Pakistan backs Karzai with terror raids

Posted in Broader Middle East | 25-Aug-04 | Author: Declan Walsh| Source: Guardian

President Pervez Musharraf has assured visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai that Pakistan would not allow militants to use its territory to disrupt landmark presidential elections in Afghanistan.
Visiting Afghan leader is assured that Islamabad will not allow militants to disrupt Kabul's elections

There was only one message on the banners and posters dotted around Islamabad's streets as the motorcade whizzed past amid tight security: "Pakistan welcomes Hamid Karzai". But the warm greeting belied the sensitivity of the moment for the interim Afghan leader and his host, President Pervez Musharraf.

Mr Karzai is worried about Taliban insurgents, who are threatening to upset next month's presidential elections. Many are thought to use Pakistan as a base. General Musharraf offered his unqualified help. "Anybody trying to disrupt the election process ... will not be allowed from Pakistan. We will act against them," he vowed.

These days Gen Musharraf's promises carry extra weight, following a six-week drive against al-Qaida in Pakistan. From the back-streets of Karachi to the tribal highlands, his security services have prosecuted an unrelenting campaign against Osama bin Laden's network.

Hardly a day passes without the announcement of fresh arrests, foiled bomb plots, or military operations along the Afghan border. So far the security services - invigorated by a wave of suicide attacks on government and army figures - have detained over 70 suspected militants. They include Ahmad Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian wanted in connection with the 1998 US embassy bombings in east Africa, and Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, a Pakistani computer expert whose plans for new attacks sparked alerts in London, New York and New Jersey.

Britain and the US are delighted with the sweep, which has burnished Gen Musharraf's standing as a central strategic ally. But they also admit that beneath the successes of the Pakistani army lies an underbelly rooted in its long-standing links with Islamic extremism. Many of the suspects being rounded up were originally recruited by the ISI, the army's intelligence service, to fight in Kashmir or Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s. Now cut adrift from Pakistan, many have found a calling in al-Qaida. It is unclear whether some of their handlers have gone with them. "It's great having a savage dog that attacks other people," said a diplomat, "but not if it turns on you."

In the past week suspected hideouts have been bombed in the mountains and forests of South Waziristan, where militants are sheltering under the protection of tribesmen. There is also frequent speculation that Bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are hiding in the same area.

Last week Gen Musharraf's government published a "wanted" poster for its six most wanted militants, offering rewards of up to $340,000 per head. The highest price was offered for Abu Faraj Farj, a Libyan, who is suspected to have coordinated much al-Qaida activity in Pakistan.

The hunt for suspects appears to have encouraged police brutality. Last week a radical cleric, Qari Noor Mohammed, died in custody after a raid on an Islamic school in Faisalabad. Police said Mr Mohammed suffered a heart attack; human rights activists said he had been tortured.

In response, al-Qaida has transformed its tactics. Having long considered Pakistan as a rear base, it has now turned its sights on the violent overthrow of the Pakistani state. In the past year suicide bombers have nearly succeeded in killing Gen Musharraf, an army commander, and Shaukat Aziz, due to be appointed prime minister this week. Last weekend the security services claimed they had foiled a plot to blow up the national convention centre, Gen Musharraf's house and the US embassy.

But although outsiders are thought to have coordinated the terror operations, Pakistani militants have provided the manpower. Many are drawn from radical Islamic groups once nurtured by the ISI. They include Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian Sunni group that fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Harkatul Mujahideen, which has supported the Pakistan army in its war with India.

Not only have the militants turned against the Pakistani state, but diplomats worry that some of their handlers - mid- to low-level intelligence operatives - have not shed all their ties. "There's a lot of dirty laundry," said one. "If you have spent 15 years running Jihadis in Kashmir and Afghanistan, and then one day someone tells you to stop - it's very difficult."

The army denies any such fissures persist. "This is a professional army where orders are followed. Anyone who refuses to do so will get his ass kicked," said Major General Shaukat Sultan.

Analysts say the army is struggling with the product of its longstanding association with Islamists. "I think we are reaping what we sowed in the 1970s and 1980s," said Talat Masood, a retired general. "The process of the militarisation of society, strengthening the forces of radicalism - has come back to haunt us.

The militants are also being drawn from less traditional strands. In contrast with the Islamists, who mainly come from poor backgrounds, computer expert Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan was a qualified engineer from a middle class Karachi family who had studied at City University, London.