As U.S. and British bombers flew into Afghanistan Sunday, Pakistan placed Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a leading fundamentalist Muslim, under house arrest to prevent him from agitating against the U.S.-led “war against terrorism.”
In doing so, the government is taking a real risk. Even as Pakistani officials try to convince an uneasy public that this new campaign isn’t about religion, they’ve essentially locked down a prominent figure of the hard-line religious movement. Fazlur Rehman and his supporters are not to be underestimated. Far from a fringe element, this fundamentalist corps is strong enough and organized enough to destabilize the government, grab control of the military, and plunge the nation into civil war.
American pols would like to present the international coalition they’ve cobbled together as a tapestry of many colors, but it’s really a tapestry that could be unraveled by a few loose threads—starting, potentially, with Pakistan. U.S. discomfort with the situation in Pakistan is evident in everything from the White House’s continued talk of economic backing to the way President Bush reminds us again and again that a stable Pakistan is good for the world. One senior U.S. official told The Baltimore Sun of cautionary notes from Arab leaders: “Everybody says, ‘I’m stable, but the other guy isn’t.’ ”
Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, has presented his administration as wholly allied with the U.S. against terrorists, when in fact many top officials remain dependent on a little-known but powerful fundamentalist party called Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam. Known more simply as JUI, this group has in many ways served to incubate Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban—and it may yet spark civil war in its home country.
JUI runs hundreds of religious schools in the Northwest Frontier province of Pakistan, where Taliban leaders were raised in special training schools called madrassas. During the war against the Soviet Union, Afghan and Pakistani refugees were offered food, shelter, free education, and military training by JUI. “In 1971 there were only 900 madrassas in Pakistan, but by . . . 1988, there were 8000 madrassas and 25,000 unregistered ones, educating over half a million students,” Ahmed Rashid writes in his book Taliban.
Not only does JUI strongly support the Taliban, but it crafted close relations with the Pakistani government while Benazir Bhutto was prime minister, thereby providing access for Maulana Fazlur Rehman, to top political powers. More important, JUI fostered relationships within the army and the intelligence service, which helped the Taliban rise to power in Afghanistan amid warring factions. The party was included in Bhutto’s coalition, and her Interior Ministry welcomed close ties with it as part of an effort to open up southern Afghanistan to Pakistani traders heading into Central Asia. Shortly after the Taliban captured the city of Kandahar and opened the roads through Afghanistan in the mid 1990s, reports Ahmed Rashid, some 5000 students from the JUI schools rushed to join the new regime.
The surge of JUI led to the creation of numerous splinter groups, some more extremist than others. The most important was run by former Pakistani legislator—widely held to be the movement’s éminence grise—Maulana Samiul Haq. Eight Taliban ministers and numerous other high officials graduated from Haq’s educational apparatus, which included a boarding school for 1500 students, a day school for another 1000, and numerous affiliated academies. By 1999, this school had 15,000 applicants for some 400 places—no surprise, since the education, housing, and care were offered free.
Haq respects the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, who is surrounded by graduates from his school. He keeps in close touch with Omar, advising him on international relations and other decisions. In 1997, Omar called Haq and asked for help, and Haq responded by shutting down the school and sending all the students to fight with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. In addition, he has organized reinforcements for the Taliban.
He’s a big problem for Pakistani rulers, but they’d be loath to try reining him in. Instead, the government has been removing military commanders viewed as too closely linked to the Taliban, a strategy that does little to quell dissension on the streets.
Another JUI spawn, Jamiat-ul Uloomi Islamiyyah, is located in a Karachi suburb. It gets donations from 45 Muslim countries and, through its graduates, has close ties with the Taliban. As tension in the region has heightened, this group staged Taliban-style street revolts inside Karachi.
In recent days, Taliban supporters have clashed with police over Pakistani support for U.S. strikes, with riots ending in several deaths, the burning of cinemas and a UNICEF building, and cops opening fire with live ammunition. In a country where control of the military is an open question, the line between that kind of conflict and civil war is thin.
Financed by Bin Laden and the Taliban, thousands more students have trained at camps in Khost, Afghanistan, and gone on to fight for the Taliban. These camps were hit by U.S. cruise missiles in 1998, and reportedly were targets in American bombing raids Sunday. By increments, this ad hoc army has become a kind of secondary nation—invisible, fluid, and dangerous.
JUI, in particular, is so powerful that places like Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states have had to take notice of them. The party gives the otherwise isolated Taliban tentacles throughout Central Asia, creating a series of religious militias ready to fling themselves into jihad. As the U.S. attacks the Taliban in Afghanistan, the bombing has been perceived as a war on Muslim fundamentalism. As an ideological matter, this means America and the rest of NATO can’t help being hauled into a war over religion, no matter how much they protest otherwise. As a military matter, it means American troops will be exposed to attacks in places like Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, as they chase an enemy that seems to replicate at will.
“We will attack Uzbekistan if any attack is launched from their borders,” Taliban radio announced. With a standing militia of followers scattered throughout the region—including many inside the former Soviet states—the Taliban might not need troops from Kabul to do it. The Taliban has threatened to foment another round of civil war in Uzbekistan, and has announced the dispatch of 2000 soldiers to help defend the gateway to Kabul and arrest followers of the old king. Now, Osama bin Laden has challenged the whole Muslim world to take up the cause. No one believes he’s really talking about formal governments.
Still, the end seems near for the Taliban, which has long acted as Bin Laden’s primary protector. Some of the leadership already has defected from Supreme Leader Mullah Omar. The Taliban’s supposed ferocious fighting abilities may yet turn out to be so much hot air. By stupidly opening up on a U.S. drone plane circling over Kabul, the Taliban revealed the position of all their major weapons, which suddenly became very easily identifiable targets for U.S. pilots. If the U.S. knocks out defenses in and around Kabul, then it may just be able to jack up the cutthroats in the Northern Alliance enough that they can make the 30-mile run into the capital. The fall of Kabul will mean curtains for the Taliban.
At that point, the Taliban will head for the mountains—impassible during winter—where they can try to foster small-time revolts around the region over the next 10 years. Osama bin Laden himself is believed to already have headed for the caves of the Pamirs at the eastern edge of the Hindu Kush.
As strikes began again Monday, the Bush administration warned that the war on terrorism might not be limited to actions in Afghanistan. Presumably, he means Iraq could be a target, but he could quickly find himself flying sorties over Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the rest of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia—not to mention the sheer horror of being dragged into Kashmir, where the Taliban clones have been assiduously at work smashing television sets, harassing the populace, and otherwise trying to introduce a Taliban-like regime.
At the nexus of this conflict, of course, is Pakistan, where on Monday Islamabad and other major cities were placed under the control of the police and army. The government banned the display of arms and ordered the arrest of any religious fundamentalists carrying weapons. Yet further clashing between the administration and the people seems inevitable. One Taliban spokesman told a Pakistan newspaper that groups prepared for jihad would unite after any military action, with the common ethic of sparing no American in Muslim lands and the shared goal of countering U.S. designs. “We will call for jihad not only against the U.S. but the Pakistani government, if bases or airspace are used by the Americans for launching any attack against Afghanistan,” a spokesman said.
Additional research and translation by Ed Korasani, Ariston-Lisabeth Anderson, Sarah Park, and Meritxell Mir.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 9, 2001