- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2004

In Pakistan, religious extremists are believed to have demonstrated their potential for subterfuge by coming close, twice, to killing President Pervez Musharraf. The United States, given its reliance on Gen. Musharraf to rein in al Qaeda, therefore has an interest in estimating what kind of power these extremists have, and who sympathizes with them.

Gen. Musharraf has struck a broad bargain with Islamic parties in order to shore up his personal power and sideline mainstream political parties. But has Gen. Musharraf been able to co-opt extremists through political patronage? Do the coordinated attacks on Gen. Musharraf, which were probably aided by insiders, indicate that extremism in Pakistan seriously threatens the president and U.S. interests?

The Christmas Day attack on Gen. Musharraf best exemplifies to what degree an institutional tolerance of Islamic jihadism represents a real danger in Pakistan. On Dec. 25, two suicide bombers drove bomb-laden trucks into Gen. Musharraf’s motorcade, and came so close to hitting the president that the windshield of his vehicle shattered. One of the bombers, Mohammad Jamil, was a member of the Jaish-e-Mohammad. This group was banned, along with a number of others, in January 2002, following the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. But leaders of the group were never brought to trial and the members detained by authorities were released after a few months. Jamil himself had been detained by Pakistani authorities, and released in September.

The Jaish-e-Mohammed later changed its name to Khuddam-ul-Islam and continued operating, until that group was also banned on Nov. 15. This regrouping of banned organizations is, unfortunately, part of a general trend in Pakistan. Jamil and his group had been in the grasp Pakistani authorities, but were never subject to due process. And a few minutes before launching his attack, Jamil had called on his cell phone Muhammad Naeem, a member of the special branch of the Islamabad police that was on duty at the convention center where Gen. Musharraf had just completed an official engagement. Naeem was arrested on Dec. 28 and remains in custody. But the actions of just one individual in one attempt on Gen. Musharraf implicates, through inaction or apparent complicity, several Pakistani institutions.

Another important dimension to the power of Islamic fundamentalists is political. Islamic parties in Pakistan, such as the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), are Gen. Musharraf’s allies on many domestic issues, but oppose counter-terror efforts and a rapprochement with India. They are in the enviable position of being both courted by and in opposition to Gen. Musharraf. One leader of a banned Islamic group was allowed to run for parliament and won a seat, despite having 20 charges of violent crimes pending against him, noted the International Crisis Group in a report. The report said that with Gen. Musharraf’s patronage, “the religious right is fast expanding its political space while the military is hesitant to intrude upon the mullahs’ traditional spheres of influence, which include the madrasa sector.”

The broad consensus among Pakistan watchers is that Gen. Musharraf has successfully eliminated the presence of extremists in senior military and intelligence posts. The middle ranks are believed to be fairly professional, but in terms of counter-terror efforts, they are believed to be generally willing to do only what is minimally necessary to placate their superiors and the United States. And some who sympathize with the efforts of militants may be willing to turn a blind eye at critical moments.

Gen. Musharraf has tried to strike a difficult balance with extremists in his country. But the scales appear to be tipping, indicating the president should think about realigning himself with the mainstream political parties. Although these parties have traditionally been Gen. Musharraf’s rivals, they are surely willing to negotiate with the president.

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