Both Hare and Hound in ‘War on Terror’

KARACHI – After Islamists defied an order by Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to expel foreigners enrolled in the madrasas (religious schools) by Dec 31, questions have been raised on the country’s future role in the United States-led "war on terror."

Revelations that the madrasas had a link to the Jul.7 bombings in London compelled Musharraf to order expulsion of all foreign students by DEC 31. Three of the four men responsible for the bombings were British citizens of Pakistani descent.

Open defiance of Musharraf’s orders has come from the sensitive North West Frontier Province (NWFP) that borders Afghanistan and is ruled by the fundamentalist Muttahida Majils-e-Amal (MMA) party – which is also a partner in the provincial government in neighboring, insurgency-hit Balochistan.

The MMA is strongly opposed to Pakistan’s role in the war-on-terror in Afghanistan and came to power on a promise to enforce Sharia law in territories under its control and also push for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region.

Just how the general handles the new situation is being watched by the US and its allies which suspect that the NWFP and Balochistan are being used to harbor internationally-wanted terrorists, including al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

As the recipient of frontline arms and billions of dollars worth of aid from the United States and deemed Washington’s "closest non-NATO ally," Pakistan has limited options and must balance many conflicting interests .

According to Rahat Saeed, political analyst and editor of the biannual Urdu magazine "Irtaqa," presently, Musharraf’s hands are tied because of the exigencies of domestic politics on the one side and questions about his own legitimacy as a man in uniform and in power for six years.

"Musharraf is now on electoral mode: his term of office as president expires in 2007. He is riding a tiger and has to stay in power to ensure that no one does to him what he did to his predecessors, Benazir (Bhutto) and Nawaz Sharif," Saeed told IPS in an interview.

"Article 6 of Pakistan’s constitution hangs over Musharraf’s head since it prescribes death as punishment for overthrowing a constitutionally elected government – which he is guilty of when the army overthrew Nawaz Sharif and installed him as chief executive of the country over six years ago. He cannot face being held to account for his actions by succeeding leaders. He has to stay in power and get himself elected as president in 2007 by hook or by crook," Saeed said.

Already there are signs that the government would go easy on implementing the deadline rather than confront the MMA and its strident leaders.

On Friday, interior minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao said at least 60 percent of the estimated 1,500 foreign students in the country have left. But most of the remainder are believed to be in the NWFP.

Amanullah Haqqani, religious affairs minister in the NWFP has called for a review of Musharraf’s order saying it was prestigious for Pakistan, a major Islamic country in the world, to be hosting foreign students.

Currently, Pakistan is thought to have about 12,000 madrasas that impart religious teaching to boys from impoverished or orthodox backgrounds. But they have also come under suspicion of breeding Islamist militants, following the Sep. 11, 2001 aerial attacks on the US

Analysts blame the phenomenal growth of the madrasa system on liberal funding and support from the US and several Arab countries that were keen on producing mujahideen (holy warriors) capable of vacating the occupation of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union in the 1980s.

"While western purposes were served by the defeat of the Soviets, Pakistanis inherited a lot of guns and far too much cash, giving rise to a widespread Kalashnikov and heroin culture which continue to distort politics and administration in the region," said Saeed."This legacy of the Islamic jihad in Afghanistan in 1980s has not really helped Pakistan."

"Pakistan itself has continued to be a theater of war," says Prof. Syed Jafar Ahmed of Karchi University."The simple fact is that the Taliban (which ruled Afghanistan until driven out by the war on terror) is a Pakistani phenomenon and a creation of this country’s madrasas."

In Ahmed’s view Pakistan has been known throughout its 58 year history as an unstable country."The fact that Pakistan continues to be ruled by a general in uniform alone shows it has no stable political system although the Musharraf regime, in a strange way, is strong and faces no serious threat to its survival."

Musharraf, said Ahmed, enjoys the full support of the coalition fighting the war on terror because his cooperation is considered vital for its Afghanistan policy. But the academic added that Pakistani cooperation contrasts against the background of "widespread terrorist politics inside Pakistan." Musharraf and his army have created a political system whereby politicians with flexible consciences have ousted and marginalized popular political leaders like Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif, leader of a faction of his Pakistan Muslim League. Musharraf refuses to let these politicians return home from exile.

Ahmed said the system has been "accepted by the U.S.-led coalition as adequately democratic – because it has all the institutions and trappings of a democracy and a reasonably free press, though it exercises self-censorship because of unexplained violence against outspoken journalists."

"The system’s design is such that it ensures Musharraf’s survival as president while he can also continue as army chief. Polls are held, although few Pakistanis outside the portals of power accept them as free because of interference from military intelligence," Ahmed said.

A combination of circumstances – strategic location at the tri-junction of Gulf region, South Asia and Central Asia, high standing in the Muslim world, a large army and a nuclear arsenal make Pakistan important enough for the West overlook the Musharraf regime’s imperfections.

But the refusal of the NWFP to expel foreign students from its madrasas is a sign that things are spinning out of control in that province – as also in neighboring Balochistan where the army has had to resort to using helicopter gunships in recent weeks to quell spiraling insurgency.

"Pakistan’s two western provinces, Balochistan and NWFP, constitute an important theater in the war on terror not only for proximity to Afghanistan but also because of the presence in them of Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in unknown numbers," said Saeed.

"If the intensity of the insurgencies in these two provinces increases, it may become necessary to call in foreign forces and that would bring in new factors into play with unpredictable consequences," Saeed said.