- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

The past few months have not been kind to President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. The downturn began when CIA Director Porter Goss effectively admitted that Osama Bin Laden was in Pakistan, where the United States was unable to capture him because of “national sovereignty” issues, which is agency-speak for “Pakistan is obstructing the effort.” Another blow to Gen. Musharraf came with the recent arrest of Hamid Hayat, a California native who admitted to being trained in a terrorist camp outside Rawalpindi, where Gen. Musharraf makes his official residence. In reaction, a senior Pakistani government official stated “there are no training camps in Pakistan,” a ridiculous assertion that was widely refuted by most veteran Pakistan watchers.

The culmination of this rough patch for the good general came on July 7, with the terrorist bombings in London. Soon afterward, it was revealed that at least two of the London bombers had traveled extensively inside Pakistan, including 22-year-old Shehzad Tanweer, who spent time in several madrassas, the infamous religious schools that gave birth to — among other theocratic horrors — the Taliban leadership.

Reacting to this news — along with allegations that the recent bombings in Egypt’s Sharm-el-Sheikh originated in Pakistan — Gen. Musharraf announced a whole spate of aggressive anti-terror initiatives. Many of the “new” initiatives were old hat, such as the jailing of fundamentalist leaders, more extensive investigations, all of which had been promised before ad nauseum. Gen. Musharraf, however, raised the hopes of many Western security officials last week when he promised to eject foreigners from his nation’s madrassa schools, a new idea that, if actually enacted, could represent a major step forward in Pakistan’s struggle with Islamic fundamentalism.

It is with disturbing regularity that Westerners read of terrorist suspects who traveled to Pakistan in order to “study religion,” or “embrace Islam, or “learn the pure form of Islam.” Shehzad Tanweer, John Walker Lindh, the Bali bombers … the list of foreign madrassa alumni turned terrorist is seemingly endless. Despite Pakistan’s effusive post-September 11 promises, efforts to moderate or control the madrassas have been, to date, woefully inadequate, accomplishing little in the way of curbing the fanatical extremism emanating from the seminaries.

More often, extremist teachers arrested by Pakistani authorities are quickly released once Western attention turns elsewhere, free to start up their schools again in different locations. When the schools themselves are shut down, they often move down the street or simply change their names, measures that are enough to deter additional investigation by reluctant Pakistani officials. In other instances, the schools go underground, where they can effectively avoid official attention.

The reluctance of Gen. Musharraf’s government to take on the madrassas stems primarily from the power of the “madrassa lobby,” which represents an influential force among the Pakistani polity. Reacting to Gen. Musharraf’s recent call for the ejection of foreigners from the madrassas, Islamic political parties such as the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal responded with harsh rhetoric, deeming such an action “inhumane.” While Gen. Musharraf possesses dictatorial powers, his authority is tempered by his lack of popular support and the pervasive weight of the major Pakistani religious parties. Without the backing of such groups, any effort against madrassas has been difficult to sustain.

Still, the barring of foreign students from madrassas is definitely not too much for the West to ask, and not too much for Gen. Musharraf to carry out. Too often, Gen. Musharraf has attempted to play both sides in the war on terror, placating his American allies with empty promises while turning a blind eye to the burgeoning extremist movement in his own country. This political shell game has done little to prevent hundreds of brainwashed youth from traveling to Afghanistan to kill American soldiers or from blowing themselves up on the streets of London.

This time, Gen. Musharraf should not be let off the hook. Our erstwhile ally needs to be heavily pressured by all segments of the American government to deliver on this specific and critical promise. After all, considering the faith we have expressed in Gen. Musharraf — signified in the recently signed 10-year joint U.S.-Pakistan defense pact — is it really too much to expect some genuine cooperation in return?

It’s time for Gen. Musharraf to step up to the plate, and barring foreign students from the extremist mills known as madrassas is an important — and attainable — goal.

Patrick Devenny is the Henry M. Jackson National Security Fellow at the Center for Security Policy.

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