Book Review by Afrah Jamal
The Al Qaeda Connection – By Imtiaz Gul, Penguin Global; Pp 320
Today, the landscape has been transformed into a hunting ground as the showdown between the military and militants gets underway and retaliatory strikes against the public intensify. While attempting to curb insurgency within its borders, Pakistan’s security forces have been accused of stage-managing militant outfits that once served as counterweights against traditional enemies. Never disarmed, and left unguided, these heat-seeking entities latched on to a new target.
Ever since the region tested positive for militancy post-9/11, there has been a lack of consensus regarding, well, just about everything. Many continue to seek alternative explanations to justify the raging insurgency. The ISI is considered guilty by association, because the writer believes the stigma of abetting terrorist groups is deep and would require more effort to remove (page 213), but foreign hands, rogue agencies, duplicitous governments and a global conspiracy to defang the nation of its nuclear assets are equally popular theories.
Imtiaz Gul has authored The Unholy Nexus: Afghan Pakistan Relations under the Taliban Militia (July 2002). As a journalist who spent years analysing these troubled regions, Imtiaz Gul is uniquely qualified to analyse militancy from a number of directions, juxtaposing an open declaration of war through violence that bears the hallmarks of al Qaeda with the faint murmurings of unrest seen in sporadic instances of sectarian violence, led by homegrown militant outfits. These groups go as far back as the anti-Soviet jihad, only to evolve into lethal sectarian entities (page 155) with a little prodding by some Muslim countries. This book attempts to put the ongoing insurgency in perspective, taking on standard Ws — what, who, where, why and when. It is a chilling look back at a state silently engaged in breeding the likes of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), etc., organisations already involved in 350 counts of terrorism by the year 2001, and a look forward at a Pakistan in the throes of a full-fledged militancy.
Before laying the entire blame at the military’s doorstep, readers come across an interesting revelation where the civilian government of Bhutto (mid-1970s) decided to recruit dissident Afghans to use against a Kabul that was favouring the ‘godless’ Soviet Union (page 18). Imtiaz Gul marks this as the turning point that led Pakistan’s “semi-autonomous tribal areas to become a spring board and training ground for Afghan dissidents” (page 18). He goes on to explain why ‘al Qaeda central’ (page 31) — Pakistan’s tribal areas — earned the unfortunate name and returns to the scarred landscape to determine that “the current turmoil stems from decades of neglect, political expediency and connivance and complacence of successive Pakistani governments” (page 37). He also confronts the ugly face of sectarian violence that had turned sub-districts of Jhang and Faisalabad into battlegrounds with “sniper and terrorist attacks” (page 166) in the 1990s and examines the presence of banned organisations once active in Kashmir, in the tribal areas (page 103).
He follows the dissolution of Swat (local Switzerland) into a milder version of Auschwitz, as Taliban rule gained traction, examines the factors that led North and South Waziristan and Bajaur to become havens the second time around since they had served as staging posts once before (page 138), while commenting on regions that slowly became no-go areas for their own kind, e.g. Orakzai’s former governor, ANP members, etc (page 111).
In a chapter titled ‘Tribal Lands: Cauldrons of Militancy’, he explores the metamorphosis of al Qaeda from an organisation to an ideology that transcends borders (page 39). About FATA he opines that history, ideology, conservatism and socio-political alliances all combined to transform the border regions into sanctuaries (page 38). There is a tragic irony in the fact that regions deemed inhospitable for their own countrymen have been more than hospitable to visiting enemies of the state.
This remarkably well-researched account comes with a detailed who’s who of militants in FATA, profiles of militant organisations, alongside a revealing look at life in Taliban strongholds like Khyber, Orakzai, Bajaur (birthplace of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) — forerunner to the Pakistani Taliban) (page 98). In the ‘ISI factor’, interviews with locals and a survey conducted for Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) demonstrate how Muslim separatists from across the border were openly trained in FATA and ‘Pakistani-administrated Kashmir’ as recently as March 15, 2004 (page 205). Such findings bolster international suspicions. According to the writer, locals are equally baffled by ISI’s inability to rein in its progeny and allowing them to gain ground.
A chapter devoted to militant funding tries to trace possible sources of income and reveals the indirect support by donor money routed through the Pakistan government that ends up with militants as ransom money or to fund agreements aimed at peaceful coexistence (page 233). The book also covers the phenomena of suicide bombings — the militants’ favourite MO, showing how they troll orphanages, mosques, seminaries, asylums and streets looking for recruits, especially in areas “devoid of basic facilities, poor education infrastructure, dismal employment opportunities” making “the tribal areas [an] ideal hunting ground of Islamic militants for young warriors” (page 149).
An unfettered access to facts and figures enables readers to not only deconstruct the last four decades but also confront the ghosts of a rarely acknowledged past. His research is highly relevant — and disturbing — given the staggering cost of this war and the misguided policies that have allowed militants to become so well entrenched. Anyone who tells Pakistan to “do more” should be presented with a copy of the Al Qaeda Connection, if only to appreciate the enormity of the challenge and the complexity of the situation.
Afrah Jamal is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at email@example.com
Source: Daily Times