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Jihadi galaxy in Pakistan

Claude Salhani
Filed on August 4, 2007

THE eruption of violence in Pakistan which came to a head when Islamists retrenched in the Red Mosque in Islamabad clashed with government troops when the latter stormed the heavily defended compound resulting in high numbers of casualties is just the tip of the jihadi iceberg President Pervez Musharraf faces.

Islamist groups outlawed by the Pakistani government several years ago fell back on social networks, a classic move adopted by other Islamist organisations, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Tracking their moves has become an almost impossible task for security and intelligence services.

Despite their disregard of most everything western and/or modern, Islamist groups have not shied away from using modern electronic communication facilities. “They communicate via text messages, which is very difficult to trace,” said Alexis Debat, who directs the Nixon Center’s programme on terror and national security, and who has just returned from a fact-finding mission to Pakistan. The Islamists in Pakistan linked to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda’s terrorist network have found many sympathisers in the ranks of the country’s intelligence service known as the ISI. Mr Debat questions the reliability of the ISI, an organisation whose loyalty to the regime has long been in doubt. “With all its eyes and ears,” said Mr Debat referring to the thousands of informants employed by the ISI, “they did not seem to know what was going on inside the mosque. Indeed, they should have known.

“What struck me in the mosque was the extraordinary quality of military organisation. It had been turned into a fort. The people who set up the defenses were extremely professional. Very clearly this was a military operation setup to send a political signal to suck the Pakistani government into a confrontation.” The jihadi infrastructure is extremely coherent, said Mr Debat, who deduces from the crisis that it’s clear that the Pakistani government will have to learn how to find new ways to address that issue. It’s also very clear that none of what the US government has done and none of what the Pakistani government has done in combating the Islamists has had any effect.The outcome of the army’s attack on the Red Mosque compound, where massive amounts of arms and ammunition were found, led to reprisals by the Islamists on Pakistani military and police forces, resulting in many deaths. Retrenched for the most part in the remote regions bordering Afghanistan, where they share the same culture and religious beliefs with Afghani tribes across the border, Pakistan’s limited efforts to dislodge them have proven futile. “Clearly, the military option has not worked,” said Mr Debat. “You flank them out of one area, they appear in another.”

Given the remoteness of the region, the extreme difficulty in securing the border area and the support they receive from their coreligionists on the Afghani side of the border, General Musharraf seems to be treading water with no alternative plans on how to deal with the dilemma. “The truth is that there is no Plan B when it comes to tribal areas,” said Mr Debat. The Bush administration should become more serious about fixing Pakistan, said Mr Debat. President Musharraf is now at a dangerous junction, standing in the middle of the intersection with heavily loaded freight trucks speeding in his direction. If he does nothing, the Islamists will end up far more powerful, and with the sympathy they command in the country’s intelligence services, they are only one successful assassination attempt away from the presidency.

So far there have been nine attempts on General Musharraf’s life. Continued military assaults against the Islamists, as mentioned earlier, failed to produce tangible results. More cooperation with the United States is placing General Musharraf in even more negative light with many of his citizens. One avenue that seems to be left open to him is to extend an offer of reconciliation to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. But again the question is posed, can she fix Pakistan?

For Mr Debat the former prime minister now living in exile may be part of the problem rather than the solution. “You have to shake Pakistani society to the core,” said Mr Debat. “I don’t see her doing that.” Fixing Pakistan will require much more involvement from the United States and the World Bank, said Mr Debat and other experts. Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar with the Middle East Institute, and an expert on Pakistan said, “There is no coherent programme among Pakistani political groups.” Strategies adopted by most politicians is to regain power and keep it. “Without a sense of vision,” said Mr Weinbaum, “Pakistan is headed back to the 1990s.” Meaning the years of political turmoil.

In order to break and mindset you need to offer an alternative. Musharraf does not have the alternative, and most likely neither will Ms Bhutto. The Islamists look around them. They look to Afghanistan where NATO forces will most likely not hold much longer, eventually retreating and leaving the Afghanis to sort out their own mess. They turn to Iraq again, where the United States will eventually pull out its military, leaving the Iraqis to their own destiny. And they count on the same short attention span that the West, and particularly the United States has when it comes to foreign policy. Most American politicians think in four year increments — from one presidential election to the next — and with the change of administration, usually comes a change of policy. Any government or political entity wishing to do business with the current administration, knows it simply has to wait at most four years before all the rules change.

Claude Salhani is editor of The Middle East Times and a political analyst.

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