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    South Asia
     Dec 9, 2009
Battered Pakistan turns to clerics
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - While the United States-led war is moving into a new phase with the insertion of an additional 30,000 US troops into Afghanistan for a push against the Taliban to force them to surrender and start talks, Pakistan faces one of the most serious crises in its history.

Military operations in the South Waziristan tribal area against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and al-Qaeda have succeeded in overrunning the militants' sanctuaries, but the lack of a political process has failed to isolate them. Instead, the militants have regrouped in dozens of pockets and are prepared to wage war across the country.

After a devastating attack on a mosque attended by military personnel on December 4 in Rawalpindi, in which several top


officials were killed, the TTP carried out a twin-bomb attack on Monday night, in Lahore. This is the capital of Punjab province and is located in the country's cultural heartland. At least 49 people were killed and another 180 injured in the assault in the commercial center.

And on Tuesday, at least 12 people, including soldiers, are believed to have been killed when militants carried out a bomb attack in the southern Punjab city of Multan. Multan is the headquarters of the army's Second Corps and the largest city of southern Punjab.

Although there have been several similar attacks in North-West Frontier Province, the Lahore and Multan attacks are significant as they show that the militants are bringing the war into large urban centers, aiming to put maximum pressure on Pakistan. More than 400 people have been killed in recent weeks.

The dead in the Rawalpindi attack included a director general of the armored corps, Major General Bilal Omar, a brigadier, several colonels and a major. Among 17 young officers killed was the only son of the corps commander of Peshawar, Lieutenant General Masood Aslam, who is commanding operations in South Waziristan.

On American pressure, the Pakistan army about two months ago mounted an all-out war in South Waziristan, but the militants outmaneuvered the attackers. (See Militants change tack in Pakistan Asia Times Online, November 18, 2009.) The militants adopted a pattern of not confronting the regular army; rather, they dodged it and opened new fronts far from the point of the army's concentration.

Many militants have regrouped in Shawal, North Waziristan, in the town of Mir Ali, or in southwestern Balochistan province, from where they are hitting back at the security forces as well attacking the civilian population.

The situation leaves Pakistan with the only realistic option of a mixed military and political initiative.

The Saudi Arabia model
Following the killings in Rawalpindi of top retired and serving military officials and their children during Friday prayers, Pakistan has scrambled to redefine its anti-terror approach.

This has included input from the Muslim religious elite and reflects a major shift in national policy, which until now has been obsessed with destroying militants who use Pakistan as their base for international terrorism, while distancing itself from the concept of Washington's AfPak policy, which views Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single war theater.

On Sunday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik met one of the most influential clerics in the country, the Grand Mufti, Mufti Rafi Usmani, in the southern port city of Karachi. He comes from the largest seminary belonging to the Deobandi school of thought, which is also practiced by the Taliban.

Other key people involved include Qazi Hussain Ahmed, an influential figure in international Islamic movements who had close ties during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan the 1980s to people who are now al-Qaeda leaders.

Also prominent is Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the chief of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, a coalition partner in the federal cabinet and the largest political party of Muslim clerics. The party had close ties with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan during the late 1990s.

An anti-terror policy being considered is the one adopted by Saudi Arabia when an al-Qaeda-led insurgency was at its height after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Saudi scholars were urged to spread the word that if Muslims in Iraq carried out a resistance struggle in their own country, it was their right to do so. But if anyone tried to destabilize Saudi Arabia, under any pretext, it would be considered as treason and dealt with with iron hands. Also, along with military and law-enforcement measures, the kingdom adopted a tactic of "counter-radicalization", using religious figures to directly spread the word that al-Qaeda was an apostate group.

General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, the chief of army staff, speaking to people injured in the Rawalpindi mosque attack, said:
Pakistan is our motherland. It is the bastion of Islam. We live and die for the glory of Islam and Pakistan. Our faith, resolve and pride in our religion and in our country is an asset, which is further reinforced after each terrorist incident.
This was the second time in a few days that Kiani had categorically emphasized the Islamic identity of the country. This is contrary to the belief of the former chief of army staff, former president General Pervez Musharraf, whose "enlightened moderation" tried to separate religion from the affairs of the state. This was reflected in Musharraf's anti-terror policy.

Mosque under fire
The TTP was quick to accept responsibility for the brazen attack on the mosque in Rawalpindi, the garrison town that is twinned with the capital, Islamabad.

Mufti Waliur Rahman Mehsud, the chief of the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan, told the British Broadcasting Corporation that officers in the mosque were "primary targets". The civilians killed were relatives of army personnel and their deaths "did not matter", he said, adding that the Taliban would continue to target the army.
He justified the attack by terming the mosque "Masjid-e-Zarrar". This was a mosque in Medina that the Prophet Mohammed ordered demolished as it had become the center of the Munafeqeen - Muslims who accepted Islam superficially but who were hand-in-glove with heretics.

"After having listened to their argument, I must say that their interpretation of Islam and their vision are dangerous, not only for Islam and Muslims but for their own cause, which they project as a Muslim resistance against foreign invasion," Mazahir Muhammad, a professor of Islamic history, told Asia Times Online.

"Even in the demolition of Masjid-e-Zarrar, the Prophet Mohammed never instructed any massacre. He simply ordered the demolition of the building, which had become a center of intrigues against Muslims. In Rawalpindi, those who were killed were only there for prayers, not for any intrigues.

"In the whole struggle of the Prophet Mohammed, he kept to wars in the battlefield, he never brought wars to the homes and families of the enemy. Islam clearly instructs to keep non-combatants away from a fight, even for pious and religious people belonging to other faiths.

"Even if they say that they are avenging the killing of their family members in South Waziristan and Swat, I would say two wrongs do not make a right. Muslim values cannot be altered by any reasoning. The Rawalpindi incident cannot be the way of any Muslim resistance," Mazahir Muhammad said.

The outlook for the situation in Pakistan, however, is only getting worse.

The Pakistan understanding is that the US wants its surge in Afghanistan to quickly dismantle the power base of the Taliban, eliminate al-Qaeda - even if it means cross-border operations into Pakistan - and then negotiate with the Taliban for political reconciliation and the US's withdrawal.

In this scenario, the war theater will spread to Pakistan and the country could face a similar fate to that of Afghanistan, which has been ravaged by war for the past several decades due to armed insurgencies and the absence of political solutions.

Pakistan's armed forces have taken control of all towns in South Waziristan, as the militants have dispersed. The next move is to tap into the local riwaj (traditions and customs), which involves tribesman guaranteeing peace in their area and assuring their territory will not be used for cross-border terrorism. The withdrawal of the armed forces and handing over control to the local Frontier Corps would be the next step.

As the attacks over the past few days show, however, terror groups are prepared to operate across the country, and they are defiant of all traditional norms, believing in their own convictions.

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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