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
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
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
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
"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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org