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    South Asia
     Jul 30, 2009

Pakistan turns on its jihadi assets
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Intense United States efforts and assurances have put Pakistan and India on track to renew their dialogue process over key contentious issues, such as divided Kashmir.

An important upshot of this is that Islamabad has begun a crackdown on jihadi assets its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) raised in the 1990s for asymmetric warfare against India after losing three battles against its much bigger neighbor.

Asia Times Online has learned that a nascent crackdown on militants in Pakistan's largest province, Punjab, will turn into a major operation and the remnants of all defunct jihadi organizations, no matter how peacefully they operate inside Pakistan, will be dismantled. A showcase of this exercise took

 

place Monday in Anti-Terrorist Court II in Rawalpindi, the garrison city twinned with the capital Islamabad.

In front of a mass media presence, yesterday's hero of the Pakistani military establishment, former Pakistani member of parliament Shah Abdul Aziz, appeared with a shaven head like any ordinary criminal and was ordered on judicial remand to be detained in Adyala Jail Rawalpindi in connection with the abduction and murder by the Taliban of a Polish engineer, Piotr Stanczak, in September 2008. He was beheaded by militants in February after talks with the government for the release of captured Taliban members failed.

Although Aziz was ordered to be jailed, Asia Times Online contacts say that he was bundled off to an intelligence safe house for further interrogation.

"This is the same Shah Abdul Aziz who delivered [Pakistan Taliban leader] Baitullah Mehsud's letter written to the chief of army staff Ashfaq Parvez Kiani a few months ago as part of his job to get peace between the army and the militants," retired squadron leader Khalid Khawaja told Asia Times Online. Khawaja is a former ISI official and now a human-rights activist for "disappeared" victims of the "war on terror".

Military spokesperson Major General Athar Abbas, however, while confirming to the British Broadcasting Corporation that Aziz was in custody, denied the delivery of any letter to the army chief. Instead, he said the authorities had recovered a letter from Aziz written by Baitullah to retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, a former head of the ISI.

Nevertheless, Aziz was clearly on the military's bandwagon. He was the Taliban's commander in the Pul-e-Khomri region in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime in the late 1990s. After the US invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban, he hosted displaced Arab families in Pakistan and strongly advocated closer ties between the military and militants. He has been involved in numerous peace initiatives, ranging from the South Waziristan operations in 2004 to the crackdown on the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad in 2007, as well as the moves to release an abducted Canadian journalist in North Waziristan.

In 2002, he won a seat in the National Assembly from Karak in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). His election meetings were attended by top Taliban leaders and he became know as the voice of the mujahideen in the assembly. (He lost his seat in 2008.)

Despite his involvement in peace talks, the military came to suspect that Aziz was more of a spin doctor for the militants and on May 27 this year he was apprehended at the residence of Lal Masjid prayer leader Maulana Abdul Aziz, along with one Fidaullah, the alleged mastermind of various acts of terror in Islamabad.

According to a police statement, Aziz was arrested after another terror suspect, Ataullah Khan, a Taliban militant, said that Aziz had ordered the killing of Stanczak.

"This is a ridiculous claim," Khawaja commented to Asia Times Online. "Ataullah was picked up by security personnel a few months ago from Kohat [in NWFP].

His parents filed a case over his disappearance. But the police say he was arrested in Peshawar on July 16 and they came up with the statement that he had assassinated the Polish engineer on Shah Abdul Aziz's instructions. Yet Aziz is on record as having already been picked up by the ISI on May 27. If he was arrested on the basis of a statement given to the police on July 16, why was he picked up on May 27?" Khawaja asked.

Aziz's is a very high-profile case that has come as a surprise. Most people thought that after his apprehension on May 27 he would have been quickly released with a warning. However, the manner in which he was interrogated in an ISI safe house and publicly humiliated in court marks a clear change in the military's mindset concerning its former Islamist allies - they are now believed to be a serious liability.

A commander of the banned militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (Army of Mohammad), Habibur Rahman, who was killed last week in the southern Punjab city of Laya, is another case in point.

Rahman fought against Indian forces in Indian-administered Kashmir, then, after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, he battled foreign troops there before being arrested by Pakistani security agencies.

During interrogation it was found that he was not involved with al-Qaeda, but his connection with the Taliban put him into the category of dangerous suspects (Schedule 4). He was released, but picked up again by police a few weeks ago in what is known as an unregistered case. His family filed a petition in the Supreme Court, which last week requested the concerned authorities to produce him before the court. Instead, his body was delivered to his relatives - he had died during interrogation.

Commenting on these cases, former ISI official Khawaja told Asia Times Online, "The role of the Punjab government run by the Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif is pathetic. They took votes to avenge [the military raid] on Lal Masjid, but now the Punjab police are using the worst sort of tactics against religious people. I warn Nawaz Sharif and his chief minister brother, Shebaz Sharif, to learn the lesson of [former president general] Pervez Musharraf, who took steps to appease the Americans, and then faced a dire situation. We will not let anybody do such things without accountability."

Whatever the backlash that might come from the militants, the point is Pakistan has made a significant shift and taken Washington's desires to heart.

Another instance of this is that this month Pakistan finally handed over a dossier to the Indian government on the terror attack on Mumbai last November in which more than 150 people were killed. Pakistan admitted the involvement of the militant Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT) group and accepted that the entire operation had been planned and facilitated in Pakistan. Five LeT officials were named in the dossier.

This new mood of cooperation was reflected in a joint statement issued by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Indian Premier Manmohan Singh in Egypt on July 16 in which they agreed to cooperate in the fight against terrorism as a part of a broader pledge to improve bilateral ties.

"The [ruling] Congress [party] is confident [that] when the [Indian] prime minister speaks in parliament on July 29, he will set at rest all questions, all apprehensions and speculation relating to the Indo-Pak joint statement at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt," Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi was reported as saying.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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