Religious extremism in Pakistan (Part XVII)

During Benazir Bhutto’s second term, “The US placed Pakistan on a terrorist ‘watch list’ following increased violence in Occupied Kashmir and in India’s East Punjab that was somehow linked to Islamabad. Pakistan was implicated in terrorist incidents in Europe and the US, which suggested an Afghan mujahideen connection” (Ziring, Lawrence, Pakistan: At the Crosscurrent of History, Oxford: Oneworld, 2003, p. 235). Benazir thus toed the pro-jihad line of the establishment. She tried to ease tensions between Pakistan and the US. She was under considerable pressure from the US to freeze Pakistan’s nuclear programme, but she was unwilling to do so in order to avoid confrontation with the military. She did manage to convince the US to ease the sanctions imposed in 1990 because of Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

On the Afghan front, Benazir Bhutto’s policy of attaining ‘strategic depth’ proved to be a disaster in the long run. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was tilted towards Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami and sceptical of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban (an Islamist student militia), but the Benazir government supported the Taliban. Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), also a supporter of the Taliban, was part of Benazir’s coalition government during this time. Support for the Taliban under Bhutto resided mainly in the interior ministry, according to some analysts. According to Ahmed Rashid [Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 184-85], “Bhutto’s interior minister, General Naseerullah Babar, created the Afghan Trade Development Cell in the ministry ostensibly to promote trade routes to Central Asia and also to provide the Taliban with funds. Moreover, says Rashid, the state-owned PTCL set up a telephone network for the Taliban; the public works department repaired roads and provided electricity; the paramilitary Frontier Corps, a part of the interior ministry, set up a wireless network for Taliban commanders; the Civil Aviation Authority repaired Kandahar airport and Taliban fighter jets; and Radio Pakistan provided technical support to the Taliban’s official radio service, Radio Shariat” (‘Pakistan’s support of the Taliban’, Afghanistan: Crisis of Impunity – The Role of Pakistan, Russia, and Iran in Fuelling the Civil War, Vol. 13, No. 3, July 2001, Human Rights Watch). The US also favoured a Taliban government in Afghanistan due to its anti-Iran (read anti-Shia) stance.

It was under the Taliban rule that Osama bin Laden consolidated al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, the ISI “moved its training facilities for Kashmiri mujahideen into Afghanistan, where anti-American terrorists and Kashmiri jihadists trained together.” It is said that al Qaeda extended its network into Pakistan, “where it had strong allies among the ISI-trained Islamic militants. The country became a conduit for training aspiring militants across the world. That also created a nexus between groups fighting in Afghanistan and those operating in Kashmir. Meanwhile, Pakistan also became home to a thriving community of foreign jihadists, many of whom were veterans of the anti-Soviet Afghan war…the state-sponsored jihadist culture provided them a safe haven in Pakistan” (Hussain, Zahid, Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, pp. 30-31).

Benazir’s second term, resultantly, saw a rapid increase in the radicalisation of Pakistani society. The Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TSNM) launched its own Taliban-style movement. In 1994-95, the TSNM spread its tentacles to Malakand, NWFP, and demanded the enforcement of Shariah in the area. The government’s response was weak, ultimately leading it to succumb to the demands of the Islamic fundamentalists. Apart from this incident, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and other religious organisations openly recruited volunteers for jihad in Kashmir during this period. Benazir did not launch any crackdown against the Islamic militants for fear that the ISI would turn against her and topple her government. But her government was being destabilised due to a number of other reasons – from the growing unrest in Karachi due to a crackdown launched against the fascist party, MQM, to the murder of Benazir’s brother, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, in 1996, apart from some personal clashes with President Farooq Leghari. Her government was dismissed on November 5, 1996 by the president.

In the elections that followed Benazir’s dismissal, Nawaz Sharif was re-elected the prime minister with a two-thirds majority in parliament in 1997. It was during his second term that Pakistan officially recognised the Taliban regime as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and Pakistan continued on it way towards more radicalisation. “In May 1997, a Faisalabad court sentenced a poor and illiterate Christian to death for misspeaking the name of the Prophet [PBUH]. A local Christian priest protested the court proceedings and the sentence by taking his own life, but nothing seemed to stem the violence” (Ziring, Lawrence, Pakistan: At the Crosscurrent of History, Oxford: Oneworld, 2003, p. 248).

The Nawaz government passed the controversial 13th Amendment, which stripped the president of powers to dismiss elected governments through the 8th Amendment. This was challenged in the Supreme Court, which led to a battle between the Nawaz regime and the judiciary, finally leading to Nawaz’s victory. The victory went to Nawaz’s head and his lust for power grew stronger.

On May 11, 1998, India detonated three atomic devices followed by two additional tests on May 13. The US announced a cut-off of all aid to India and tried to persuade Pakistan not to carry out any nuclear tests. The US offered many a lucrative offer to Pakistan, but the pressure from the military and the people was too much for Nawaz Sharif. On May 28, 1998, Pakistan detonated five nuclear devices, openly declaring itself a nuclear power.

The tit-for-tit detonation of nuclear bombs resulted in increased religious jingoism in both countries. In a bid to secure more power, Nawaz Sharif moved a bill in the National Assembly (NA) for the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which would enforce Shariah in the country. The Islamic nature of the bill posed a grave threat to the rights of women, minority sects of Islam such as the Shias, and non-Muslims. The bill was actually a move through which Nawaz could declare himself the Amir-ul-Momineen (the absolute leader of the Muslims). Though the NA passed the bill, the Senate opposed it.

Nawaz developed some differences with the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Jehangir Karamat, as the latter was opposed to radicalisation initiated by a prime minister of radical bent of mind. Nawaz asked him to resign when Karamat proposed setting up of a National Security Council (NSC). Karamat did so without creating any ‘trouble’. General Pervez Musharraf was then appointed as the new COAS. With the US pressuring Pakistan and India to sort out their differences after the two neighbours tested their nuclear devices, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif engaged in diplomatic negotiations. The ‘bus diplomacy’ was this initiated, whereby the passenger bus service between the two countries was resumed in February 1999 and Vajpayee announced his plan to ride the first bus from India into Pakistan. The Islamists, particularly the JI, and the military, were opposed to the idea of peace between the two nuclear neighbours.

In an obvious attempt to derail the peace process, the Pakistani military started its ‘Kargil Operation’. The Kargil Operation was projected by the architects of the adventure as a mujahideen effort to bring to the fore the issue of Kashmir. Much hype was created in the country in the name of the jihad to liberate Kashmir. Kargil provided an opportunity to the jihadi groups to flex their muscles and crow about their imaginary victory in the face of the full might of infidel India. The jihadi enthusiasm thus created rubbed off on the public in general. Passions for jihad persisted even after Kargil proved to be a brainchild of Pakistan’s military – General Musharraf to be specific – and it was found that it was the military officers and the jawans who were involved and not the mujahideen from jihadi groups as was claimed at the start of the Kargil adventure. Consequently, Kargil turned out to be a catalyst of a jihadi constituency in Pakistan. Another negative side-effect was that it led to the toppling of a civilian government. Ironically, the architect of Kargil now is the most ardent opponent of jihad.


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