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Pakistan's New War on Extremism

Asia: The extent of its crackdown on Islamic fundamentalism after an attack in India has surprised even Western political analysts.

January 04, 2002|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Even before Pakistan cut its ties to the Taliban and joined the coalition against terrorism, President Pervez Musharraf had laid plans to crack down on religious extremism and end the cozy relationship between his generals and the mullahs, senior aides and Western diplomats said.

In a country founded as an Islamic republic, it was a risky exercise. But with Pakistan carrying a $38-billion external debt, no foreign investment in sight and the rule of law a shambles, Musharraf was convinced that he had to move his nation toward the religious moderation its founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, had advocated in 1947, the president's senior aides said.

"We have undermined Islam," Musharraf, a general who seized power in a 1999 coup, said last week--a comment virtually no other leader of a Muslim country would dare make. He went on to observe that the world had come to associate Islam "with illiteracy, backwardness, intolerance, obscurantism and militancy."

The sweeping extent of his crackdown after a suicide attack on India's Parliament, which New Delhi has blamed on Kashmiri separatists based in Pakistan, surprised even Western political analysts. The Dec. 13 attack has led to serious military tensions in bitterly disputed Kashmir between the two nuclear-armed nations and frequent cross-border shelling.

Musharraf travels to Nepal today for a South Asian summit that Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee also will attend. No meeting is scheduled between the two leaders to discuss a diplomatic solution in Kashmir, but Western political analysts say Musharraf has gone a long way to meet India's demands that Pakistan put anti-Indian Kashmiri militants out of business.

The three major Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant groups have been ordered to close their offices. They are Harkat Moujahedeen, which was active in Afghanistan and had ties to Osama bin Laden, and the two groups India accuses of being behind the attack on its Parliament, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Their financial assets have been frozen and their leaders arrested, along with more than 100 of their supporters.

Even before Sept. 11, Musharraf was known to deem the Taliban a liability to Pakistan. But he was reluctant to act because of the strength of religious extremists, who have never won more than a handful of seats in parliament but represent a vocal, influential minority.

The post-Sept. 11 formation of the international coalition against terrorism gave him the opportunity to make dramatic policy changes, an advisor said.

Brother of Minister Directing Effort Slain

Pakistan's crackdown--on everything from hate speeches in the mosques to overt terrorism carried out by militants with both external and internal grievances--is being directed by Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider. The minister's brother was assassinated in the Pakistani port city of Karachi last month in what police officials believe was a signal from militants that the government was playing with fire.

Musharraf has made top-level changes in the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, which operated as a state within a state and was often sympathetic to militants.

He has also told the intelligence agency to stop supporting Islamic militant groups and decided to cut off support for nonindigenous groups in Kashmir, aides said.

Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said Thursday that he had "taken note" of a U.S. newspaper report in which unidentified Pakistani officials claimed that Musharraf was shutting down the branch of the ISI that handles clandestine support for Kashmiri separatists.

Singh said he didn't expect a formal announcement of such a stunning shift in policy because that would be tantamount to admitting that India has been right all along when it has accused Pakistan's military intelligence of training, arming and infiltrating guerrillas into Kashmir.

But a senior Indian intelligence official dismissed outright the report of Pakistan's radical change of heart and said he saw no evidence to support the claim.

"It is ludicrous," the official said Thursday in New Delhi, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work. "There is nothing at all to suggest that it has happened as there is no demonstrable impact in the levels of violence in Kashmir."

India's spy agency estimates that the ISI employs about 25,000 people, of which about 20,000 are in two wings that deal with Kashmir and Afghanistan, and Nepal and northeastern India.

The first division, known as "joint intelligence north" may be renamed or merged with the second, called "joint intelligence miscellaneous," which New Delhi accuses of fomenting unrest in Nepal and India's northeast, the intelligence source said.

But shutting down "joint intelligence north" would force a massive restructuring of Pakistan's military intelligence and risk provoking opposition from hard-liners in the spy agency, the Indian official said.

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