dismantled. And of course, given the depth of the roots they have established in society, it is not easy to dismantle them anyway. The schools, the soup kitchens, the clinics they run, with genuine philanthropic intent, have all helped establish these roots.

The games of deception played in Pakistan for too long, the refusal to deal with terror while insisting before a watchful world that we are indeed doing so, has landed us today in a truly dangerous place. From across our eastern border, India continues to warn in the wake of the Mumbai attacks that Pakistan act against the elements behind it, or face action. New Delhi states wads of ‘irrefutable’ evidence have been handed over. Islamabad denies this, claiming it has been provided no proof at all. The truth probably lies somewhere in between these two positions. Pakistan, after all, has still to explain why a young man from the town of Faridkot has ended up in the hands of police in Mumbai who say he is the sole surviving bomber. No theory that would explain his presence has so far surfaced. A vague tale of Ajmal Kasab having been handed over ahead of the bombings by Nepal to India has been emphatically denied by that country. Similarly, India has yet to explore allegations regarding the death of anti-terrorism chief Hemant Karkare who had played a part in tracking down Hindu extremist outfits engaged in terror.

But there is no getting away from the fact that terror now runs through the veins of our country. The account that surfaced last week, in this newspaper, of how Omar Sheikh, the man convicted in the case involving the abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl, had plotted from his cell in Hyderabad Jail the assassination of former president Pervez Musharraf, demonstrates that terrorist networks remain intact; that for all the bluster from Musharraf about cracking down on militancy from 2001 to 2008, they have barely been dented. Indeed they have been able to grow.

The full story behind the killing last month in Islamabad of retired General Faisal Alvi, who had reportedly been threatened by Sheikh and was known for his stand against militants, is too still untold. The links in the past between Sheikh and our intelligence networks are another reminder of how the net of terror has, over the decades, been woven; this net still entangles the country holding it in a state of virtual paralysis even as hostile elements strike.

Even as the frightening threats from India become more vociferous, the lack of internal unity makes us more vulnerable than ever before. In the past, similar aggression from India has led to political forces joining ranks. This time, even as the language from across the border grows harsher, the PML-N has launched its own anti-government offensive, creating a visible divide. How things will pan out over the next few weeks, as we walk unsteadily into 2009, is still to be seen. A new poll shows that pessimism across the country is growing. Whether or not it recedes will depend on how far we succeed in tackling the multifarious problems we face and whether we can slay the hydra-headed terrorist monster that today threatens both internal and regional stability.