Pakistan's internal struggle over militants

Police in Karachi detained some 200 alleged activists yesterday, in a crackdown on Islamic militant groups.

At the main supermarket in downtown Islamabad, baker Naik Muhammad Khan pats balls of dough onto a wooden platter and slaps them against the inside wall of a blazing-hot Tandoor oven. Next to him sits a plastic box covered with slogans for Jaish-e-Muhammad, a Pakistan-based militant group fighting for an Islamic state in Indian-ruled Kashmir. It is filled with money.

According to a six-month-old law, the box is illegal. In February, the military government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf banned fundraising by militant groups and forbade them from carrying weapons. Yesterday, Pakistani officials put that policy into practice, as police in Karachi rounded up more than 200 alleged activists and confiscated donation boxes and propaganda.

But Mr. Khan says support for militant groups is stronger than ever. While Jaish activists used to empty the box every two months, he says, these days it fills up in one. "All Muslim people support these groups, and they are contributing money," says Khan, dipping long metal tongs into the oven to withdraw a slightly charred flatbread, called naan. "This will continue until Kashmir is liberated from India," he says. "If I had the ability, I would definitely go and fight myself."

After maintaining profound diplomatic, logistical, and financial ties to Kashmiri militants since the conflict began in 1989, Pakistani leaders have reached a turning point in their relations with the outside world and their own population as well.

For many Pakistanis, reining in militants would amount to a betrayal of fellow Muslims. But for moderate Pakistanis, and certainly Western officials, growing sectarian strife within Pakistan itself is evidence that the time has come to crack down on militant groups in order to bring Pakistan back from economic and political isolation, and to preserve the country's very social fabric.

"In the larger context, [the militants] are part of the government's policy to take on Indian forces in the Kashmir Valley," says Ejaz Haider, news editor of the Friday Times in Lahore, Pakistan. "So you have to decide whether to call off the policy or be prepared to take the costs of sectarian strife at home - to take on the Indians in the valley at the cost of disruption within."

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, India's northernmost, Muslim-dominated state. There have been 34,000 casualties in the current conflict, and the number rises almost daily. Peace talks failed last month in the Indian city of Agra.

In the meantime, Pakistan's internal disruption has become increasingly deadly. In a spate of attacks between radical groups representing the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiite, several high-level politicians and businessmen have been assassinated. One of these was Shaukat Raza Mirza, the Shiite managing director of the Pakistan State Oil company, who was shot dead by two motorcycle-riding assailants while driving to the office on July 26. His murder was the 52nd politically-linked killing this year in the city of Karachi alone.

Taking credit for the murder was a previously unknown organization called Lashkar-e-Jehanghvi, which espouses rabidly anti-Shiite views.

While some political observers say these attacks have as much to do with the brutal give-and-take of the Pakistani business world as they do with religion, Pakistani police say the people who carry out the attacks are usually trained by, or members of, the same jihadi groups that are fighting for an Islamic state in Kashmir. For this reason, the government recently banned two sectarian groups: Lashkar-e-Jehanghvi and the pro-Shiite Sipah-e-Muhammad.

In a further sign of the government's seriousness, police in Karachi raided the offices of several militant groups early Wednesday, including the Kashmiri jihadi groups Al-Badr Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.

Police confiscated at least 700 illegal collection boxes from marketplaces, along with the 200 alleged activists arrested for violating restrictions on weapons and political activity. The laws, enacted in February by Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider, ban open displays of weapons and promise to prosecute anyone with the easy-to-buy unlicensed weapons manufactured in Pakistan's autonomous northern tribal areas. Mr. Haider banned even state-sanctioned militant groups from raising funds in marketplaces and mosques.

Abdullah Muntazar, a spokesman for Lashkar-e-Taiba, told Reuters news agency that the government was trying to appease Western nations, including the US. "We ask the government not to invite the wrath of God by taking such actions against the Mujahideen ... such moves will only inspire us more," Mr. Muntazar said.

For his part, President Musharraf has taken a personal interest in restoring law and order. In a speech last week on Pakistan's independence day, Musharraf announced the ban on the two sectarian groups, adding that internal disunity was "eating us up like termites."

While the Musharraf government has drawn mild praise for its tough words, Western diplomats remain unimpressed by the results. "When the Musharraf government came in [in October, 1999], there was a commitment made, particularly in deweaponization, and that was laudable," says one Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But in terms of reining in religious extremist groups, the record is mixed."

For their part, Pakistan's loose network of militant groups say they have no intention of fading away. As long as there is a jihad to be fought in nearby India, or Afghanistan, or even as far away as North Africa or the Philippines, militant leaders say there will be Pakistanis willing to give money or their own lives for the cause.

"Frankly, we support the government on the deweaponization plan and we believe in restoring law and order, because no one should carry an unlicensed weapon," says Yahya Mujahid, chief spokesman for Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, a Pakistan-based militant group that has claimed responsibility for suicide bomb attacks in New Delhi and in Kashmir. "But about fundraising, we are engaged in discussions with the government. They cannot impose their will on us."

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islami, a powerful religious group that mentored future leaders of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban and now maintains ties to the Kashmiri militant group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, says Pakistan's crackdown is based on a misunderstanding. "We are surprised that the spirit of holy war is being dubbed as terrorism by America and the West and the government of Pakistan," says Maulana Rehman, a prominent Islamic scholar.

"Muslims wage jihad only when it is needed. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Muslims waged jihad. When the British occupied the subcontinent, the people went on a freedom struggle. If India is imposing its forces in Kashmir, the people are defending themselves," he says.

"If all these fighting will stop, we will absolutely take rest, and then the world will be at peace," Rehman says. His surrounding coterie of assistants and followers nod their assent.

Down at the Islamabad supermarket, Muhammad Munir, a fruit seller, says Pakistan's government is welcome to bring law and order to Pakistan, but any effort to rein in Kashmiri "freedom fighters," as he calls them, will inevitably fail.

"The struggle and the fundraising will continue, because it is Allah's mighty order that it will continue," says Mr. Munir. "We not only support the jihad in Kashmir," he adds, jutting his jaw at an American visitor. "We also want Americans to become Muslims and to join the fight, because we want them to enter paradise."

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