Now Pakistan rounds on the Taliban

Posted in Broader Middle East | 02-Sep-04 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

President Pervez Musharraf
KARACHI - First al-Qaeda, then jihadis. Now the Taliban. Under sustained entreaties from the United States, mindful of presidential elections in Afghanistan in October, Pakistan has now turned its attention to foreign Taliban operatives in the country.

Asia Times Online has learned of the recent arrests of former Afghan deputy foreign minister Mullah Jalil and two of his close Afghan associates, whose identities have not yet been disclosed, in the southern port city of Karachi.

Mullah Jalil is a lieutenant of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and had been sent to Pakistan to raise funds for the Afghan Taliban movement in its resistance to US-led forces in Afghanistan. The arrests were a part of a covert country-wide sweep in which dozens of pro-Taliban religious figures were rounded up from mosques and madrassas (seminaries) and detained without publicity.

Over the past few months, Pakistan has arrested more than 350 al-Qaeda members, including a number of senior operatives, as part of a US-inspired campaign to rid the country of such figures in the "war on terror". And earlier this month, two top Pakistani jihadis, Maulana Fazalur Rehman Khalil and Qari Saifullah Akhtar, were arrested in an unprecedented clampdown in the country.

Mullah Jalil had been shuttling between Afghanistan and Karachi for some time, but he has never before run foul of the authorities. The situation has changed, though.

Before the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, Pakistan actively supported the Taliban regime in Kabul, primarily because many of its members were products of Pakistan's madrassas and had close links with Islamabad's intelligence services. Many fleeing Taliban took refuge in the more remote border areas of Pakistan when the regime disintegrated in the face of the US-led invasion.

But even though President General Pervez Musharraf formally renounced support of the Taliban when he threw in his lot with the US's "war on terror", action against the Taliban and their supporters has been half-hearted at best, partly because many within the Pakistan security apparatus remain close to the Taliban.

Pakistan even came up with the idea of drawing "moderate" Taliban into the mainstream political process in Afghanistan in an effort to defuse the escalating Taliban-led unrest in the country - and do not appear to have ditched the Taliban altogether. These efforts continue, with some success in wooing minor clerics.

However, the resistance appears as strong as ever. This is witnessed by the car bomb attack at the weekend on Dyncorp, an American firm based in Kabul that provides security for Afghan president Hamid Karzai and works for the US government in Iraq, which killed at least seven people.

Now, Pakistan is being "encouraged" by the US to go after the Taliban. Mullah Jalil's arrest is likely to be a setback, albeit temporary, for the Taliban as he was an important link between the leadership, which is widely spread over parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he was an important conduit for financial aid. His arrest could lead to others being apprehended in Pakistan.

This includes those Taliban sheltered in an area called Yaghistan, near Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan, which overlaps the border and which is normally beyond the writ of the law in both Kabul and Islamabad. This area is said to be the operational headquarters of the Taliban movement in southern Afghanistan, where they have taken control of many districts and villages around the cities of Zabul and Kandahar. Mullah Omar and some other leaders are believed to be based here.

Pakistan can now be expected to launch an operation against Taliban and pro-Taliban figures on the Pakistan side of the border in Balochistan. However, the Pakistan initiative comes at a time when the Taliban are increasingly abandoning their sanctuaries in Pakistan, as they are consolidating their positions in Afghanistan.

Other developments
  • Recently, the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Lieutenant-General Ehsan ul-Haq, summoned a meeting of religious leaders in Islamabad and made clear that all Islamic seminaries in the capital would be closed down.
  • Army officers were convened in Karachi for a briefing on Qazi Hussain Ahmed (chief of the Jamaat-i-Islami) and Maulana Fazalur Rehman (leader of the opposition in the Lower House of parliament and chief of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam) as two "extremist" figures who are "working against the broader interests of the state". Both men have large followings and hold sizeable influence in the country, especially at the grassroots level.
  • The opposition Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six religious-political parties which is generally "friendly" to the ruling administration, is rattled by the anti-Taliban drive. A recent meeting in Karachi attended by representatives of most Islamic seminaries, including Deobandis, Brelvis, Salafis and Shi'ites, adopted a hard tone, as did Rehman and Ahmed, who openly threatened the government with a mass mobilization of people. Speaking to Asia Times Online, Ahmed expressed his concern over the real intentions of the army, saying that he detected a big change in its behavior (and a real one) and that he and his party were in the firing line. At the same time, the MMA announced that it would stage a mass rally on September 11 against the government.

    Syed Saleem Shahzad, Pakistan Bureau Chief, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at [email protected]
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