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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org